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Non-refoulement (/rəˈflmɒ̃/) is a fundamental principle of international law that forbids a country receiving asylum seekers from returning them to a country in which they would be in probable danger of persecution based on "race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion" ("refoulement").[1] Unlike political asylum, which applies to those who can prove a well-grounded fear of political persecution,[2] non-refoulement refers to the generic repatriation of people, including refugees into war zones and other disaster locales.

Non-refoulement is generally seen as customary international law,[3] where it applies even to states that are not parties to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol.[4] It is debatable whether non-refoulement is a Peremptory norm (jus cogens) of international law, where non-refoulement must always be applied without any adjustment for any purpose or under any circumstances (derogation).[5][6] The debate over jus cogens nature of non-refoulement was rekindled following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States as well as other terrorist attacks in Europe.[7]


The Convention relating to the International Status of Refugees, of 28 October 1933 was ratified by nine States, including France and (with a caveat) the United Kingdom. It was by virtue of this Convention that the principle of non-refoulement acquired the status of international treaty law.[8]

The principle of non-refoulement is important because of its role in an international collective memory of the failure of nations during World War II to provide a haven to refugees fleeing certain genocide at the hands of Nazi Germany. Following the war, the need for international checks on state sovereignty over refugees became apparent to the international community.[citation needed]

During the war, several states had forcibly returned or denied admission to German and French Jews fleeing the Holocaust. In 1939, the ocean liner MS St. Louis sailed from Germany with over 900 Jewish passengers who were fleeing Nazi persecution. The ship sailed for Cuba, where the passengers expected to find refuge. However, Cuba admitted only twenty-eight passengers and refused to admit the rest. The ship then set sail for Florida in the hopes of finding refuge in the United States. But the U.S. government, and later also Canada, refused to allow the ship to dock and refused to accept any passengers. With conditions on the ship deteriorating and seemingly nowhere else to go, the ship returned to Europe, where approximately thirty percent of those passengers were later murdered in the Holocaust.[9] Switzerland refused entry to nearly 20,000 French Jews who sought asylum there after the Nazi takeover of France. The Swiss argued the "boat is full" with respect to refugees during the War, and they were not obligated under existing law to accept French Jews for resettlement. As a result the Jews were forced to return to France, where most were killed.[10]

After WW2, under Operation Keelhaul, millions of refugees and prisoners from former Russia and the contemporary Soviet Union were forcibly returned despite evidence they would face persecution from the Soviet government.[10] The action nowadays is considered a human rights violation and a war crime for its indiscriminate targeting of civilians, many of whom had never been Soviet citizens, fleeing Russia near the end of WW2.[11]

Non-refoulement presents an inherent conflict with state sovereignty, as it infringes on a state's right to exercise control over its own borders and those who reside within them. In legal proceedings immediately following World War II, non-refoulement was viewed as a distinct right, which could be abridged under certain circumstances, such as those spelled out in Article 33, Section 2 of the 1951 Convention.[10]

In the 1960s, the European Commission on Human Rights recognized non-refoulement as a subsidiary of prohibitions on torture. As the ban on torture is jus cogens, this linkage rendered the prohibition on refoulement absolute[7] and challenged the legality of refoulement for the purposes of state security. Through court cases (see Soering v. United Kingdom and Chahal v. United Kingdom) and interpretations of various international treaties in the 1980s, the European Commission on Human Rights shifted preference away from preserving state sovereignty and towards protecting persons who might be refouled.[10] This interpretation permitted no abridgments of non-refoulement protections, even if the state was concerned a refugee may be a terrorist or pose other immediate threats to the state.[7]


Following terror attacks in the United States and Europe, states have renewed calls for permitting refoulement in the interest of national security, as repatriation is the most effective method of dispatching refugees thought to present a credible threat.[10] While recent treaties typically include specific obligations that prevent refoulement under essentially any circumstances,[10] the interest of national security has led individual states and the European Union to seek ways around non-refoulement protections that balance security and human rights.[7]

Today, the principle of non-refoulement from countries that are signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or the 1984 Convention Against Torture depends on the interpretation of the Article 33 of the 1951 Convention.[12][13]

One of the grey areas of law that is most hotly debated within signatory circles is the interpretation of Article 33 of the 1951 Convention. Interdiction of potential refugee transporting vessels on the high seas has been a common practice by the US government in particular, raising the question of whether Article 33 requires a refugee to be within a country or simply within the power of a country to trigger the right against refoulement.[14]

