"How to Protect Human
Refugees in the UN System of Human Rights Protection
Copyright by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Refugees in the UN System of Human Rights Protection
A. The main Issues
The primary treaties that the UN human rights system is based on are the International Human Rights Covenants and the specialised conventions. One of the more important conventions is the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees adopted in Geneva in 1951. In 1967, a Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees was drawn up in New York.
These documents define the kind of refuge available in States-Parties to persons who qualify as refugees according to the definition in the international documents. The specialised agency in the UN is the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The lessons proposed below consist of exercises related to the problems faced by refugees. Focus is on the application of the Convention and the activities of the UNHCR.
By the end of these lessons the participants should know the answers to the following questions:
The lessons should, primarily, lead to the development of the following skills:
D. Didactic Materials
1. Give an overview of the UN human rights system (use the main text enclosed in the
Tell them that there are two paths of action in the UN structure that were paved for the purpose of protecting human rights. The first was the creation of the general documents ( The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights = The International Bill of Rights); the second was the formulation of the specialised treaties which expand on and specify the general principles expressed in the Covenants. One of these specialised treaties is the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, signed by the General Assembly in Geneva in 1951, and the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees signed in New York in 1967.
In the course of these exercises you will get to know the provisions of these documents and the mechanisms developed to ensure their realisation.
2. Show the participants part of the film, "The UN System of Human Rights Protection"
beginning with the scene showing students in the corridor preparing for an exam. Stop at the end of the conversation between the narrator and Marek Nowicki of the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights. (Fast forward the cassette to this scene ahead of time) If the participants have already seen the film, they should now watch this segment for the purpose of reviewing the names of the various treaties and specialised conventions. Furthermore, the first part of Marek Nowicki's monologue is directly related to these lessons. Therefore it is best to ask them ahead of time to pay close attention to what Marek Nowicki is saying.
Next, ask the participants the following questions:
1) Which specialised conventions can they recall?
(In the film there is mention of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women)
2) What are the mechanisms employed by the UN in order to administer compliance with the
( As a rule the specialised convention calls for a treaty body (usually a committee) to be established whose task is to monitor compliance with the given convention by the States-Parties. The governments of these states are obliged to submit periodical reports to the treaty body. Non-governmental organizations can submit their own reports to the committees as well.)
3) Who organizes assistance for refugees and administers compliance with the Convention
relating to the Status of Refugees?
(The UN High Commissioner for Refugees and his Office - UNHCR)
3. Now hand out copies of Supplement #1 or use an overhead projector. Point out the
position of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in reference to the other UN documents on the chart. The chart shows the organizational structure of the various human rights organs in the UN. You can also point out the position of the UNHCR on the chart or ask them to find it. Mention that you will return to the topic of the UNHCR later.
4. Now that you have reached the main part of the lesson, ask the participants:
"Who is a foreigner?"
Write down all of their responses on the blackboard or on a large sheet of paper. Do not comment on or judge their responses.
Now turn to them and explain the definition of "foreigner" according to the law in your country. (In Poland, "a foreigner is any person who is not a Polish citizen". Furthermore, tell them that a person without any citizenship is a "stateless person".
Amongst foreigners there are persons who are given special protection: they can be granted either asylum or refugee status. Use Supplement #2 to explain these concepts. Either make copies for them or use an overhead projector or write the definitions on the board.
5. Now hand out Supplement #3 and ask them to study it. Explain that these are fundamental
rights and freedoms that pertain to the protection of foreigners. As you explained earlier, these are some of the general principles formulated in two of the three basic UN human rights documents.
Refugees comprise a category of foreigners who are guaranteed special protection. Their rights are expressed in greater detail in the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees signed in Geneva in 1951 and supplemented with the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees signed in New York in 1967. This Convention is referred to as the Geneva Convention and the Protocol as the New York Protocol.
The Geneva Convention defines the criteria which must be met to be considered a refugee (see Supplement #4). It is important, however, to note that the Convention (art. 1 F) does not apply to the following persons:
(Poland ratified the Convention and Protocol in 1991)
5. Divide the participants into 4 groups. Give each group a copy of Supplement #4.
Hand out the Supplements as follows:
Group I - Supplement #5
Group II - Supplement #6
Group III - Supplement #7
Group IV - Supplement #8
Each group is to learn the cases that they have received which concern persons applying for refugee status. Based on the definition of "refugee" formulated in the Geneva Convention, they are to decide if refugee status should be granted.
