11:22 29.07.2021


70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention – a legal instrument which remains as relevant today, when forcible displacement has reached record levels

5 min read
70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention – a legal instrument which remains as relevant today, when forcible displacement has reached record levels

Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR Representative in Ukraine


The right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution is a fundamental human right – enshrined in Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and safeguarded under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the ‘Refugee Convention’), as a key part of international law.

The Refugee Convention is a life-saving instrument of protection. In the context of continuing wars, conflict and persecution, and record levels of displacement, it continues to protect the rights and lives of refugees. It is as relevant today as it was in 1951.

As stated by the UN Secretary General António Guterres “We can’t deter people fleeing for their lives. They will come. The choice we have is how well we manage their arrival, and how humanely.”
The 1951 Refugee Convention was one of the first treaties to be adopted after the Second World War, forming part of the nascent human rights legal framework. It sought to formalize a minimum set of rights for persons fleeing persecution – first and foremost the right not to be returned to the country of persecution (something that had happened, with terrible consequences, to groups of Jews and others fleeing Nazi Germany). It remains one of the most widely ratified treaties globally.

The Refugee Convention is the modern embodiment of the age-old institution of asylum, underpinned by fundamental humanitarian values, and has saved millions of lives. It provides a set of shared principles for States to manage the determination of an individual’s application for asylum, and the rights accorded to refugees.

Refugees have the following rights under the 1951 Convention:

• Protection from being returned to a country where he or she risks facing serious threats to life or freedom – this is called protection against refoulement and is also a rule of customary international law.

• Non-punishment for irregular entry into the territory of a State to seek asylum

• The right to freedom of movement within the territory of the State

• The right to be issued with identity and travel documents

• The right to work

• The right to housing

• The right to education

• The right to public relief and assistance

• The right to freedom of religion

• The right to access justice and have a fair hearing before the courts


On 10 January 2002, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law acceding to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, making Ukraine the 144th country party to the Convention. 

Today, Ukraine is home to 2,172 refugees and 2,430 asylum-seekers of the 30,5 million refugees and asylum-seekers displaced across the world, according to the 2020 Global Trends Report released on 18 June this year. As stated in the Global Trends report, 86 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing or the least developed countries.

Ukraine offers both refugee status and complementary protection to those who have fled persecution, generalized violence and conflict in their own countries. The majority of refugees and asylum-seekers in Ukraine are renting private accommodation in Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv, while some are living in Lvivska and Zakarpatska oblast. They originate from over 60 different countries, with a majority from Afghanistan (refugees - 38%; asylum-seekers – 25%), Syria (refugees - 24%; asylum-seekers – 7%), Russian Federation (refugees - 6%; asylum-seekers – 9%), and Somalia (refugees - 4%, asylum-seekers – 5%).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established by the United Nations General Assembly on 14 December 1950 with an international protection and solutions mandate to, inter alia, promote “the conclusion and ratification of international conventions for the protection of refugees, supervising their application and proposing amendments thereto[1]”. UNHCR is the guardian of the Refugee Convention, with a unique mandate under international law.

In this capacity, UNHCR greatly appreciates Ukraine’s accession to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the work done by the Government to establish a national legal framework for the protection of refugees in Ukraine. Indeed, the State Migration Service of Ukraine, as well as Members of Parliament, the Ombudsperson and other government and non-governmental actors have recently worked on a new Law on Granting Protection to Foreigners and Stateless Persons. The draft is now officially registered with the Parliament under # 3387 and awaits its first reading review in the next parliamentary session. The draft law aims to improve the procedure for the determination of the refugee status and strengthen the protection of refugees in Ukraine. UNHCR has contributed to several consultations on the draft law and has shared its views on areas where the text can be further aligned with the standards set out in the Refugee Convention.

On this 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, UNHCR encourages all relevant actors to bring the draft Law on Granting Protection to Foreigners and Stateless Persons fully in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention and table this important law for adoption. That would be the most remarkable way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention and express Ukraine’s commitment to the principles and human rights it enshrines.


[1] See Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UN General Assembly Resolution 428(V), Annex, UN Doc. A/1775, para.8 (a), available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/ 3ae6b3628.html (“Statute”)