In a translation of a document allegedly leaked from the Israeli government the following claim appears:

Israel should act to evacuate the civilian population [of Gaza] to Sinai. [...] and the return of the population to activities/residences near the border with Israel should not be allowed. [...]

Egypt has an obligation under international law to allow the passage of the population.

So that IMHO raises an interesting question. On one hand, there is some prohibition of forced population transfers, e.g. art 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention.

Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive....

But when a country hypothetically does just that (i.e. forcible transfer) are other countries required under international humanitarian law to admit the refugees nonetheless, knowing they'll become rather permanently displaced, and thus possibly to become complicit (in their view) to a forced population transfer? IIRC Egypt has said as much: "Egypt rejects “the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land.”"

So, is the requirement to accept refugees unconditional in international law?

  • How does this really differ from your Question at politics.stackexchange.com/questions/82266/… ? Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 19:25
  • @RobbieGoodwin: it differs because here I'm asking whether accepting them constitutes participation in an actus reus and if avoiding that is an accepted exception. Turns out there were other, simpler way to wiggle out, like just saying they're war refugees. I didn't even envisage that when asking this, and none of the answers below envisaged it either. Proof how little the 1951 convention is understood. Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 19:30
  • I suggest few readers will follow that kind of difference. Either way, how 'just saying they're war refugees' kill their hopes? Even if you don't yet see them that way, could you not combine the two Questions? Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 19:36

3 Answers 3


The obligation under international law that Israel seems to be referring to is that of non-refoulement. In other words, a receiving country cannot force displaced persons to leave. The Wikipedia article behind that link touches on some complex debates about how absolute or qualified this principle is, but they don't seem relevant to the question. Clearly if Israel were to illegally force Gazans into Egypt, it would also be illegal for Egypt to try to force those Gazans back where they came from.

It's not clear to me what about the Israel/Egypt situation would be exceptional. Refugees, by definition, are people forced to flee. It is hard for me to imagine any scenario under which honoring this principle would implicate Egypt as facilitating an illegal population transfer.

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    You should probably add that Egypt is one of the few Arab countries to have singed up to the 1967 protocol, without even the reservation that Turkey entered. The protocol/convention include/define non-refoulment. Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 1:28
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    Although refoulement doesn't apply if the population actually wants to return: it would be perfectly legal for Egypt to send the Palestinians back if they were expelled against their will and wished to return.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 1, 2023 at 15:37
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    There seem to be a lot of caveats to this: (1) non-refoulment isn't universally accepted to apply to non-admission (although it generally is in Europe) and (2) war refugees aren't refugees under the 1951/1967 convention&protocol. There are later treaties that cover those, but Egypt hasn't signed up to those. politics.stackexchange.com/a/82268/18373 Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 7:33

The 1951 Refugee Convention regulates the rights and obligations of states and refugees. Article 1.2 of the Convention defines a "refugee" as follows:

As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

While the Convention limits its applicability to "result[s] of events occurring before 1 January 1951", that condition was dropped in the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees. Thus, Gazans deported to Egypt would be considered refugees:

being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

So the answer to your question is yes, provided that the Gazan refugee has already made their way to Egypt.[1] There is no obligation to "accept them" if they are still in Gaza, Israel, or any other place on earth.

The rest of the Convention enumerates what rights refugees in host countries have. These include the right to religion:

The Contracting States shall accord to refugees within their territories treatment at least as favourable as that accorded to their nationals with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom as regards the religious education of their children

The right to gainful employment:

The Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wageearning employment.

The right to rationing (if applicable):

Where a rationing system exists, which applies to the population at large and regulates the general distribution of products in short supply, refugees shall be accorded the same treatment as nationals.

The right to elementary education:

The Contracting States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect to elementary education.

Note that the Convention does not require states to treat refugees as citizens or even to allow them to become citizens (naturalize). For example, article 26 reads:

Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances.

Thus, a citizen's freedom of movement might be unfettered while a refugee's might be circumscribed.

[1] - This is by the way why Western countries impose stiff fines on airlines carrying refugees and why people smuggling is a thing. You (generally) can't apply for asylum in given country unless you can actually touch that country's soil.

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    It also turns out that a war refugee isn't a refugee under the 1951/67 convention/protocol, even if they reach foreign soil. (A careful reading of the 1st quote you gave would reveal that too.) There are some regional conventions under which war refugees are counted as refugees though, or given protection under some other name. More details in the 2nd part of my answer here. Egypt however isn't part to the latter treaties. Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 7:52

No, unless countries have specifically signed up to accept refugees, or willingly allow refugees into their country, no country has an obligation to accept refugees.

Egypt has publicly refused to accept any mass Palestinian refugees, for decades. And in the recent conflict offered alternative solutions, and even suggested that if other countries care about the issue so much, they should take them:

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has himself dismissed out of hand the possibility of taking in Palestinian refugees. The Egyptian leader said, "Why can't Israel transfer the refugees to the Negev desert until the armed groups in Gaza like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are dealt with."

