The Refugee Convention

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (commonly known as the Refugee Convention) is the main international legal document relating to refugee protection. It defines who is a refugee and outlines the rights of refugees and the legal obligations of states towards refugees and asylum seekers.

The history of the Refugee Convention

The Refugee Convention was adopted at a United Nations conference on 28 July 1951 and became legally binding on 22 April 1954. It was originally designed to respond to the needs of European refugees in the years following World War II. At first, it applied only to persons who had become refugees as a result of ‘events occurring before 1 January 1951’. The Convention also allowed those signing it to limit their obligations to refugees originating from Europe.

In 1967, the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed these limitations. The Protocol became legally binding on 4 October 1967.


Under article 33 of the Refugee Convention, refugees cannot be sent to a place where they may be persecuted. This fundamental principle is known as non-refoulement.

This principle now also applies to places where a person may suffer [[torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment]]. The principle is now considered to apply even to countries which have not signed the Refugee Convention .

Countries who have signed the Refugee Convention also cannot send a refugee overseas (or ‘expel’ them) except if they pose a risk to national security or public order.

Refugees arriving irregularly cannot be punished

The Refugee Convention recognises that refugees often need to enter a country without permission, or with false documents, to obtain protection.

Under Article 31 of the Convention, countries who have signed the Convention cannot punish refugees for entering or living without permission, or unnecessarily restrict their freedom of movement.

Rights of refugees

Under the Refugee Convention, refugees have a number of rights. Some of these rights are specific to refugees (for example, the right to a travel document) . Many of these rights are also recognised in other human rights treaties – for example, freedom of religion, the right to work and the right to education. Refugees are entitled to equal treatment than other foreign nationals for most of these rights.

Refugees are also entitled to the same rights as citizens in relation to freedom of religion, intellectual property, access to courts and legal assistance, accessing elementary education, labour rights and social security.

Which countries have agreed to the Refugee Convention?

There are 143 countries which have agreed to the obligations under both the Refugee Convention and its Protocol (known as ‘states parties’). There are also three countries (including the United States of America) which have agreed to the Protocol only, and two small countries that have agreed to the Convention only.

Australia was one of the first countries to become a state party to the Refugee Convention, on 22 January 1954. Australia became a party to the 1967 Protocol on 13 December 1973.