What are refugees?

Refugees are people outside their country of origin because of feared persecution, conflict, violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order, and who, as a result, require ‘international protection’. Their situation is often so perilous and intolerable, that they cross national borders to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as ‘refugees’ with access to assistance from states, UNHCR, and relevant organizations.

How are refugees protected under international law

The specific legal regime protecting the rights of refugees is referred to as ‘international refugee protection’. The rationale behind the need for this regime lies in the fact that refugees are people in a specific predicament which calls for additional safeguards. Asylum-seekers and refugees lack the protection of their own country.Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserts the right of everyone to seek and enjoy asylum. However, no clear content was given to the notion of asylum at the international level until the 1951 Convention related to the Status of Refugees [the ‘1951 Convention’] was adopted, and UNHCR was tasked to supervise its implementation. The 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as regional legal instruments, such as the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, are the cornerstone of the modern refugee protection regime. They set forth a universal refugee definition and incorporate the basic rights and obligations of refugees.

The provisions of the 1951 Convention remain the primary international standard against which any measures for the protection and treatment of refugees are judged. Its most important provision, the principle of non-refoulement (meaning no forced returns) contained in Article 33, is the bedrock of the regime. According to this principle, refugees must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life or freedom would be under threat. States bear the primary responsibility for this protection.