By: Catherine Fu

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The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was the first international treaty to define “refugee,” and it set minimum standards for how individuals who qualify for refugee status should be treated.1 According to this Convention, a refugee is someone who has a “well-founded fear of persecution, is outside his or her country of origin, and is unable or unwilling to avail him or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of prosecution.”2 Like other branches of international law, international refugee law encompasses customary law, peremptory norms, and international legal instruments. International Refugee Law, closely tied with International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law, provides a framework for the international community to protect the basic rights of citizens whose home countries no longer do so.3 Several years after the Convention, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the


Status of Refugees broadened the Convention’s scope, and removed its temporal and geographic restrictions.4

However, the existing treaties don’t always recognize the role of modern warfare in contributing to population displacement and limited long-term solutions for the displaced refugees to return to their homeland. The definition of “refugee” in contemporary international law is fluid, and the definition contemplated by the Refugee Convention may not be broad enough to cover the definition under Customary International Law today.5 While the situation is certainly dire in many refugee camps, international organizations such as the IOC continue to work tirelessly to provide relief in any way they can.


The 2016 Olympics opened and closed with the grandeur and extravagance we have come to expect from modern Olympic ceremonies. However, the 2016 Rio Olympics were anything but ordinary. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision this past March to create a Refugee Olympic Athletes team sent a strong message to the world that “despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”610 names and faces came together as an inspirational united front: Yolande Mabika (Democratic Republic of the Congo); Popole Misenga ( Democratic Republic of the Congo); Tegla Loroupe (Kenya – elected by IOC to head the refugee team); Rose Nathike Lokonyen (South Sudan); Yusra Mardini (Syria); Rami Anis (Syria); Paulo Amotun Lokoro (South Sudan); Yiech Pur Biel (South Sudan); Yonas Kinde

(Ethiopia); Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (South Sudan), and James Nyang Chiengjiek (South Sudan).7

These 10 athletes – two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan – all faced the same challenge after the Olympics were over: the inability to go home to celebrate with their loved ones. Some, like Yolande, have accepted that they may never see their family and friends again. In an interview with the UN Refugee Agency, she stated “I still think of Congo, but less and less – it is in the past for me now and I no longer think of my family all the time. I have accepted I won’t see them again.”8


Due to civil wars and generalized violence, or natural disasters or famine, the number of people displaced by violence and persecution today is at the highest level since WWII.9 While treaties protecting refugees have been in effect for decades, there may be a need for states to re-consider their understanding of the definition of refugee under customary international law.10

Although war wages on in their respective countries, Team Refugee brought international attention to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated, “their participation in the Olympics is a tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees in overcoming adversity and building a better future for themselves.”11 Maybe someday, with the help of the international community, they can each safely return to their home country to pass on their wisdom to the next generation, and to help those who have been


deprived of any meaningful opportunity to play sports by persistent conflict and persecution. In the meantime, Team Refugee continues to act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide.12