Guide to International Refugee Law Resources on the Web

First published on, July 15, 2000. Updated May 29, 2007, March 5, 2009 and July 25, 2009.


The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is now over 50 years old. What impact has this instrument had on resolving refugee problems and how effective has it been as the principal standard for the international protection of refugees? Although the total refugee and asylum-seeking population has dipped since the early 1990s, over 30 million “persons of concern to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees” can still be counted in the world today. Moreover, debates continue regarding the nature of the protection that refugees should be granted, the role of the international community, and the obligations of receiving countries towards refugees.

This guide directs readers to some of the key texts and resources available on the Web that can help shed light on, and provide a context for, many of the issues currently being deliberated in the refugee law arena.

1. International Instruments


Two principal conventions govern international refugee law matters: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol. The Convention sets out the rights of refugees and the standards for their treatment in the countries that receive them. It defines “refugee” in Article 1A(2) as,

…[A]ny person who…owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his [or her] nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself [or herself] of the protection of that country… .

Because the definition requires that a person be outside his or her country, it effectively excludes internally displaced persons from receiving international protection. Moreover, because it focuses on individualized persecution, it does not recognize situations of generalized violence (such as wars), natural disasters, and large-scale development projects as legitimate causes of flight.

The Protocol was drafted to remove the geographic and time limitations of the earlier instrument, the incorporation of which reflected the post-World War 2 context in which the Convention was framed. Otherwise, it retains the same language as that used in the Convention.

It is important to note that neither instrument makes any direct reference to the concept of asylum; lawful admission, and the conditions under which it is granted, remains the discretion of States. Instead, the Convention provides for the principle of non-refoulement, found in Article 33, which stipulates that “No Contracting State shall expel or return (‘refouler‘) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to…territories where his (or her) life or freedom would be threatened… .”

To review commentary on and the Travaux Préparatoires for the 1951 Convention, see:

  • Travaux Préparatoires: Records of the 1951 Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons (organized in reverse chronological order)

The Convention celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001. Resources that examine and/or comment on its impact over the past 50 years include:


Two regional instruments, the 1969 Organization for African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, reaffirmed the basic principles of the Convention and Protocol, but expanded the definition of refugee to more realistically account for contemporary root causes of flight, i.e., war, internal conflict, massive human rights abuses, etc.

For further discussion of the role these instruments have played in the development of international refugee law, see:

Human Rights and Humanitarian Law

The plight of refugees is fundamentally a human rights issue. Human rights treaties are therefore effective tools to use in the international protection of refugees, particularly the 1984 Convention against Torture, which provides for the principle of non-refoulement in Article 3. Similarly, prohibitions against torture in the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 5) and the 1950 European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Article 3) have been invoked to protect refugees from being refouled. Elsewhere, the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights promotes the right to seek and be granted asylum in Article 22(7).

For more discussion of these and other protections, see:

  • Gorlick, B., “Human Rights and Refugees: Enhancing Protection through International Human Rights Law,” New Issues in Refugee Research, no. 30, 2000
  • Röhl, K., “Fleeing Violence and Poverty: Non-refoulement Obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights,” New Issues in Refugee Research, no. 111, 2005

The scope of humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions also extends to refugees. For a more thorough overview, see:

Selected International Law Collections

  • UNHCR, Refworld Legal Collection (under “Type,” select “Multilateral Treaties/Agreements” and/or “International Legal Instruments”)

2. International Bodies

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)

UNHCR is the principal UN agency mandated to provide assistance and international protection to refugees and other persons of concern, and to find solutions to their plight. Traditionally, these solutions have taken the form of asylum, resettlement, and voluntary repatriation. UNHCR’s Statute includes a very similar definition of “refugee” as the 1951 Convention. However, over time, UNHCR’s mandate has been expanded by the UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council to cover other groups in “refugee-like” situations that normally would not fall within the office’s competence (including some internally displaced persons).