Estimated time needed: 15 - 20 minutes
6. Ask each group to elect a representative who will present their decisions.
The presentations should include:
7. Now decide all together on whether the decisions were just. You can ask the following
If you would like to conduct more in-depth lessons on the topic of the UNHCR's activities, we recommend that you contact the Warsaw bureau. They have some educational materials of their own, including brochures and informational pamphlets, videocassettes and posters. Write to or call:
Mr. Jakub Boraty?ski
Aleja Ró? 2
00-556 Warsaw, POLAND
tel. 0-48-22/628-69-30, fax. 625-61-24
UNHCR Regional Office in Moscow cover the following countries:
RUSSIA Address: Seleznevskaya St., 11 a(1),
tel. (0-07095) 284-32-20, 973-18-93
fax. (0-07095) 973-19-60
BELARUS Address: 220000 Minsk,
Partzanski Av., 6a, 6th floor
tel. 375 (172) 27-78-83, 27-73-57
fax. 375 (172) 27-08-00
c/o UN Office in Moldova Address: 31 August St., 131
277012 Chisinau, Moldova
tel. (0-03732) 22-15-77
fax. (0-03732) 23-34-25
Other UNCHR Offices in the CIS are:
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN ARMENIA
Address: c/o Hotel Razdan, Yerevan, Armenia
tel./fax. (0-03742) 293-09-17
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN AZERBAIJAN
Address: 3, Lermontov St., Baku, Azerbaijan
tel. (0-0994-12) 92-89-54, 92-83-19,
fax. (0-0994-12) 98-11-34
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN GEORGIA
Address: Kazbegi St., 2a, 4th floor, Tbilisi
tel./fax. (0-0995-32) 00-10-80 UNHCR ext. 183
fax. 995-32-00-10-77 ext. 183
fax. 995-32-00-11-27 ext. 183
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN KAZAKHSTAN
Address: 29, Beregovaja St, 480051 Almaty
tel. (7 3272)-64-66-64
fax. (7 3272)-65-13-03
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN KYRGYZSTAN
Address: ul. Moskovskaya, dom 184, kv. 2
tel./fax. (00-7331-2) -62-17-40, 62-00-14
OFFICE OF THE UNHCR CHARGE DE MISSION IN TAJIKISTAN
Address: P.O.Box, 734001 Dushanbe
tel. (0-07-37772) 51-00-40
(0-0873) 175-44-20 Satcom
fax. (0-0873) 175-44-21 Satcom
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN TURKMENISTAN
Address: 7 Fizkulturnaya St., 744013 Ashkabat
tel. (0-07-3632) 391-261
fax. (0-07-3632) 391-26-12
UNHCR BRANCH OFFICE IN UKRAINE
Address: 18-A, Shovkovychna St., apt. 3, Kiev 0-24
tel. (0-038-044) 293-93-63, 293-34-12
fax. (0-038-044) 293-26-07, 293-23-38
OFFICE OF THE UNHCR CHARGE DE MISSION IN UZBEKISTAN
Address: 4 Shevchenko St., 700083 Tashkent
tel. (00873) 175-44-30 Satcom
fax. (00873) 175-44-31 Satcom
Any queries or comments should be directed to:
UNHCR RO Moscov
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(Paris, December 10, 1948)
International Covenant on Civil International Covenant on Economic
and Political Rights Social and Cultural Rights
Human Rights Committee Committee on Economic, Social and
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965)
Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984)
Committee Against Torture
Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
Committee on the Rights of the Child
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Geneva, 1951
Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, New York, 1967
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
* Treaty bodies in italics
ASYLUM is defined as refuge given by a state to a persecuted foreigner seeking it.
The decision to grant asylum is the sovereign decision of the state - it is a decision about whether or not to grant a foreigner protection due to political or humanitarian reasons.
This decision is an expression of the state's good will and is not
required by any international obligations.
REFUGEE STATUS is granted to persons (foreigners) who meet the criteria defined in article 1, point A - 2 of the Geneva Convention of 1951 relating to the Status of Refugees and the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967.
The decision to grant refugee status is made by the appropriate governmental institution within the State-Party to the Convention and Protocol.
International Provisions concerning Refugees
Excerpts from documents:
I. THE UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS
(adopted and proclaimed by General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948)
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.
II. INTERNATIONAL COVENANT ON CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS
(Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 2200A (XXI) of 16 December 1966, entry into force 23 March 1976, in accordance with Article 49)
1. Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to
liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.
2. Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.
3. The above-mentioned rights shall not be subject to any restrictions except those which are
provided by law, are necessary to protect national security, public order (ordre public), public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others, and are consistent with the other rights recognised in the present Covenant.
4. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.