A prohibition of rejection at the border would imply a right of entry for any asylum seeker, which explains the reluctance for some states to endorse non-rejection at the border.[3]

Relevant laws[edit]

  • Article 3 of the 1933 Convention relating to the International Status of Refugees contained the first mention of non-refoulement in international law,[15][16] and prevented party states from expelling legally-residing refugees or turning away refugees at the borders of their home countries.[16] This treaty was ratified by only a few states and gained little traction in international law.[15]
  • The principle of "non-refoulement" was officially enshrined in Article 33 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 33 contains the following two paragraphs that define the prohibition of the expulsion or return of a refugee:
    1. "No Contracting State shall expel or return ('refouler') a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."
    2. "The benefit of the present provision may not, however, be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country."[17]
  • The 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removed geographic and temporal limitations of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.[17]
  • The 1984 Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment held that non-refoulement emanated from larger protections from torture and inhumane treatment.

    1. No State Party shall expel, return ("refouler") or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.

    2. For the purpose of determining whether there are such grounds, the competent authorities shall take into account all relevant considerations including, where applicable, the existence in the State concerned of a consistent pattern of gross, flagrant or mass violations of human rights.

    The protection from torture and inhumane treatment is generally considered an absolute right (Peremptory norm)[18] and with this convention non-refoulement to countries with risk of torture and inhumane treatment is considered an absolute right as well.[10]


No one seeking asylum in accordance with these Principles should, except for overriding reasons of national security or safeguarding the populations, be subjected to measures such as rejection at the frontier, return or expulsion which would result in compelling him to return to or remain in a territory if there is a well-founded fear of persecution endangering his life, physical integrity or liberty in that territory.[19]

  • Per Article 3(2) of the 1957 European Convention on Extradition and Article 4(5) of the 1981 Inter-American Convention on Extradition, the principle of non-refoulement also applies to extradition cases in which the person believes they will be tried or biased based specifically on one of the protected factors.[19]
  • European Union Council Resolution of 20 June 1995 on minimum guarantees for asylum procedures :

Any asylum-seeker must be able to lodge an [asylum] application at the frontier. The application may then be examined to establish, prior to the decision on admission, whether it is manifestly unfounded. However, where there is a host third country, there may be exceptions to the principle of "non-refoulement".[21]


Though the principle of non-refoulement is a non-negotiable aspect of international law, states have interpreted Article 33 of the 1951 Convention in various ways, and they have constructed their legal responses to asylum seeker in corresponding manners.[12] The four most common interpretations are:

This interpretation holds that non-refoulement laws only apply to asylum seekers who have physically entered a state's borders. States using this interpretation often enact policies and procedures designed to block asylum seekers from reaching their borders.[12]
Strict, with a narrow reading
This interpretation holds that only certain refugees are legally entitled to non-refoulement protection. If the country receiving an asylum seeker does not find that their "life or freedom would be threatened" by refoulement, this interpretation holds that they can be legitimately returned to their country of origin.[12]
This approach involves international systems designed to process the asylum claim in the country in which a person initially seeks asylum and redistribute them among other countries. This approach relies on the logic that Article 33 does not include language requiring states receiving asylum seekers to permit them to remain permanently, only an obligation not to send them back to a region in which they face likely danger. Refugee relocation agreements between countries must ensure they are not sent back by the new host country. The new host country does not have to be party to the 1951 Convention, however.[12]
Collectivist, with laws preventing asylum seekers from reaching sovereign borders
This approach is not an interpretation of Article 33, but a way around it. It combines the strict and collectivist approaches. States using this approach establish non-sovereign areas within their borders, primarily at travel hubs. Asylum seekers presenting themselves at such areas are then sent to another country to have their asylum claims processed. As with traditional collectivism, the asylum seeker cannot be sent to a country in which they face likely danger.[12]

Examples of violations[edit]

Thailand's forcible repatriation of 45,000 Cambodian refugees at Prasat Preah Vihear, on 12 June 1979, is considered to be a classic example of refoulement.[13] The refugees were forced at gunpoint across the border and down a steep slope into a minefield. Those who refused were shot by Thai soldiers. Approximately 3,000 refugees (about 7 percent) died.[22]

Tanzania's actions during the Rwandan genocide in 1994 have been alleged to have violated the non-refoulement principle. During the height of the crisis, when the refugee flows rose to the level of a "mass exodus", the Tanzanian government closed its borders to a group of more than 50,000 Rwandan refugees fleeing genocidal violence. In 1996, before Rwanda had reached an appropriate level of stability, around 500,000 refugees were returned to Rwanda from Zaire.[23]

