According to the UNHCR, the Refugee Convention, or Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, is ‘the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states’. It was adopted by the United Nations in 1951 and entered into force in 1954. 

Article 1A of the Refugee Convention defines a refugee as a person with a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, the five so-called ‘convention reasons’. To be protected by the Refugee Convention, a person must be stateless or outside the country of his or her nationality and unable to receive the protection of that country.

The cornerstone of the Refugee Convention is the principle of non-refoulement, found in Article 33, which prohibits the return of a person to a territory where they may face persecution. Procedures for identifying refugees should provide a guarantee against refoulement.  However Article 33(2) of the Refugee Convention does recognise that there may be certain cases in which an exception to the principle of non-refoulment can legitimately be made.

The Refugee Convention does not have a corresponding court or committee, unlike other human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Committee on the Rights of the Child. Instead, the Refugee Convention established the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with a mandate to monitor and supervise the convention. 

At first, the Refugee Convention was limited so it applied only to Europe and to refugees from events before 1951. In 1967, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol) was developed that removed those limitations so the Convention applied anywhere in the world and to refugees from events occurring before and after 1951. Australia was one of the first countries to accede to the Refugee Convention, on 22 January 1954. Australia became a party to the 1967 Protocol on 13 December 1973.

As of September 2016, there were 145 countries (states parties) that had ratified or acceded to the Refugee Convention and 146 that had acceded to the 1967 Protocol, with Nauru most recently ratifying both the Convention and Protocol in 2011.

Many of the countries hosting the greatest numbers of refugees are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, for example Lebanon, Pakistan and Jordan. While Turkey is a signatory of the Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, Turkey retains a geographic limitation to its ratification, whereby only those fleeing as a consequence of "events occurring in Europe"can be given refugee status.

In the Asia-Pacific region, many countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, are not signatories to the Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. 

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Last updated November 2016.