International Context for Refugee Protection

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(Disponible en français : Le contexte international de la protection des réfugiés)

More people than ever before have been displaced from their homes around the world as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported that, by the end of 2014, this population had reached an all-time high of 59.5 million, or one in every 122 humans.

This HillNote describes the international legal framework for refugee protection and the available “durable solutions” as set out by the UNHCR – solutions that end the cycle of displacement and allow refugees to get on with their lives.

International legal framework

The international agreement at the heart of refugee protection – the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, known as the Refugee Convention – initially applied only to refugees associated with the Second World War.

In 1967, it was updated with a Protocol to remove any time or geographic restrictions. A total of 140 states have signed on to one or both (in the case of Canada) of these instruments.

The Refugee Convention established a common international understanding of who is a refugee, a definition that has also been incorporated into Canadian law.

Under this definition, refugees are people who, by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group:

  • are outside their countries of nationality and are unable or, by reason of that fear, unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of those countries; or
  • not having a country of nationality, are outside the country of their former habitual residence and are unable or, by reason of that fear, unwilling to return to that country.

Signatory states to the Refugee Convention have certain obligations. Chief among them are to offer asylum seekers the opportunity to have their cases heard in a fair process and not to return people to situations of persecution, a principle known as “non-refoulement.”

In fact, both international human rights law and customary international law suggest that all states may have a responsibility to avoid refoulement.

Refugee-like protection is also offered by virtue of other regional and international legal instruments and domestic legislation. For example, Canada has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

As a result, refugee protection under Canadian law is also conferred on those who face a risk, assessed on a case-by-case basis, of death, torture, or cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.

Regional legal instruments, such as the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa adopted by the Organization of African Unity in 1969, provide for an expanded definition of “refugee” that includes a person facing generalized violence.

Where do refugees go?

A significant number of people affected by violence never become refugees, because they do not cross an international border to find safety. Known as “internally displaced persons,” this population was estimated at 38.2 million in 2014, the highest level since 1989, when global statistics were first collected.

Refugees may also travel through several countries on their own initiative to seek safety and secure a new future. People who do so are known as asylum seekers; they are seeking protection, but their status as refugees has not yet been determined.

How states respond to asylum seekers is shaped in part by the commitments they have made under international instruments. In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Board decides requests for asylum.

Table 1 – Asylum Applications Submitted in Europe and Selected Non-European Countries, 2010–2014

Country/Region of Asylum 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 Rank in 2014
Germany 41,330 45,740 64,540 109,580 173,070 1
United States 49,310 70,030 78,410 84,400 121,160 2
Turkey 9,230 16,020 26,470 44,810 87,820 3
Sweden 31,820 29,650 43,890 54,260 75,090 4
Italy 10,050 40,360 17,350 25,720 63,660 5
France 48,070 52,150 55,070 60,230 59,030 6
Hungary 2,100 1,690 2,160 18,570 41,370 7
United Kingdom 22,640 25,900 27,980 29,880 31,260 8
Austria 11,010 14,420 17,410 17,500 28,060 9
Netherlands 13,330 11,590 9,660 14,400 23,850 10
Canada 23,160 25,350 20,500 10,380 13,450 15
Source: UNHCR, Asylum Trends 2014: Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries, p. 20.


The three “durable solutions”: Integration, resettlement, repatriation

The UNHCR is the organization mandated by the United Nations to lead and coordinate action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems. Traditionally, the UNHCR has employed three “durable solutions” for refugees: local integration into the country of first asylum; resettlement to a different country; and return home, known as repatriation.

However, these solutions are proving increasingly inadequate in light of the high volume of refugees needing protection and the prolonged situations of insecurity in the world today.

Local integration

Most refugees who leave their country stay in neighbouring countries. Some countries of first asylum (non-signatory states to the Refugee Convention, in particular) agree to host refugees only temporarily. Refugees in these countries may be prohibited from working and may be restricted to residing in refugee camps.

The mass movement of refugees places considerable strain on countries of first asylum. They often need financial assistance to provide refugees with daily necessities and services, such as medical care and education for school-aged children. The UNHCR reported that in 2014, 42% of refugees under its mandate resided in countries where the gross domestic product per capita was below US$5,000.

In 2014, Canada ranked 41st among states in its ratio of refugees to population, with a ratio of 4.2 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.

Figure 1 – Ratio of Refugees per 1,000 Inhabitants, 2014

Figure 1 ENG.png

Sources: Figure prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016. The figure was created using data from UNHCR, “Table 26: Indicators of host country capacity and contributions, end-2014,” World at War: UNHCR Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2014; and Natural Earth, 1:50m Cultural Vectors. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1.



According to the UNHCR, resettlement “involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State which has agreed to admit them – as refugees – with permanent residence status.”

The UNHCR refers individual refugees to states that have volunteered to participate in a resettlement program (see Figure 2 and Table 2).

Figure 2 – Resettlement Arrivals of Refugees Among Participating States, 2014 (Percent by country of arrival)

Map of resettlement arrivals of refugees among participating states, 2014

Sources: Figure prepared by Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2016. The figure was created using data from UNHCR, “Table 23, Resettlement arrivals of refugees, 2014,” World at War: UNHCR Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2014; and Natural Earth, 1:50m Cultural Vectors. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1. 


In Canada, the government partners with individuals and civil society organizations through the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program to augment the number of refugees resettled here.

Not all refugees are referred for resettlement to a third country; typically the UNHCR refers about 8% of the world’s refugee population. The UNHCR tends to prioritize individuals for resettlement based on their needs (e.g., legal, protection or medical); their vulnerability (e.g., women and girls at risk); the opportunity for family reunification; and the absence of foreseeable alternative durable solutions.

States have so far offered 80,000 resettlement spaces for 2016. However, the UNHCR estimates that more than 1,150,000 persons will need resettlement, a 22% increase from estimated needs for 2015. Despite special pledges for Syrian refugees and the introduction of new programs, the UNHCR is looking to other immigration remedies, such as student visas or family reunification, as ways to extend protection.


The UNHCR promotes refugee return, or repatriation, only when chosen freely and only when the conditions in the country of origin are safe and the rights of returnees are guaranteed.

According to the UNHCR, while return home is the most significant durable solution in numerical terms, the number of refugee returns is currently at a 30-year low. In 2014, 126,800 refugees were voluntarily repatriated, with the largest groups returning to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali.

Related resources

Béchard, Julie, and Sandra Elgersma. Refugee Protection in Canada. Publication no. 2011‑90‑E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 15 July 2013.

Béchard, Julie, and Sandra Elgersma. Assistance for Government-Sponsored Refugees, Chosen Abroad. Publication no. 2011-94-E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 29 August 2014.

Elgersma, Sandra. Resettling Refugees: Canada’s Humanitarian Response. Publication no. 2015-11-E. Parliamentary Information and Research Service, Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 1 April 2015.

UNHCR. UNHCR Resettlement Handbook and Country Chapters, 4 November 2014.

UNHCR. World at War: UNHCR Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2014. (Most of the UNHCR data presented in this HillNote are found in this publication.)

Author: Sandra Elgersma, Library of Parliament

Categories: International affairs and defence, Law, justice and rights

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