by Emma Gerber

We hear about the Refugee crisis almost every day in the news. People fleeing their homes, boats sinking on the Mediterranian, and the crisis on our southern border. But even though we hear about it every day, the refugee crisis often feels distant and unrelated to our everyday lives. Especially in the current political age of twitter debates and unchecked misinformation, it seems like the current refugee crisis is becoming more and more difficult to understand. Most people understand why and how people flee to a new country, but what happens when they get there? What rights are they afforded? Who sets the guidelines on all of this? This guide is an attempt to go back to the basics and understand the conventions and rules surrounding the crisis, hopefully providing the necessary context for this issue.

First of all, what is a refugee? 

A refugee, as defined by the United States Immigration and Nationality Act, section 101(a)(42), is “a person outside the country of his or her nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”. An immigrant, in contrast, is a person that chooses to migrate to the US, unmotivated by persecution or a fear of persecution as a refugee would be. In this article, we will specifically be discussing refugees. 

What are the international laws surrounding refugees?

Much of the refugee law that we use today originates from the World Wars, which both produced a vast number of refugees. The League of Nations, the failed pressessor to the United Nations, created most of the refugee agreements between the two world wars. However, because the United States chose not to participate in the League of Nations, the United States did not engage actively in refugee agreements until after World War II. 

In 1947, after World War II, The United Nations created the International Refugee Organization to address the mass refugee crisis in Europe. This organization helped to create important conventions such as the Geneva Convention on Refugees (formally called the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees) in 1951. This convention was expanded upon by the adoption of the 1967 protocol to the Refugee Convention.  Both of these conventions are still relevant today, and provide the basis for much of the conversation about refugees.

What are the main points of the UN conventions on refugees?

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (the Geneva Convention on Refugees)

The Geneva Convention on Refugees states that countries accepting Refugees should:

  • Respect refugee’s personal status and  rights, even those not granted in the refugee’s home country 
    • Rights granted include: freedom of religion, access to elementary education, access to standard public relief and assistance, access to the same rationing standards as would be given to the general public, access to employment, housing, and sometimes education higher than elementary education. 
  • Provide free access to courts and administrative assistance for refugees 
  • Provide identity papers and travel documents for refugees
  • Provide the possibility of assimilation and naturalization for refugees
  • Not discriminate against refugees, or take additional measures against them on account of their nationality 
  • Not punish refugees who entered illegally, as long as those refugees turn themselves into the government without delay 
  • Not expel refugees or return them to the countries that they fled from 

These rights are generally not contingent on the actions of the refugees themselves, except for the provision that refugees must follow the law in the country in which they are staying. 

The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

  • Broadened the scope of the 1951 convention above by allowing it to apply outside of Europe and by making it clear that it still applied after 1951

Important note: none of the rules established by these conventions are actually enforced by the UNHRC, but by signing the agreements countries agree to meet these standards for how to treat refugees, and are expected by the international community to follow that decision.

So why is this important? 

As stated at the start of this article, the way that we regard the refugee crisis can often feel more like a “he said/she said” issue than a crisis with actual global guidelines. The hope is that this guide has provided some necessary information to put the refugee crisis in context. As well, by understanding the basics of refugee law, we can make educated assessments on our own about what is true in the current debate about the United States’ southern border. 


“Refugees & Asylum.” USCIS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 9 Sept. 2009,

Ralph Janik. “A (Very) Short History of International Refugee Law.” Ralph Janik, WordPress, 14 Nov. 2017,

United States, Congress, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees: Text of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of the Refugees: Text of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees: Resolution 2198 (XXI) Adopted by the United  Nations General Assembly.” Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees: Text of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of the Refugees: Text of the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees: Resolution 2198 (XXI) Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, UNHCR, 2007,

“Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.” OHCHR, United Nations OHCHR,