Guide to International Refugee Law Resources on the Web

By Elisa Mason
August 2011*
(updated Jan. 2015)

The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees turned 60 in 2011. 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, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) currently assists some 13 million refugees. Debates continue regarding the nature of the protection that these 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 commentaries on, and the Travaux Préparatoires for, the 1951 Convention, see:
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:
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:
The scope of humanitarian law as set out in the Geneva Conventions also extends to refugees. For a more thorough overview, see ICRC's Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons and International Humanitarian Law.

Selected International Law Collections

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 durable solutions to their plight. Traditionally, these solutions have taken the form of local integration in a country of asylum, resettlement to a third country, and voluntary repatriation to the home country. 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)
  • Global Consultations on International Protection (series of meetings held in 2001 and 2002 with the aim of strengthening refugee protection)
  • Handbooks and Guidelines (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)
  • Legal and Protection Policy Research Series (includes discussion papers and background papers from expert meetings produced by various legal advisors)
Refworld has also compiled the UNHCR Protection Manual, which serves as a comprehensive and up-to-date repository of UNHCR's protection policy and guidance. 

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 94 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 who 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. 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 report on the asylum and refugee policy practices of different host countries include:
  • ECRE, Weekly Bulletin (issues cover both EU-wide and national developments)
  • ECRE et al., Asylum Information Database (provides information on asylum practices in Europe)
  • Migration Dialogue, Migration News (quarterly summary of key news and policy developments around the world)
  • Rights in Exile Programme, Rights in Exile Newsletter (formerly the Fahamu Refugee Legal Aid Newsletter; monthly newsletter that highlights "refugee and asylum law from around the world")

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 via Refworld’s Legal Collection (see also the user guide). For texts of gender-related asylum case law, try a search in the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies' database. Resources with a regional focus include the European Database of Asylum Law (EDAL), which provides access to summaries of national and European court judgments, and the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, which produces summaries of decisions on complementary protection from Australia and New Zealand.

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:

6. Experts/Networking
The following resources may assist asylum seekers who require legal representation and/or general information about the asylum process:
  • Rights in Exile Programme (serves as a network and resource for both legal assistance providers and the refugees who require their services)
  • UNHCR (provides instructions for contacting UNHCR field offices electronically)
A variety of organizations promote networking among refugee/immigration law advocates and/or offer opportunities to serve as pro bono attorneys. Examples include:

7. 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 various legal experts)
  • Byrne, R., ed., The Refugee Law Reader: Cases, Documents and Materials, Hungarian Helsinki Committee, 6th ed., 2012
  • 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)
  • Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) (offers e-learning courses on a variety of topics)
  • Odysseus Network (offers courses in EU immigration and asylum 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
Many other legal texts are highlighted on the author's Pinterest page.

*This is an update of the guide originally published by LLRX.