UNHCR’s Department of International Protection publishes a variety of materials that provide guidance on and analysis of legal issues relating to refugees and asylum. Most are available on the organization’s Web site. A few key UNHCR titles and aggregated sets of resources are highlighted below:

  • Convention Plus (initiative to enhance refugee protection and resolve problems through discussion and negotiation among relevant States)
  • Handbooks and Guides (includes, inter alia, 1) analyses of specific provisions within the 1951 Convention presented as “Guidelines on International Protection”; and 2) the Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status, originally produced by UNHCR in 1979 and widely cited by courts and decision-making bodies)

Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme (EXCOM)

Gaps in refugee protection have been addressed largely through the Executive Committee of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (EXCOM), a body comprised of 76 governments that meets annually in Geneva. Each year, members discuss a variety of issues relating to international protection and adopt conclusions. While these conclusions lack the force of law, they carry some weight because they represent a consensus reached in an international forum. Key documents that emanate from EXCOM meetings include the Conclusions on International Protection, annual Notes on International Protection, and background papers prepared by the Executive Committee’s Standing Committee.

United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)

The 1951 Convention includes a clause stipulating that its provisions do not extend to persons already being assisted by other UN organs. Therefore, a separate legal machinery has evolved to address the situation of Palestinian refugees, as they fall under the mandate of UNRWA. For more information, visit UNRWA’s Web site.

3. National Legislation

States parties to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol implement the treaties’ provisions in their national laws. Usually, these texts are supplemented by more detailed administrative procedures that spell out the process for seeking asylum, i.e., interviewing, providing evidence, appealing a negative decision, etc. The main resource for relevant national legislation and regulations on asylum and refugees is UNHCR’s legislation database (under “Type,” select “National Legislation”). Alternatively, researchers can go directly to government immigration web sites, which often include links to legislation and a description of asylum procedures. Other resources that link to or provide overviews of the asylum and refugee policy practices of different countries include:

  • ECRE, Weekly Bulletin (these cover both EU-wide developments and national developments)
  • Migration Dialogue, Migration News (quarterly summary of key news and policy developments around the world)
  • U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey (annual report with brief summaries of legal and policy developments in receiving countries; view complete reports or select individual countries from the “Refugee Conditions by Country” feature)

4. Case Law

The five enumerated grounds of the refugee definition as set out in the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol are often the subject of great debate; this in turn has led to different interpretations across jurisdictions. Legal researchers can access relevant case law either via Refworld’s Legal Collection or the Refugee Caselaw site. Decisions originate from 45 national jurisdictions in the former and from 28 countries in the latter.

Additional case law resources:

Recently, calls have been made for “gender” to be included as a sixth ground in the refugee definition. Visit the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies for texts of gender-related asylum case law.

5. Periodicals

Oxford University Press’ quarterly International Journal of Refugee Law is the foremost journal in this subject area. However, other titles that carry relevant articles include:

  • Plein droit (Groupe d’information et de soutien des immigrés)

6. Experts/Networking

The following resources may assist asylum seekers who require legal representation and/or general information about the asylum process:

  • (provides a detailed section on “Information for Asylum-Seekers,” as well as a database of attorneys and expert witnesses for registered users)
  • UNHCR (provides instructions for contacting UNHCR field offices electronically)

Several organizations promote networking among refugee/immigration law advocates and/or offer opportunities to serve as pro bono attorneys. Examples include:

7. Research Guides/Collections

For research tips, relevant articles, legal analyses, and refugee law treatises, refer to the following resources:

  • FMO Research Guide: International Law and Legal Instruments (prepared by Forced Migration Online)

8. Further Study

The following resources can be consulted for further study of international refugee law principles and practice:


  • Audiovisual Library of International Law, Lecture Series on “International Migration Law” (video lectures by Prof. Guy Goodwin-Gill)
  • European Legal Network on Asylum (ELENA) (offers courses for legal practitioners in refugee and asylum law)
  • International Institute of Humanitarian Law (IIHL) (offers courses in refugee, human rights and humanitarian law)
  • UNHCR Training Materials (includes self-study modules for human rights and refugee protection, refugee status determination, and an introduction to international protection)

Key Texts

Posted in: Features, Human Rights, International Legal Research, Refugees