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The 1951 Refugee Convention

We have mentioned on a few occasions recently that the 1951 Refugee Convention is often referred to as ‘the cornerstone of refugee protection’. This is because it defines what a refugee is and what this group’s rights are on an international scale. We have covered definitions for ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ in our 27/01/2023 social media post, so this blog post will focus more on the refugee rights aspect of the Convention.


It is important to note that the Convention was amended by a Protocol in 1967, in order to remove geographic and time-based limitations. This was necessary because the Convention was initially intended to be a response to the European refugee crisis created by the World Wars. 146 countries are party to the Convention, and 147 adhere to the Protocol, though this blog post will solely refer to the Convention for ease of reading.


When discussing the Convention, it should also be noted that refugees still have rights within the borders of countries that are not signatories, as a result of some generally accepted principles of international law. For example, one ‘peremptory norm’ is that host countries should not send refugees elsewhere, including back to their country of origin, if this may pose a serious threat to their life or freedom. However, Article 33 of the Convention makes this more official for its signatories.


Other rights outlined in the document are:

  • The right not to be expelled, except ‘on grounds of national security or public order’ (Article 32)

  • The right not to be punished for irregular entry into a country that has signed the Convention (Article 31)

  • The right to not experience discrimination as a result of ‘race, religion or country of origin’ (Articles 3 and 5)

  • The right to wage-earning employment without any restrictions, providing they have either made sufficient progress in the relevant country’s asylum process, have lived in the host country for three years, or have a spouse or child that is a national of the host country (Articles 17 to 19 and 24)

  • The same right to housing, land and property as other non-nationals residing in the host country (Articles 13 and 21)

  • The same right to ‘artistic rights and industrial property’ as nationals (Article 14)

  • The same right to elementary/primary education as nationals, and the same right to post-elementary/primary education as other non-nationals residing in the host country (Article 22)

  • The right to ‘freedom to practice their religion’ (Article 4)

  • The right to ‘free access to the courts of law’ (Article 16)

  • The right to freedom of movement within the territory (Article 26 and Article 31 (2))

  • The right to be issued civil (e.g. marriage), identity and travel documents, including those that reflect events prior to becoming a refugee (Articles 12, 27 and 28)

  • The same right to ‘public relief and assistance’ as nationals (Articles 23 and 24 (2-4))

In addition to the above bullet points, the Conference that drafted the Convention ‘adopted unanimously’ the recommendation that governments ‘take the necessary measures for … ensuring that the unity of the refugee’s family is maintained’.


This blog post was intended to provide a brief overview of the 1951 Refugee Convention, specifically its content concerning the rights of refugees. For more in-depth information, please see the UN’s webpage on the Convention, which contains a link to the full document: https://www.unhcr.org/about-unhcr/who-we-are/1951-refugee-convention.

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Graeme Parker
Graeme Parker
04 nov. 2023

Has the Tory government read the 1951 Convention? 😌

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