The League of Nations was the first intergovernmental organisation created for world peace in 1920. It was the League of Nations under which the process of creating an international body for the protection of refugees began. After the 2nd World War, many refugees fled from Russian territories to European nations and Europe became home to millions of refugees between 1918 – 1922. It was then that the United Nations General Assembly recognised the urgency of the situation and said, ‘’no refugees or a displaced person who has finally and definitely … expressed valid objections to returning to their countries of origin … shall be compelled to return …”.

Delegates attending a League of Nations meeting, c. 1930. © Central Press/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

It was the failure of the League of Nation that paved the way for the formation of the UN’s Refugee aid system. It was between 1921 – 1946 that many organizations came up to cater to the need of the refugees. After the Russian civil war ended, many people had to leave their homes and move away if they did not support the Bolsheviks. Some of the European states also saw the ethnic cleansing of minorities. Among millions of people on the move, Russian and Armenian people were among the ones who had it worst as they lost their nationality. In 1921 league of Nation addressed the situation and confirmed that these people should be recognized as ‘Refugees’. The League of Nations set up the office so that both the Russian and Armenian refugees could be taken care of. This became the office of the High Commissioner for the Refugees, and Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen became the first leader of the office. The famous Nansen passport we know of, allowing refugees to cross the border, find work, and prevented them from forceful deportation. This passport acted as a valid identity proof.

The General Assembly, after ample discussion in its third committee, decided to replace IRO with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees under Article 22 of the charter of United Nations by passing a resolution 428 (v) on 14th December 1950. General Assembly decided to convene a conference in 1950 that discussed the draft made by the Ad Hoc committee on refugees and stateless persons. This convention was created mainly due to the refugees emerging from Russia and Europe after the Second World War and hence it had a deadline for application from people who had become refugees before 1st Jan 1951.[ii]

It didn’t take much time to realize that the 1951 convention had a global impact, and it was hard to limit it to refugees from before 1951 only and, so it started accepting refugees based on all types of different reasons and removed the deadline.

The signing of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. © UNHCR

Definition of a refugee as per the 1951 Convention:

A. For the present Convention, the term refugee shall apply to any person who:

(1) Has been considered a refugee under the Arrangements of 12 May 1926 and 30 June 1928 or under the Conventions of 28 October 1933 and 10 February 1938, the Protocol of 14 September 1939 or the Constitution of the Refugee Organisation; Decisions of non-eligibility taken by the International Refugee Organisation during the period of its activities shall not prevent the status of refugee being accorded to persons who fulfil the conditions of paragraph 2 of this section;

(2) As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

In the case of a person who has more than one nationality, the term ‘the country of his nationality’ shall mean each of the countries of which he is a national, and a person shall not be deemed to be lacking the protection of the country of his nationality if, without any valid reason based on well-founded fear, he has not availed himself of the protection of one of the countries of which he is a national.[1] The highlight of this definition is a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and due to being a member of a particular social group.

Hence, we can see that the 1951 Refugee Convention was the key basis of refugee law. It explains the basic rights of the refugees and also their obligation towards their host country. Even though the 1951 Refugee Convention was set up in the hour of the 2nd World War to protect the Europeans who had to flee from their homes, it is still working towards international solidarity and cooperation to ensure safer space for the refugees, after all these years.


[i] The little known passport that protected 45000 refugees, atlas obscura



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