Cartagena Declaration on Refugees

The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees is a non-binding regional, i.e. Latin-American, instrument for the protection of refugees and was adopted in 1984 by the Colloquium on the International Protection of Refugees in Central America, Mexico and Panama, held at Cartagena, Colombia. The Declaration was signed by 10 Latin-American countries: Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela and has since been incorporated into the national laws and state practices of 14 countries.

It bases its principles on the commitments with regard to refugees defined in the Contadora Act on Peace and Cooperation, which are based on the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. It was formulated in September 1984 and includes a range of detailed commitments to peace, democratization, regional security and economic cooperation. It also provided for regional committees to evaluate and verify compliance with these commitments.


(a)  To carry out, if they have not yet done so, the constitutional procedures for accession to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.

(b)  To adopt the terminology established in the Convention and Protocol referred to in the foregoing paragraph with a view to distinguishing refugees from other categories of migrants.

(c) To establish the internal machinery necessary for the implementation, upon accession, of the provisions of the Convention and Protocol referred to above.

(d) To ensure the establishment of machinery for consultation between the Central American countries and representatives of the Government offices responsible for dealing with the problem of refugees in each State.

(e) To support the work performed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Central America and to establish direct coordination machinery to facilitate the fulfilment of his mandate.

(f)  To ensure that any repatriation of refugees is voluntary, and is declared to be so on an individual basis, and is carried out with the cooperation of UNHCR.

(g) To ensure the establishment of tripartite commissions, composed of representatives of the State of origin, of the receiving State and of UNHCR with a view to facilitating the repatriation of refugees.

(h) To reinforce programmes for the protection of and assistance to refugees, particularly in the areas of health, education, labour and safety.

(i)  To ensure that programmes and projects are set up with a view to ensuring the self-sufficiency of refugees.

(j)  To train the officials responsible in each State for the protection of and assistance to refugees, with the cooperation of UNHCR and other international agencies.

(k) To request immediate assistance from the international community for Central American refugees, to be provided either directly, through bilateral or multilateral agreements, or through UNHCR and other organizations and agencies.

(l)  To identify, with the cooperation of UNHCR, other countries which might receive Central American refugees. In no case shall a refugee be transferred to a third country against his will.

(m) To ensure that the Governments of the area make the necessary efforts to eradicate the causes of the refugee problem.

(n) To ensure that, once an agreement has been reached on the bases for voluntary and individual repatriation, with full guarantees for the refugees, the receiving countries permit official delegations of the country of origin, accompanied by representatives of UNHCR and the receiving country, to visit the refugee camps.

(o) To ensure that the receiving countries facilitate, in coordination with UNHCR, the departure procedure for refugees in instances of voluntary and individual repatriation.

(p) To institute appropriate measures in the receiving countries to prevent the participation of refugees in activities directed against the country of origin, while at all times respecting the human rights of the refugees.

In the Cartagena Declaration the above principles are adopted and at the same time amended.

The Declaration enlarges the refugee definition to include “…persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalised violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”. While the Cartagena Declaration is not a treaty, hence not formally binding, its provisions are respected across Central America and have become the basis of refugee policy in the region. Some provisions have been incorporated into a number of states’ national legislation, although implementation efforts still have to be improved.

The Cartagena Declaration […] remains the most encompassing definition of a refugee to have emerged from Latin America” (Gibney/Hansen 2005: 71).

The refugee definition of the Cartagena Declaration builds upon the OAU (African Union, formerly: Organization of African Unity) but adds to it the threat of generalized violence; internal aggression; and massive violation of human rights. Unlike the definition in the refugee convention by the African Union, however, a refugee must show a link between herself or himself and the real risk of harm; all applicants must demonstrate that “their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened”. This demand is similar to the UN Refugee Convention, which requires individuals to show that they risk persecution as a particular individual rather than in general.

Mexico is the first country which follows all requirements of the Cartagena Declaration, which means that they ratified the declaration and enacted domestic law accordingly. For more details, read the full Mexican legislation document.


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Last updated November 2022