The Human Rights of Refugees

In addition to refugee law, refugees are also protected by a set of human rights law. These are universal protection that are applied to all human beings, regardless of whether they are citizens or non-citizens (including stateless people), refugees or non-refugees, documented or undocumented individuals. Essentially, human rights instruments are crucial in strengthening refugee protection. This page will explain why it is important to utilize human rights law to strengthen refugee protection, and provide an outline of what the Human Rights of Refugees section will cover. For information on how these rights can be utilized in your legal aid programs, refer to the Access to Rights Procedure section of the toolkit.

Building arguments by linking refugee rights to human rights law

Given the historical and political circumstances to which the 1951 Convention and its Protocol were drafted, its scope of protection is limited. In addition, although regional conventions provide more tailored protection, these are still limited to addressing issues specifically relating to forced displacement. Therefore, international refugee law instruments are not enough to ensure states uphold the comprehensive and dignified treatment of refugees as individuals with rights, futures, duties and needs.

Human rights instruments enable us to enhance refugee protection for a number of reasons:

  • Human rights instruments envisage a broader range of rights than those found in international refugee law instruments. Human rights anchor in crucial positive law absent in refugee-specific instruments, which include principles such as the right to life, security, liberty, freedom of movement, and family life.
  • Human rights instruments usually provide for the same treatment for nationals and non-nationals (including refugees, asylum seekers, and stateless persons). While refugees are accorded on the basis of “most favourable treatment accorded to aliens” under the 1951 Convention, asylum-seekers and refugees are entitled to the same enjoyment of rights as nationals under human rights instruments.
  • Some human rights instruments are ratified by more countries than the 1951 Convention and its Protocol. As many countries in Asia and the Middle East are not signatory to the 1951 Convention, and hence do not provide refugee protection, human rights instruments can be especially important.
  • Unlike the 1951 Convention, many major human rights instruments have human rights bodies to which complaints can be brought on an international level and whose decisions can be legally binding on states.

In essence, refugee law should be complementary to the wider and more generous protections of human rights law.

Strengthening human rights advocacy

Unfortunately, the premise that human rights are universal is problematic in practice. Although states are the drafters and guarantors of the human rights instruments, they commonly prioritize their own citizens over non-citizens. This often results in a hierarchy of rights: foreigners, including refugees and other migrants, rarely receive equal protection to that of citizens. Therefore, it is the advocates’ duty to insist on the protection of basic human rights for refugee and asylum-seeking clients. It is important to promote the universalization of the minimum standards agreed upon by the international community, on account of one’s humanity rather than on one’s citizenship, nationality or birthplace.

The following sections aims to highlight the relevant human rights laws one can turn to for stronger defense of refugees’ rights. This can contribute not only to improved protection of refugee rights, but also to raise the standards across the board to benefit the citizens in the country of asylum. Note that as this section only aims to provide a brief outline, further investigation of these bodies of law is advisable.

 Freedom from Penalties for Illegal Entry
 Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
 Work
 Education
 Health Care
 Access to Courts
 Women’s Rights
 Children’s Rights

Further resources: