Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The unanimous adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was a major step forward in according refugees explicit treaty-based rights.

Summary of Event

Modern refugees face a terrible predicament: Having fled from persecution in their home states, they fear returning home, but as exiles they have no legal protection, no passports or visas, and no governments willing to protect them from mistreatment abroad. Unlike exiles of the past, however, who could be ruthlessly exploited or forcibly deported or extradited to their country of origin, modern refugees benefit from efforts made first by the League of Nations League of Nations and later by the United Nations to give them legal protection abroad. These protections include travel documents that allow refugees to seek out new and permanent homes and guarantees against being returned against their will to their countries of origin, where they fear persecution. Refugees;United Nations Refugees;conventions United Nations;refugee aid programs Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [kw]Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (July 28, 1951) [kw]U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Adoption of the (July 28, 1951) [kw]Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Adoption of the U.N. (July 28, 1951) [kw]Refugees, Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of (July 28, 1951) Refugees;United Nations Refugees;conventions United Nations;refugee aid programs Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations [g]Europe;July 28, 1951: Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees[03540] [g]Switzerland;July 28, 1951: Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees[03540] [c]United Nations;July 28, 1951: Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees[03540] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;July 28, 1951: Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees[03540] [c]Human rights;July 28, 1951: Adoption of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees[03540] Heuven Goedhart, Gerrit Jan van Larsen, Knud Lie, Trygve

These efforts to protect refugees gathered steam in the late 1940’s as governments tried to cope with the millions of homeless, destitute, and stateless displaced persons and refugees resulting from World War II. On July 28, 1951, the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was concluded and opened for signature at the European office of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. It was the product of three weeks of negotiations in which twenty-six governments and two observer states participated. Also invited to the conference as nonvoting participants were Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, whose office would be made responsible for oversight and implementation of the treaty, and representatives of the International Labor Organization and the Council of Europe.

Nearly thirty nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also participated as observers. The three weeks of negotiations, however, were only the culmination of years of prior concern for and action on behalf of refugees by the international community. The Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons (1950) , which was initiated by a General Assembly resolution of December 14, 1950, marked only the second time that the United Nations had convened a conference under its aegis, thus emphasizing the special importance that the United Nations attached to the resolution of refugee situations. Indeed, during its early years, concerns about how to cope with the great humanitarian needs of refugees, displaced people, and stateless persons occupied the nearly constant attention of the United Nations, which, in turn, built upon the pioneering work done by the League of Nations.

The United Nations faced two interrelated tasks: to create and sustain institutional mechanisms to assist and find solutions for refugees and stateless persons and to provide refugees and stateless persons with legal status and protection until permanent solutions were found for them. Through the creation of temporary expedients such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and the International Refugee Organization, and finally with the creation of permanent mechanisms such as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations gradually built an institutional capacity to respond to refugee situations.

These institutions provided both assistance and some degree of protection to refugees. Indeed, refugees and stateless persons had already gained by this time a capacity to travel with international documents, including the “Nansen Passports” issued by the League of Nations and later issued under the authority of the 1946 London Intergovernmental Agreement on Refugee Travel Documents London Intergovernmental Agreement on Refugee Travel Documents (1946) . Similarly, League of Nations practice, under the inspiring leadership of its first high commissioner for refugees, Fridtjof Nansen Nansen, Fridtjof , reflected the belief that, on moral and humanitarian grounds, refugees should not be forced against their will to return to their countries of origin. This principle was reaffirmed by the U.N. General Assembly in 1946, thus building a basis for a legal right of nonrefoulement, or the right not to be repatriated by force.

Although progress had been made in clarifying the legal status of refugees and stateless persons, it was clear that the work of the UNHCR would be reinforced by the adoption of explicit conventions. An ad hoc committee on refugees and stateless persons produced a draft convention and protocol on these subjects as early as August of 1950. Thus, when U.N. secretary-general Trygve Lie convened the Conference of Plenipotentiaries Relating to the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, which chose as its president Knud Larsen of Denmark, its work consisted largely of finalizing draft treaties on refugees and stateless persons.

Conference participants decided that the convention on stateless persons was less ripe for action than that on refugees, so they postponed work on the former and concentrated on the latter. The convention, which entered into force on April 22, 1954, contained a definition of the term “refugee” that was more restrictive than that contained in the UNHCR’s statute. Both instruments applied to persons who did not want to return to their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Under the 1951 convention, however, only those persons fleeing from events occurring in Europe, or elsewhere prior to January 1, 1951, were considered to be refugees. Under the UNHCR statute, all persons fleeing from persecution were eligible for refugee status without regard to geographical or temporal limitations.

The more detailed elaboration of rights for refugees contained in the convention made many governments hesitant to sign it, as it might involve extensive and unknown future obligations. Still, in the final act of the conference, participating governments recommended that signatory states continue to extend welcome and protection to refugees and other persons on a cooperative and humanitarian basis. The convention time limitations, although cumbersome, did not prevent the UNHCR or governments from extending favorable treatment to those individuals not eligible under the convention. In any case, the 1967 protocol to the 1951 convention would eliminate the geographical and time restrictions, allowing states party to the former to adopt a less restrictive refugee definition.

The 1951 convention, with minor differences from provisions contained in the UNHCR statute, also clearly defined when a person ceased to qualify for refugee status. Apart from the definitional issue, the 1951 convention provided that refugees should not be discriminated against because of race, religion, or country of origin and that they should be as free as a country’s nationals to practice their religion and provide religious training to their children. The convention also provided that refugees should be accorded treatment as favorable as that accorded a country’s nationals in regard to rights to association, access to courts, protection of artistic rights and industrial property, access to public relief and rationed products in short supply, and elementary education. It further provided that refugees should be treated no less favorably than other similarly situated aliens in connection with acquisition of property, employment, practice of a profession, housing, higher education, and freedom of movement.