An alien lawfully in the territory of a State Party to the present Covenant may be
expelled therefrom only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with law and
shall, except where compelling reasons of national security otherwise require, be allowed
to submit the reasons against his expulsion and to have his case reviewed by , and be
represented for the purpose before, the competent authority or a person or persons
especially designated by the competent authority
Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, signed in Geneva, July 28, 1951
Definition of the term "refugee"
A. For the purposes of the present Convention, the term "refugee shall apply to any person who:
(2) ... 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 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.
Group I - Case #1
This is a case of a refugee from Sri Lanka, nationality - Tamil.
He came to your country with his wife and daughter. He and his wife have applied for refugee status in your country for the following reasons:
In 1994-95 he was arrested twice by the Sri Lankan police, detained, and suspected of co-operation with and membership of the organization known as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), an organization which uses violence and which is fighting for the release of the Tamil Ilam and the creation of the independent state of Tamil.
During the interrogations the police beat him and tried to force him to confess that he is a member of the organization. He was released both times after his family bought him out of jail. (His family bribed the Sri Lankan police to release him).
He claims that he has never been, nor has he ever wanted to be, a member of the Tamil Tigers. The Tamil Tigers, however, did attempt to coerce him to join and work with them. They wanted to take advantage of his qualifications - as an electronic engineer he was offered a position developing explosives. Representatives of this organization came several times to his home demanding money and that he join their organization.
He was in a difficult position. On the one hand, he was being harassed and forced to join an organization which he didn't approve of and didn't want to be a member of; on the other hand the police suspected him of membership of the organization, which indirectly led to his arrest and detention. (It should be added that the activities of the Sri Lankan police, such as arrest and detention, beatings and torture for the purpose of forcing confessions from Tamils have been documented in Amnesty International's 1996 report.)
Since he was not able to seek protection from the Sri Lankan government (the authorities are known to have a firm policy of fighting the Tamil Tigers and of controlling the Tamil population by restricting their freedom of movement within Sri Lanka, meaning that Tamils are not allowed to settle anywhere other than the Jaffna Peninsula), he decided to leave his country.
He has applied for refugee status due to the persecution he has faced by both the
Sri Lankan authorities and the Tamil Tigers.
Group II - Case #2
He is a citizen of Sudan. He has applied for refugee status owing to religious persecution that he experienced in Sudan.
He is a Christian. He received permission from a special commission to study at the Islamic University in Khartoum. This was possible due to the government's policy of persuading Christians to convert to Islam. (Many Christian students were transferred from other universities to the Islamic Arab University)
In 1992, he and his wife were arrested by the Sudanese secret service. They were accused of membership in the SPLA (the Sudan People's Liberation Army) and of passing on information to that organization (which he admits to having done). The prison in which they were detained was full of people. They knew that the prisoners there were being tortured and murdered. They managed to escape thanks to the help of a Christian soldier (not all of the soldiers are Muslim).
After their escape, they stayed for some time outside of the city. At this time they were trying to come up with the money to leave the country. They were helped by relatives and members of Christian organizations (such as the Sudan Council of Churches). They also worked for some time in a private school run by the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul of which they are members.
The attempts to leave met with success. They were granted a Sudanese exit visa after
bribing an immigration officer who also helped them get past the check points at the
airport. Thanks to the help of various Christian organizations they stayed in Syria and
Thailand. They then went to your country where they are now hoping to be granted refugee
Group III - Case #3
This man is a citizen of Algeria.
Algeria has been experiencing a bloody civil war for several years now. Victims of this war are often civilians, i.e. passengers of public transportation. There is also a systematic campaign of hunting down and killing people who are considered to be enemies of Islam or people who are thought to be co-operating with the government.
He was an employee in the State Waterworks which is an institution of key importance because it is financed by the World Bank. This means that it is considered to be a place with strong ties to the West, hence religious fundamentalists have accused persons employed there of betraying the nation and religion. The fact that he worked in this institution meant that he was in danger of attack by the fundamentalists. Activities in which he took part resulted in his being given the death penalty. The ruling was informal (without a court), however, it is well known that the state cannot protect its citizens from such a conviction. Despite the fact that he had a well-paying job, he decided not to return to Algeria from a business trip to Europe.
He has applied for refugee status in your country.
Group IV - Case #4
This man was born in Bangladesh.
He lived with his family in a farming community. His family was poor, however, they managed to support themselves by cultivating rice and rare spices. When his parents died, he was responsible for supporting his siblings. But when yet another flood destroyed all the crops, the entire area was struck with famine. Three of his siblings have already died of hunger. He sold his house and paid a smuggler to get him out. That's how he got to your country.
He is applying for refugee status arguing that, not only does he have
no home or family to return to, but that he would starve to death.
Back to Table of Contents
Electronic Resource Centre for Human
Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights - How to Protect Human Rights