SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

The 1969 OAU Refugee Convention – A Vital Pillar for Human Dignity in Africa

As the world faces unprecedented levels of conflict, displacement, and migration, the need to ensure the rights and dignity of asylum seekers and refugees is more urgent than ever. While international discussion of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees intensifies, it is essential to shed light on another legal instrument that plays a critical role in protecting those forced to flee their homes – the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention.

In response to new challenges and regional dynamics, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), now succeeded by the African Union, recognized the need for a framework tailored to the context of the African continent. The result was the OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted on September 10, 1969, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Similar to its 1951 counterpart, the OAU Convention defines who a refugee is within the African context, acknowledging the unique challenges faced by displaced populations on the continent. It offers a comprehensive understanding that goes beyond the traditional "fear of persecution" to encompass situations arising from external aggression, occupation, and events seriously disturbing public order. The OAU Refugee Convention also delineates the rights and obligations of both refugees and host states. It emphasizes the principle of non-refoulement, ensuring that no refugee is expelled or returned to a territory where their life or freedom would be in jeopardy.

In the face of increasing displacement and migration in Africa and beyond, the OAU Refugee Convention serves as a beacon of hope, providing a comprehensive approach to the challenges faced by the continent. Now, more than ever, it is crucial to ensure its consistent and robust application. However, African states have increasingly viewed refugees as a security concern, responding by closing their borders, deporting those who have made it into their territories, or restricting them to camps. Even in those countries where refugees are admitted, their treatment does not meet the Convention’s standards and obligations. While there have been challenges to the Convention’s implementation at national level, it can be enforced through the principles of African solidarity and international cooperation, promoting regional approaches, and voluntary repatriation and non-refoulement. 

Just as the 1951 Convention remains a cornerstone of international refugee protection, the OAU Refugee Convention is essential to ensuring the rights and dignity of those displaced within Africa. Rather than viewing these conventions in isolation, they complement each other, creating a robust legal framework that transcends borders and fosters international cooperation. The OAU Convention stands as a testament to the adaptability of international refugee law, evolving to address the unique complexities faced by African nations and their displaced populations. The principles of responsibility-sharing and international cooperation embedded in both conventions remain indispensable in addressing the global refugee crisis. 


African Human Mobility Review (AHMR). (2016) Responsibility Sharing: Towards a Unified Refugee Protection Framework in Africa. Available online:

African Union (AU). (1969) OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Available online:

Institute for Security Studies (ISS). (2019) The 1969 OAU Refugee Convention at 50. Available online:

Photo by Hu Chen on Unsplash


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