Refugees, in turn, were obliged to observe the laws and regulations of their host countries, as well as any measures adopted by those countries for the preservation of order and security. In practice, the latter provision often limits the ability of refugees to move freely within their host countries. Of all the obligations incurred by states in relation to refugees, none is more important than the duty contained in article 33 of the convention, which calls upon governments to refrain from returning refugees to territories where they risk persecution. This provision of nonrefoulement, although not without qualification, provides refugees a protection that aliens lacking refugee status do not enjoy.

Contracting states agreed to cooperate with the UNHCR, which was charged with the duty to supervise application of all the provisions of the convention, including the provision dealing with nonrefoulement. With the adoption and entry into force of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, governments broke new ground in extending rights and protection to refugees. Although only those governments that later became parties to the convention (or to the revisions contained in the 1967 protocol to the convention) were bound to abide by its terms, in time many nonsignatories acquiesced in practice to the humanitarian provisions that it embodied, thus affording millions of refugees protection they otherwise might not have enjoyed.


The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees remains the cornerstone of refugee law. As modified by the 1967 protocol, it permits the UNHCR to extend its protection to refugees in virtually every corner of the globe. Even among the governments that are not parties to these agreements, many nevertheless respect their provisions and permit the UNHCR to afford protection and assistance to refugees residing in their territories. Many states also have incorporated the definition of refugee status contained in either the convention or the protocol into their domestic legislation, thus giving domestic effect to these international provisions.

The principle of nonrefoulement has ripened into a general principle of international law binding on all states, whether parties to the 1951 convention or not. This process of legal development on behalf of refugees did not begin with the 1951 convention, but it was given substantial impetus by the adoption of that agreement. The UNHCR has applied the provisions of the convention, as well as its own statute, to protect and assist millions of refugees. Recommendations of the U.N. General Assembly, conclusions of the UNHCR’s executive committee, and the actual practice of states in dealing with refugees have further strengthened the status of refugees under international law and promoted protection of their rights. Ultimately, however, the convention realistically underscores that it is governments and not the UNHCR that must provide protection for refugees.

The UNHCR can gain access to refugee populations only with the consent of host countries, and its efforts to promote the welfare and to protect the status of refugees can extend only so far as host states cooperate in those endeavors. The normal legal relationship that exists between a citizen and his or her government breaks down when governments persecute citizens or abuse their human rights, forcing them to flee. The 1951 convention represents a recognition by governments that people who become refugees under these exceptional circumstances must be accorded alternative means of legal protection, since—having fled abroad—they no longer are able or willing to avail themselves of the protection of their country of nationality and are thus in a predicament unlike that of most aliens traveling or residing abroad.

The convention recognizes that the rights of refugees must be protected until such time as they can return home freely and safely or find another state willing to grant them rights of residency or citizenship. In a world marked by substantial abuse of human rights and by consequent flows of refugees, legal instruments such as the convention, although often far from flawless in design and imperfectly implemented in practice, provide refugees a genuine means of protection and reaffirm the international community’s aspiration to respect human rights. Refugees;United Nations Refugees;conventions United Nations;refugee aid programs Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aga Khan, Sadruddin, and Hassan Bin Talal. Refugees: The Dynamics of Displacement. London: Zed Books, 1986. This jargon-free report for the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues reviews pressure on the structure of refugee law and policy. It critically assesses the repressive policies governments employ to displace people and examines how the international community might better respond to these movements. Includes an index but lacks other reference features.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baines, Erin K. Vulnerable Bodies: Gender, the UN and the Global Refugee Crisis. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004. Study of the particular issues and problems facing female refugees and U.N. organizations that try to help them. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barnett, Michael, and Martha Finnemore. Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004. Study of the role of international organizations in the creation and enforcement of international treaties and laws. Includes a chapter on refugees and the UNHCR.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. The Refugee in International Law. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1983. A comprehensive legal analysis of the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, this book meticulously reviews existing customary and treaty law relevant to refugees and the practice of asylum at both the international and national levels. Extensive references, a select bibliography, and an index are included.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holborn, Louise. Refugees, a Problem of Our Times: The Work of the UNHCR, 1951-1972. 2 vols. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1975. This standard work on the formation and early work of the UNHCR also focuses on the legal status of refugees under the 1951 convention and 1967 protocol. Highly detailed and voluminously documented, this book serves as a peerless reference on the modern refugee problem and on the UNHCR’s work under the 1951 convention. Includes numerous charts, tables, an index, and a bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nanda, Ved P., ed. Refugee Law and Policy: International and U.S. Responses. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. This anthology includes a dozen articles, many authored by noted legal specialists, attorneys, and academics, on various aspects of refugee and asylum law. Also included are critiques of the refugee and immigration policies of governments. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smyser, William Richard. Refugees: Extended Exile. New York: Praeger, 1987. This short and highly readable book, by a former deputy high commissioner for refugees, expertly traces the development of the UNHCR and the legal aspects of the refugee problem while suggesting policies for governments to cope with new asylum and immigration pressures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status. Geneva: Author, 1979. This brief but useful handbook contains a copy of the 1951 convention and protocol, with interpretations used by the UNHCR to determine refugee status. Contains an index but no bibliography.

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Categories: History