... According to a report in the British newspaper "Financial Times" this week, an Egyptian official told a European official who proposed the idea: "You want us to take a million people? Then we are going to send them to Europe. If you care so much about human rights, well you take them."

Apart from the usual economic and security concerns of giving refuge to foreigners, Egypt strongly believes that this won't be a temporary thing. Once refugees enter their country - legally or illegally - international law obliges them to address their humanitarian needs and prevents them from forcing them back into the country they fled from.

The core principle of the Refugee Convention is non-refoulement, which asserts that refugees should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to life or freedom. India is not a signatory to the convention ... However, the principle of non-refoulement, now considered a rule of customary international law, is binding on all states whether they have signed the convention or not.

India is a good case study to consider the complexities of accepting refugees under a benevolent government and a right-wing anti-immigrant one.

During the genocide of Bengalis in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1970s, 10's of millions of refugees poured into India. And India willingly gave them refuge. But as persecuted Bengali refugees kept pouring in they strained India's economy and created internal political tensions. India pleaded with the international community to provide support for the refugees and relieve India's burden. But they only offered meagre support, and did nothing to stem the flow of refugees. India then decided to militarily train the Bengali resistance network and assisted them to overthrow the Pakistani regime, stop the genocide and encourage the refugees to go back home. This resulted in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country.

Fast forward to the present now, and India under the right-wing Modi government has refused to accept and treat Rohingya refugees (fleeing the genocide of their community in Myanmar) as refugees. Despite international pressure to accept more Rohingya refugees, the current Indian government has refused to do so. Instead, the Modi government even prefers to treat new refugees as "illegal immigrants" and holds them in detention centres. Due to this it even refuses them exit visas to other countries willing to take them as refugees, and instead tries to force them back to Myanmar itself.

India is not allowing exit permissions for Rohingya refugees who have completed refugee status determinations with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and “gained approval from third countries for resettlement,” says a new report titled ‘A Shadow of Refuge: Rohingya Refugees in India’ ... On the one hand they are disallowed from leaving when they get a chance to resettle in another country, on the other, the Rohingya in India are vilified as “illegal migrants”, face growing “anti-Muslim and anti-refugee xenophobia”, and live under constant fear of being deported back to Myanmar, “to the genocidal regime from which they fled”.

Among the biggest challenges faced by Rohingya refugees in India, who number at least 20,000, is arbitrary detention. Once picked up, they are held in “holding centers” where conditions are “deplorable”, the study says. “Separating Rohingya children from their parents during detention remains another grave challenge,” says the report, which also includes a case study of such separation.

Members of Modi's party, the BJP, also publicly brag about attacking the refugees:

After a fire razed down a Rohingya camp in India’s national capital New Delhi in 2018, a BJP youth leader admitted to setting the shanties on fire on Twitter, saying, “Well done by our heroes… Yes, we burnt the houses of Rohingya terrorists.”

I cite the indian examples to highlight a major issue in accepting refugees - a country that accepts refugees has to also be prepared to accept that some of them will not go back.

Even after the creation of the Bangladesh nation-state, many Bengali refugees preferred to stay back in India and not go back (we are talking millions, by some estimate!). Benevolent politicians are accepting of such situation. But right-wing anti-immigrant ones obviously don't like this, and hence we see the current Modi government deliberately trying to create a hostile environment for the Rohingya refugees in India.

Israel has been trying to force Egypt to allow the Palestinians to "migrate" to Egypt for decades now. And Egypt has refused because it knows that Israel wants to occupy Palestinian territories and repopulate it with their own citizens. And so Egypt knows this is not going to be a temporary arrangement. It will have to deal with millions of refugees nowhere to go, and Egypt will be forever stuck with them. Under such circumstances, diplomatic pressure and emotional blackmail from Israel and the west is likely to fail, as no other sympathetic country will support them because of the precedent it sets - imagine if tomorrow the west asks your country to accept thousands or millions of refugees!?

Note also that Egypt has another important point in its favour - According to the UN, occupation of a territory, the forceful displacement of people from a territory, and repopulating it with another group of people is a genocidal act (note that Israel does not accept this definition).

Hence Egypt will be technically culpable in the genocide of Palestinians, along with Israel, if it accepts all the refugees from Gaza while Israel is chasing them away from their homes. Egypt's permanent acceptance of the Palestinians driven away by Israeli forces would imply a tacit approval to the Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip and its repopulation with Israelis. Without Egypt's cooperation, Israel cannot do this. Egypt's actions in not accepting the refugees is currently preventing a genocide (forceful killing and displacement of people).

Instead of trying to figure which country can be forced into accepting Palestinian refugees, the real, practical question is what can we politically do to prevent Israel (and the US) from turning Palestinians into refugees? War is not the only solution. (Especially when a disgraced authoritarian politician is Israel's Prime Minister, who may be just using this war to distract the Israeli public from his failures and to cling on to power).


  1. Egypt proposes Europe takes in Gaza refugees

  2. Explainer: India cannot deport Rohingya refugees without violating international law.

  3. Rohingya refugees in arbitrary detention, denied exit permissions by India: Report.

  4. India Begins Deporting Rohingya Refugees.

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