The Australian government has been accused by the UNHCR, as well as more than 50 Australian legal scholars, of violating the principle of non-refoulement by returning 41 Tamil and Singhalese refugees to the Sri Lankan Navy in June or July 2014, as part of Operation Sovereign Borders.[24]

In 2014, the Australian Parliament passed the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Act 2014 (Cth). That Act provides that "for the purposes of removal from Australia of an unlawful non-citizen, Australia's non-refoulement obligations are irrelevant".[25]

In 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom was forced back to Saudi Arabia with the cooperation of the government of the Philippines.[26][27][28]

In 2018 Matteo Salvini (Italy's former interior minister) allegedly breached its obligation of non-refoulement by refusing to rescue 93 migrants fleeing Libya and consequently organising a "privatised push-back", that is sending back migrants using merchant ships as proxy; which in this case resulted in the migrants being returned to the port of Misurata in Libya, where they were beaten, tortured and in some cases killed.[29]

In 2019, South Korea deported two North Korean defectors back to North Korea, on claims that they had committed murder. The move was condemned by human rights activists as the two would likely face execution upon their return.[30] China routinely deports North Korean refugees who remain on its soil under a 1986 agreement with the North Korean government.[31]

In 2021, Malaysia deported 1,086 Myanmar nationals, despite a court order temporarily halting the repatriation amid concerns the group could be at risk if they were returned to military-ruled Myanmar.[32]

In 2021, the Supreme Court of India in Mohammad Salimullah v. Union of India, allowed the deportation of Rohingya Muslim refugees back to Myanmar.[33]

