States have been granting protection to individuals and groups fleeing persecution for centuries; however, the modern refugee regime is largely the product of the second half of the twentieth century. Like international human rights law, modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II as well as the refugee crises of the interwar years that preceded it. Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries. Subsequent regional human rights instruments have elaborated on this right, guaranteeing the “right to seek and be granted asylum in a foreign territory, in accordance with the legislation of the state and international conventions.” American Convention on Human Rights, art. 22(7); African [Banjul] Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, art. 12(3).
The controlling international convention on refugee law is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention) and its 1967 Optional Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Optional Protocol). The 1951 Convention establishes the definition of a refugee as well as the principle of non-refoulement and the rights afforded to those granted refugee status. Although the 1951 Convention definition remains the dominant definition, regional human rights treaties have since modified the definition of a refugee in response to displacement crises not covered by the 1951 Convention.
The 1951 Convention does not define how States parties are to determine whether an individual meets the definition of a refugee. Instead, the establishment of asylum proceedings and refugee status determinations are left to each State party to develop. This has resulted in disparities among different States as governments craft asylum laws based on their different resources, national security concerns, and histories with forced migration movements. Despite differences at the national and regional levels, the overarching goal of the modern refugee regime is to provide protection to individuals forced to flee their homes because their countries are unwilling or unable to protect them.