Human Rights Issues

United Nations Refugee Convention, 1951


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: UN Refugee Convention, 1951

Mains level: Not Much

Model laws on asylum and refugees that were drafted by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) decades ago but not implemented by the government could be revised by an expert committee.

Why in news?

  • India is not having a specific law for refugees and asylum-seekers.
  • Though India has not signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, 1951, the refugees and asylum seekers were entitled to the rights in Articles 14, 20 and 21 of the Constitution.

UN Refugee Convention, 1951

  • The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was the first comprehensive attempt to define refugees and charted a detailed guideline for host countries to ensure the adequate protection and preservation of the rights of all refugees.
  • It puts out clearly who a refugee is and what kind of assistance, rights and legal protection a refugee is entitled to receive.
  • It also lays down the obligations of refugees towards the host countries.
  • The Convention also specifies certain categories of people, such as war criminals, who do not qualify for refugee status.

Definition of Refugee:

The 1951 convention defines a refugee as:

  1. A person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence
  2. Has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion
  3. Unable or unwilling to avail him— or herself of the protection of that country, or
  4. Unable to return there, for fear of persecution

Various Rights conferred to Refugees

  • The right not to be expelled, except under certain, strictly defined conditions.
  • The right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State.
  • The rights to work, housing, education, public relief and assistance, freedom of religion, access courts, and freedom of movement within the territory.
  • The right to be issued identity and travel documents.
  • The right to be protected from refoulement apply to all refugees.

Why hasn’t India signed this convention?

  • Dispute over definition: Another reason why India has not signed the Convention is the narrow definition of refugee under it. For instance, it does not include deprivation of economic rights as an eligibility criterion.
  • National security: It is believed that the chief reason is related to security issues.
  • Porous and open borders: South Asian borders are porous and any conflict can cause a huge displacement of people.
  • Cultural strain: Finally, sometimes refugees also pose a threat to law and order due to cultural differences. Ex. North East states.
  • Strain on economy: An influx of people during such times can put a lot of strain on the resources of the local economy and also, it can cause an imbalance in the delicate demography of the region.
  • Many inhabited refugees: India has already houses many refugees and in many cases, without the support of the UN.
  • Loss of sovereignty: Signing the convention would have meant allowing international scrutiny of ‘India’s internal security, political stability and international relations’.
  • Ad-hocism of the convention: The convention lacks a strong implementation policy which has given rise to ad-hocism and warehousing of refugees.

Way forward

  • The inability of international refugee law to reconcile itself with the practical realities that constrain states has culminated in its failure to provide asylum to persecuted persons.
  • In these circumstances, India needs a specific legislation governing refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Such a law would give legal sanctity and uniformity, ensuring the protection of human rights.
  • Along with this, each state must take responsibility for hosting refugees during their darkest hours by devising a burden-sharing system.


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