According to the original 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, refugee children were legally indistinguishable from adult refugees. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child was not specific to the rights of refugee minors, it was used as the legal blueprint for handling refugee minor cases, where a minor was defined as any person under the age of 18. In 1988, the UNHCR Guidelines on Refugee Children were published, specifically designed to address the needs of refugee children, officially granting them internationally recognized human rights.
In 1989, however, the UN signed an additional treaty, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which defined the rights of children and bound its signatories to upholding those rights by international law. Although the treaty is not specific to the rights of refugee minors in particular, it was used as the legal blueprint for handling refugee minor cases, where a minor was defined as any person under the age of 18. In particular, it extends the protection of refugee children by allowing participating nations the capacity to recognize children who do not fall under the strict guidelines of the Convention definition, but still should not be sent back to their countries of origin. It also extends the principle of non-refoulement to prohibit the return of a child to their country "where there are grounds for believing that there is a real risk of irreparable harm to the child."
There is a variety of definitions as to who is regarded as a refugee, usually defined for the purpose of a particular instrument. The variation of definitions regarding refugees has made it difficult to create a concrete and single vision of what constitutes a refugee following the original refugee convention. Article 1 of the Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol defines a refugee as:
"A person who owing to a 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."
The 1967 Protocol removed the temporal restrictions, which restricted refugee status to those whose circumstances had come about "as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951", and the geographic restrictions which gave States party to the Convention the option of interpreting this as "events occurring in Europe" or "events occurring in Europe or elsewhere". However, it also gave those States which had previously ratified the 1951 Convention and chosen to use the geographically restricted definition the option to retain that restriction.