In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Refugees

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining “Refugees”
  • Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
  • Economic Refugees
  • Gender- and Sexuality-Based Violence
  • Environmental Refugees
  • Exclusion Clauses
  • Cessation of International Protection
  • Non-refoulement
  • Temporary Protection
  • Complementary Protection
  • Border Deaths
  • Human Trafficking and Human Smuggling
  • Refugee Camps
  • National Rules

International Law Refugees
Juan Amaya-Castro, Jessica C. Lawrence
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199796953-0134


People move from their homes for many reasons. They may travel in search of increased economic opportunities, to reunite with loved ones living far away, or to escape poor living conditions, ethnic discrimination, religious conflict, or war. Some of these people will move within their home country, while some will cross international borders. Those who move outside of their country of origin may encounter problems when they seek to enter into another state. Each country has its own set of rules regarding which people can enter, work, and reside in its territory. Generally speaking, it is a state’s sovereign right to deny entry to individuals it deems undesirable, or who do not meet certain criteria that it has established. There is one group, however, to whom international law provides special protection: refugees. When a person seeks asylum at a state’s border, that state makes a determination regarding whether or not the person is a “refugee.” If the asylum-seeker is deemed a refugee, he or she is entitled to certain rights, such as nondiscrimination, the right not to be penalized for illegal entry or stay, and—critically—the right not to be returned to a place where he or she may fear for their life or freedom (known as the principle of “non-refoulement”). The notion of granting asylum to people fleeing danger or persecution goes back many thousands of years. Contemporary refugee protection, however, is very much a product of the 20th century. Following World War I, the League of Nations launched a number of programs for assisting and repatriating refugees, most of which were focused on particular situations of conflict and displacement. In 1921, the League established a High Commissioner for Russian Refugees charged with assisting refugees from the Russian Revolution. In 1933, it appointed a High Commissioner for refugees coming from Germany, whose office helped to find permanent homes for refugees fleeing Germany and the rising tide of Nazism. In 1938, the League set up a High Commissioner for Refugees and an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, which initially focused on refugees coming from Germany and Austria but later expanded its mandate to cover all refugee groups in Europe after World War II. The impact of World War II transformed the refugee protection system. During the war, millions of people were displaced from their homes. Large numbers fled across national borders, seeking shelter in other states. Protecting and resettling these refugees was an immediate priority for the newly formed United Nations. In 1947, the UN established the International Refugee Organization (IRO) to deal with the general protection of refugees. The 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights included a right to seek and enjoy asylum (Article 14). And in 1950, the IRO was replaced by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which continues to this day to provide assistance to refugees and displaced persons. UNHCR oversees the treaty considered to be the cornerstone of the international system for the protection of refugees: the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951 (the Refugee Convention), and its 1967 Protocol. The 1951 Refugee Convention defines which people are “refugees” and sets standards for their assistance and treatment.

General Overviews

Most discussions of international refugee law begin with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which have formed the foundation of international law on the subject. Early classics that focus on the Convention and its history include Weis 1995, Robinson 1953, and Grahl-Madsen 1972, and a more contemporary take can be found in Zimmermann 2011. Today, refugee protection is governed by a mix of international law, human rights, regional agreements, and national rules. Actors include individuals, states, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), companies, smugglers and traffickers, and nonstate groups, which all have an impact on the movement and protection of those seeking refuge. This array of rules and actors is further complicated by the fact that refugee protection takes place against the intricate background of the local, regional, and international politics that leads people to flee their homes. This complexity makes multilevel and interdisciplinary approaches, such as those found in Vedsted-Hansen 2015, Goodwin-Gill and McAdam 2007, and Hathaway 2005 particularly useful. The texts referenced below are intended to give the reader an overview of the landscape of refugee law and policy.

  • Goodwin-Gill, Guy, and Jane McAdam. The Refugee in International Law. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    A leading treatise covering all aspects of international refugee law.

  • Grahl-Madsen, Atle. The Status of Refugees in International Law. Leiden, The Netherlands: A. W. Sijthoff, 1972.

    A classic foundational text on international refugee law that has cast an enduring shadow over the discipline.

  • Hathaway, James. The Rights of Refugees under International Law. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511614859

    A treatise discussing the rights of refugees in international law. This reference work pays particular attention to the UN Refugee Convention and the links between international refugee law and international human rights law.

  • Robinson, Nehemiah. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: Its History, Contents and Interpretation; A Commentary. New York: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1953.

    The first legal commentary on the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This work is now considered an early classic on the subject.

  • Vedsted-Hansen, Jens, ed. The Refugee Law Reader: Cases, Documents and Materials. 7th ed. Budapest: Hungarian Helsinki Committee, 2015.

    A useful volume collecting case law, treaties, and other relevant documents relating to recent and historically significant international and national practice in the area of refugee law.

  • Weis, Paul. The Refugee Convention 1951: The Travaux Préparatoires Analysed with a Commentary. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    An early commentary by Paul Weis, who represented the IRO and UNHCR during the process of drafting the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This work is now considered an early classic on the subject.

  • Zimmermann, Andreas, ed. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and Its 1967 Protocol: A Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    A contemporary commentary providing a systematic and comprehensive analysis of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, proceeding on an article-by-article basis and including many links to related fields of international law.

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