The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


A place of asylum is where an individual can take refuge to protect him- or herself from danger. The right of asylum is a fundamental human right, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Freedom of movement includes the right of all individuals to flee their country and seek asylum in another State. However, this right is limited by the fact that there is no reciprocal obligation for States to grant asylum.

According to the UNHCR, an estimated 479,300 asylum applications were registered in the forty-four industrialized countries in 2012. These were mostly submitted by citizens of Afghanistan (36,600), the Syrian Arab Republic (24,800), Serbia (24,300), China (24,100), and Pakistan (23,200). The principal countries that received those applications were the United States of America (83,400), Germany (64,500), France (54,900), Sweden (43,900), and the United Kingdom (27,400).

The Rights of Asylum and Flight

Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and the UNHCR Statute attempt to guarantee and protect the right of asylum for all individuals who fear persecution in their country (Arts. 8.a, 8.d of UNHCR Statute; Arts. 1, 31–33 of Refugee Convention).

The right of asylum is defended concretely by the following provisions:

  • States may not expel or return an individual seeking asylum to a territory where his or her life or freedom would be threatened (the principle of non-refoulement), even if he or she entered this State illegally (Arts. 32, 33 of Refugee Convention).
  • States shall not impose penalties on refugees who entered or are present illegally on its territory if they arrive directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened. This provision applies as long as the refugees present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence (Art. 31 of Refugee Convention).
  • Temporary asylum: in the case of a large-scale influx of asylum seekers, the State where the exodus stops (generally a neighboring country) is under the obligation to provide this population with temporary asylum. This assistance is to be given with the collaboration of the entire international community, through the UNHCR, until a durable solution is found (Conclusion 22 of 24 April 1981, UNHCR Executive Committee XXXII session).
  • National authorities must grant refugee status to all individuals who meet the qualifications defined by the Refugee Convention.

The right to flee one’s country does not mean refugees have the right to choose their country of asylum. The terms first country of asylum or safe country illustrate this notion by indicating that, while fleeing his or her own country, the asylum seeker has crossed another territory, whether he or she stayed there or only passed through, in which he or she could have sought the protection foreseen by the Refugee Convention.

Many States refuse to examine individuals’ request for refugee status if such a country of first asylum exists and the asylum seeker can be sent back there. In Europe, this prerogative is expressly recognized by:

  • a 1992 resolution adopted by the Council of Ministers of the European Union concerning a harmonized approach to questions concerning the safe third country—this text establishes the criteria for such a State;
  • the Schengen Convention of 14 June 1985 (regulating the movement of asylum seekers within the States party to the Convention);
  • the Dublin Convention of 15 June 1990 (determining the State responsible for examining asylum applications).

These treaties apportion the responsibilities with regard to asylum seekers among the Member States of the European Union. Other States have domestic laws, acts, and regulations that regulate the procedure for parties granting asylum.

In its Conclusion 58 (XL session, 1989), the UNHCR Executive Committee recommends that an individual be sent back to a “safe third country” only if he or she will be treated in accordance with basic humanitarian norms—in other words, with respect for the civil rights set forth by the Refugee Convention and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

Internally displaced personsPopulation displacementRefoulement (forced return) and expulsionRefugeesRepatriationUNHCR

For Additional Information: De Bruycker Philippe, and Dias Urbano de Sousa Constança, eds. The Emergence of a European Asylum Policy . Brussels: Bruylant, 2004.

Plaut, W. Gunther. Asylum: A Moral Dilemma . Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.

Sinha, S. Prakash. Asylum and International Law . The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1971.

UNHCR. “The Asylum Dilemma.” In The State of the World’s Refugees , 1997–1998: A Humanitarian Agenda , 183–224. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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