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UN Refugee Convention At 60

Newly arrived refugees from Barane in Lower Shabelle region in Somalia, rest in the Kenya-Somalia border town of Liboi July 29, 2011. (Reuters)

International agreement was the first dealing with the most fundamental aspects of a refugee’s life.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, was that body's response to the events and aftermath of the Second World War. To guard against a repetition of the atrocities committed during the war, this document defined and reaffirmed basic human rights.

The United Nations also understood the need to address the plight of refugees, more than 40 million of whom flooded post-war Europe. Thus, the Declaration's Article 14 recognizes the right of persons to seek asylum from persecution in other countries.

Three years later, Article 14 became the basis of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was adopted by the General Assembly sixty years ago, on July 28, 1951. Today, it is the centerpiece of international refugee protection.

The "UN Refugee Convention," as it came to be known, was the first international agreement dealing with the most fundamental aspects of a refugee’s life. For example, the Convention stipulates that a refugee has the right to practice his or her religion, the right to work, and the right to acquire an education; has access to travel documents; and should be allowed freedom of movement.

But the UN Refugee Convention also notes that refugees have certain obligations to the host government, such as to respect the laws and regulations of their country of asylum.

Most importantly, the Convention makes it very clear that a refugee may not be repatriated involuntarily to a country where he or she fears persecution.

The UN Refugee Convention began as a way to help the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who were still homeless six years after World War II ended. In 1967, it was expanded to include all refugees everywhere. Even today, 60 years after this cornerstone of international refugee protection was adopted by the United Nations, it is still needed. Around the world, there are over 15 million refugees who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to live in difficult and in many cases unacceptable conditions.