The Principle of Non-refoulement in the Context of Migration


Imagine your country, the place you’ve lived your entire life, has been so effected by climate-driven disasters, such as extreme floods resulting in dangerous landslides, that not only is infrastructure ruined but it has become impossible to yield crops. Your livelihood has been destroyed and you have no way to provide food for your family.

Imagine years of civil war in your country has brought despair, poverty, and famine. Bombings and artillery strikes have made your neighborhood unrecognizable. During the most recent government blockade your family had to survive off plants found in the streets – several of your family members have already died.[1]

Your only chance to live is to leave, so you flee. You leave everything behind, seeking refuge somewhere safe. Perhaps your journey consists of an insufferable desert crossing or a perilous journey across the sea. You find yourself working in a sweatshop to save enough money to pay traffickers to smuggle you across borders. When you finally reach your destination, you kiss the ground and dance with joy having reached somewhere safe – only to find out that your new home is planning to expel you. Reality hits; you are a stranger in a strange land, and you are unwanted. You now face the possibility of being sent back to your home country – even if it is unsafe.

This concept of the expulsion of an individual, whom under international law has the right to be recognized as a refugee, is called refoulement. In order to protect such individuals from expulsion to places in which their fundamental rights are in danger, United Nation Member States developed the principle of non-refoulement. This law protects an individual from being returned (or expelled, transferred, extradited), against their will, from one country to another when there is evidence that their lives or freedom will be threatened or subject to persecution.

As the current population of people on the move continues to grow, there has been an increase of mixed-migration between refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, and internally displaced persons. Due to mixed-migration, it has become increasingly hard to determine who is who. As the line between migrants and refugees blurs, certain populations have fallen between the cracks and face the reality of being unprotected, despite international law. During the Global Compact negotiations, the principle of non-refoulement has been a hot topic. While many Member States support non-refoulement, others do not - some have even argued that the principle does not belong in the Global Compact. Therefore, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is advocating for the protection of all migrants, regardless of their status, from refoulement, and arbitrary or collective expulsions. To ensure such protection, the Archdiocese is asking for an explicit reference to the principle of non-refoulement within the Global Compact.

As we absorb the complexities of the concepts discussed above, I leave you with encouragement from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Francis, and Archbishop Ieronymos from their Joint Declaration at the Mòria Refugee Camp in Lesvos, Greece: “[we] demonstrate our profound concern for the tragic situation of the numerous refugees, migrants and asylum seekers who have come to Europe fleeing from situations of conflict and, in many cases, daily threats to their survival…. a broader international consensus and an assistance programme are urgently needed to uphold the rule of law [and] to defend fundamental human rights in this unsustainable situation...”. Recalling “the Lord’s words, on which we will one day be judged”, how will we respond to the stranger who knocks on our door (Mathew 25:35-43).


Elaina Karayannis is a Fellow at the U.N. for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the U.N. (ECOSOC). It has been actively working at the United Nations for 30 years.


[1] The situations mentioned above are only two of the many reasons a person choses to leave their home, to read more testimonies from refugees and migrants visit: