International Framework around Refugees and Need for a Global Refugee Policy

Refugees are the people who are forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster. The plight of the refugees transcends national boundaries hence there is a need for intervention by the international community to address the sufferings of the refugees.

International Legal Framework-Evolution and Issues

The need for special protection of refugees has been recognized since a long time. The League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the Nansen International Office for Refugees was set up in 1930 to provide material and political support to the refugees from the war areas between in the period of 1930-39. It issued Nansen Passport that allowed stateless persons to migrate over borders without any hassle. The legal efforts were first taken through the Conventions of 1933 that dealt with recognition of international status of refugees. It mandated the issuance of Nansen certificates to refugees located in the signatory countries, principle of non-refoulement (admittance of refugees at the frontiers of the country) was recognized, it stated the law by which a refugee is to be governed i.e. the domestic law of the country of refuge, it provides for their rights in the territories like welfare and relief, education etc.

But some of the major weaknesses of the international framework till 1945 were:

  • International law only recognized State as a subject, so refugees as individuals were not given much attention owing to the belief that they did not form a subject matter of international law.
  • The Evian Conference of 1938 that was to be step ahead in refugee protection failed to happen.
  • There was constant change in positions in the Nansen International Office resulting in inconsistency in implementation of the principles that had been worked out.
International Refugee Organization, 1946

The International Refugee Organization was an answer to the problem of ad-hoc agencies before 1945. Although set up as a non-permanent organization, it nonetheless was a specialized agency that under the aegis of the United Nations. Its intent was to identify the genuine refugees and protect their legitimate interests.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Although not having any direct relation to rights of refugees, it is the first international legal document to give recognition to individual rights which further enhances the cause of refugees. Further, under Article 14(1) of the UDHR provides that every person has the right to seek asylum which indirectly refers to rights of refugees.

1951 refugee convention

The Convention Relates to the Status of Refugees, is a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who is a refugee, and sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. Some of the main rights that are recognized are: right to unity of the entire refugee family, special protection to minors, right to the welfare services of government and non-governmental organizations, right against discrimination etc. It calls for international cooperation in the matters of refugees. The principle of non-refoulement has been further emphasized here.

Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

Whereas the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees had restricted refugee status to those whose circumstances had come about “as a result of events occurring before 1st January 1951″, resulting in States party to the Convention with an option of interpreting this as “events occurring in Europe”, the 1967 Protocol removed both the temporal and geographic restrictions. This was needed in the historical context of refugee flows resulting from decolonization.

Cartagena declaration on Refugees

This declaration was entered into force in 1984 by 10 Latin American countries which include Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Dorado, Costa Rica and Belize. It is of non-binding nature i.e. its provisions are not required to be mandatorily followed by the countries.  Cartagena Declaration allows a broader category of persons in need of international protection to be considered as refugees compared to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

Organization of African Unity Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, 1969

This Convention was a result of large number of people displaced from the African countries owing to conflicts pertaining to the colonial era. It is also the only regional treaty on refugees that has a binding effect. It brings in yet another definition of refugee along with those grounds mentioned in the 1951 Convention. It includes a person compelled to leave a country owing to ‘external aggression, foreign domination, seriously disturbing public order’. So, protection is also given to persons fleeing impacts of war.

Need for Global Refugee Policy

World is a globalised village. Incidents in one nation can adversely impact the whole world. Therefore there is a need for global refugee policy so that:

  • Concerns of the stateless people like Rohingyas, the world’s most persecuted ethnic group can be addressed through a structured framework.
  • The refugee definition needs an overhaul as per requirements of 21st century. There is a need to recognise and acknowledge the concept of climate refugees.
  • To provide with an oversight mechanism for the protection of the human rights of the refugees. The shocking incident of the inhumane response to Syrian refugees in the European countries will pave way for radicalism and fundamentalism.
  • To achieve global synergy in the efforts towards addressing the plight of refugees.
  • To Share the burden of the refugees with the host countries by providing the host countries with resources for effectively addressing the human right concerns of refugees.

It is widely accepted that globalization has broken down all barriers. But still a group of people find it difficult to cross the borders due to the connected political status with them. The irony is also that the number of such people has been increasing gradually due to more varied issues than recognized by international forum like in case of climate change refugees.

The current international policies are so scattered that it is difficult to ensure compliance. UN must recognize the challenge and try to build an inclusive global refugee policy so that the old efforts do not fall futile and right of every person in the world is equally recognized irrespective of political status.


Discuss the evolution of international / multilateral framework around refugees while making a case for a global refugee policy.