Protecting People on the Run

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What human rights are guaranteed to refugees and whose responsibility is it to protect those rights? In 1951 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees set out to address the issue of refugee rights at the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The original Convention text defines a refugee as someone who “as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside of his nationality and is unable or… owing to such fear, is unwilling to return” (Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951). More simply put, this means anyone who, due to fear of persecution for belonging to a particular group, must leave their country. The Convention includes a series of Articles that define the refugee’s legal status and welfare as well as lays out administrative measures. These measure lay out certain rights that every signing country must ensure for refugees residing in their country, such as favorable treatment (Art.13), Access to the country’s courts (Art. 16) , Public Education (Art.22) etc. The Convention also prohibits any of the signing countries from returning refugees (known as refoulement) to the state where their life or freedom would be threatened based on belonging to a particular religious group, race, or social group. This is seen as one of the most influential parts of the document. The only amendment to the Convention is a 1967 Protocol which got rid of some of the time restraints as well as some geographical limits that were in the original document.


Despite this framework the implementation and application of protecting refugee rights remains difficult. As I discussed in the last post, Gabriel Khoeler states that high-income, especially in Europe, have been more restrictive in in their policies towards refugees (Khoeler 2016). He outlines various reason why protecting and accommodating for refugees may be difficult for a country such as social implications and economic reasons. In Adele Garner’s article Arrested Development? UNHCR, ILO, and the Refugees’ Right to Work, she goes on to discuss some ways that these organizations can help support refugees, as well as the countries in which they are residing, by protecting their right to work. She states that despite the Articles 17,18, and 19 of the Convention, which specifically protect refugee rights to work, more than 20 of the signing countries have restrictions on those Articles. She goes on to state that they view the provisions more as recommendations than requirements.

Because of the nature of the United Nations, countries who may be completely in support of protecting the rights of refugees, can take the Convention and corresponding protocol as more of a recommendation. This makes the actual enforcement of the Convention difficult to carry out. Because of this, more and more of the responsibility falls on high income countries that are taking in refugees.

  1. Garnier, Adele. 2014. “Arrested Development? UNHRC, ILO, and the Refugees’ Right to Work.” Refugee 30: 15–23
  2. Koehler, G. 2016. “The fundamental rights of refugees – Where have they gone?” Global Social Policy 16(3): 311–14.
  3. Text of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, text of the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, Resolution 2198 (XXI) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. 1996. Text of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees, text of the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, Resolution 2198 (XXI) adopted by the United Nations General Assembly Geneva: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Public Information Section.