In 2022, the UK government proposed the Rwanda asylum plan, which aims to deport migrants who enter the UK illegally to a “safe” third country, Rwanda. The policy has faced legal challenges[34] and European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled in June 2022 in N.S.K. v. the United Kingdom (28774/22) that the UK government’s plan violates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) because once in Rwanda, migrants “would not have access to fair and efficient procedures for the determination of refugee status,” thus violating their rights.[35] Additionally, the court found that "persons relocated to Rwanda may be at risk of detention and treatment not following international standards should they express dissatisfaction or protest at their conditions after arrival.”[35] Once in Rwanda, migrants might not be able to seek legal recourse as Rwanda operates outside the jurisdiction of the ECtHR, and there is an "absence of any legally enforceable mechanism for the applicant’s return to the United Kingdom in the event of a successful merits challenge before the domestic courts."[35] In November 2023, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the policy is illegal under UK domestic law and international obligations because the policy continues to violate non-refoulement.[36][37]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Trevisanut, Dr. Seline (September 1, 2014). "International Law and Practice: The Principle of Non-Refoulement And the De-Territorialization of Border Control at Sea". Leiden Journal of International Law. 27 (3): 661. doi:10.1017/S0922156514000259. S2CID 145445428.
  2. ^ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 14
  3. ^ a b Coleman, Nils. "Non-Refoulement Revised-Renewed Review of the Status of the Principle of Non-Refoulement as Customary International Law." Eur. J. Migration & L. 5 (2003): 23.
  4. ^ Vang, Jerry (Summer 2014). "Limitations of the Customary International Principle of Non-refoulement on Non-party States: Thailand Repatriates the Remaining Hmong-Lao Regardless of International Norms". Wisconsin International Law Journal. 32 (2): 355–383.
  5. ^ Jean Allain, 2001, "The jus cogens Nature of non‐refoulement", International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 13, Issue 4, pp. 533-558.
  6. ^ [Costello, Cathryn, and Michelle Foster. "Non-refoulement as custom and jus cogens? Putting the prohibition to the test." Netherlands Yearbook of International Law 2015: Jus Cogens: Quo Vadis? (2016): 273-327.]
  7. ^ a b c d Bruin, Rene; Wouters, Kees (2003). "Terrorism and the Non-derogability of Non-refoulement". International Journal of Refugee Law. 15 (1): 5–29. doi:10.1093/ijrl/15.1.5 – via HeinOnline.
  8. ^ Jaeger, Gilbert (September 2001). "On the history of the international protection of refugees" (PDF). International Review of the Red Cross. 83 (843): 727-737. doi:10.1017/S1560775500119285. S2CID 145129127.
  9. ^ Lynch, Timothy E., Refugees, Refoulement, and Freedom of Movement: Asylum Seekers' Right to Admission and Territorial Asylum, Georgetown Immigration Law Review, Vol. 36, No. 1, 2021, p. 74-75.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Padmanabhan, Vijay M. (October 1, 2011). "To Transfer or not to Transfer: Identifying and Protecting Relevant Human Rights Interests in Non-Refoulement". Fordham Law Review. 80 (1): 73–123.
  11. ^ Julius, Epstein (1973). Operation Keelhaul; The Story of Forced Repatriation from 1944 to the Present. Devin-Adair Pub. pp. 82–90. ISBN 9780815964070.
  12. ^ a b c d e f D'Angelo, Ellen F. (January 2009). "Non-Refoulement: The Search for a Consistent Interpretation of Article 33" (PDF). Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. 42 (1): 279. Archived from the original (PDF) on 22 February 2017. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  13. ^ a b Zieck, Marjoleine (1997). UNHCR and Voluntary Repatriation of Refugees: A Legal Analysis. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1997; p. 147. ISBN 9041104097
  14. ^ Jastram, Kate; Achiron, Marilyn (2001). Refugee Protection: A Guide to International Refugee Law. Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2001. ISBN 92-9142-101-4 (IPU). Retrieved from
  15. ^ a b Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. (2014). "The International Law of Refugee Protection". The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. Oxford University Press. p. 39.
  16. ^ a b Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Egypt, France, Italy, Norway, Czechoslovakia (28 October 1933). Convention of 28 October, 1933 relating to the International Status of Refugees (Report). League of Nations - Treaty Series 1935-1936. 3663. English translation of official French text. Web page incorrectly shows date as 18 October.
  17. ^ a b United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees". UNHCR. Retrieved 2017-03-27.
  18. ^ M. Cherif Bassiouni. (Autumn 1996) "International Crimes: 'Jus Cogens' and 'Obligatio Erga Omnes'". Law and Contemporary Problems. Vol. 59, No. 4, p. 68.
  19. ^ a b c d Cambridge University Press, The Scope and Content of the Principle of Non-Refoulement: Opinion, June 2003, available at: [accessed 19 February 2017]
  20. ^ Rodolfo Marques, Non-refoulement under the Inter-American Human Rights System, London: RLI Working Paper Series, 6 March 2017, pp. 58-69
  21. ^ Council Resolution of 20 June 1995 on minimum guarantees for asylum procedures [Official Journal C 274, 19.09.1996
  22. ^ Thompson, Larry Clinton (2010). Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010, p. 175. Retrieved from
  23. ^ Barber, Ben (1997). "Feeding Refugees, or War?" Foreign Affairs, July/August 1997. Retrieved from
  24. ^ March, Stephanie (2014-07-07). "Sri Lankan asylum seekers facing criminal investigation after being handed back by Australian authorities". ABC News.
  25. ^ Committee against Torture, Sixth periodic report submitted by Australia under article 19 of the Convention pursuant to the optional reporting procedure, due in 2018, UN Doc CAT/C/AUS/6 (28 March 2019).
  26. ^ "Forcibly repatriated Saudi woman: 'My family will kill me'". Deutsche Welle. 16 April 2017. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  27. ^ "Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia returned to Saudi Arabia". Reuters. 12 April 2017. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  28. ^ "A Saudi woman seeking asylum in Australia has been 'kidnapped' and returned home by her family". The Independent. 13 April 2017. Retrieved 13 April 2017.
  29. ^ FORENSIC OCEANOGRAPHY, THE NIVIN CASE - Migrants' resistance to Italy's strategy of privatized push-back (PDF) (Report). Forensic Architecture, Goldsmiths, University of London. December 2019.
  30. ^ "South Korea Deports Two from North to Likely Abuse". 13 November 2019.
  31. ^ Cha, Victor D. (2013). The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. Internet Archive. New York: Ecco. p. 169. ISBN 978-0-06-199850-8.
  32. ^ "Malaysia deports 1,086 Myanmar nationals despite court order". Retrieved 2021-07-24.
  33. ^ Nizamuddin Ahmad Siddiqui; Abu Zar Ali (18 April 2021). "Supreme Court order allowing deportation of Rohingyas shows that India hasn't shed Partition baggage". Retrieved 5 November 2021.
  34. ^ "What is the UK's plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and how many could go?". 2022-06-13. Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  35. ^ a b c "HUDOC - European Court of Human Rights". Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  36. ^ "Supreme Court rules Rwanda asylum policy unlawful". 2023-11-15. Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  37. ^ JUDGMENT R (on the application of AAA (Syria) and others) (Respondents/Cross Appellants) United Kingdom Supreme Court [2023] WLR 4433, [2023] 1 WLR 4433, [2023] UKSC 42


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