The practice of giving asylum, helping people seeking refuge and protecting them from danger, has a long history. It was originally a religious obligation, common to many religions, to help strangers in need. 

Early concepts of asylum were always linked to a holy place or proximity to that place. The sanctity of the temple or church provided a sanctuary from manmade jurisdiction and provided religious protection, or altar, protection.

As the notion of state sovereignty began to grow, the power to grant asylum shifted from religious institutions to nation states. State asylum became an important tool in the relations between states. 

It was only in the early 20th century that asylum began to be recognised as a human right in international legal instruments. This culminated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and marked the acceptance of the ideological shift from asylum as a tool of the state to asylum as an individual right.

Asylum as a human right

The idea of an individual’s right to seek asylum developed alongside the more traditional concept of asylum as something states had the right to grant individuals.

By the early 20th century, this alternative view of asylum was beginning to be reflected in international instruments. The 1933 League of Nations ‘Convention Relating to the International Status of Refugees’ prohibited signatory states from denying entry to refugees of neighbouring states and from expelling refugees within their borders.

The Second World War accelerated these changes. The granting of asylum came to be understood not as a discretionary prerogative power, but as an obligation of states. States now had a responsibility to grant asylum to stateless persons or people persecuted by their own state.

A further revision to this new understanding of asylum was included in Article 14 of the non-binding 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Individuals were not guaranteed a right to receive asylum, but had a right to apply.

Click here for more information about asylum rights under the international legal framework. 

The introduction of the Refugee Convention

In 1951 the United Nations adopted the Refugee Convention. The convention does not include a right to seek asylum in the same way as the UDHR, but instead protects against refoulement – a French term which in this context means to send back, repulse or turn around.

The Refugee Convention reflects the political context of the time and is a territorial solution. Following the Second World War, Europe had a significant refugee problem and there was a need to distribute the responsibility for these refugees. Refoulement was the key used to distribute responsibility for refugees – any refugee in a state’s territory becomes that state’s responsibility.

Originally, the scope of the Refugee Convention was limited to Europe and ‘events occurring before 1 January 1951’ in Europe. These limitations were later removed, by the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1967 Protocol), so the convention applies anywhere in the world and to refugees from all events occurring both before and after 1951.

Click here for more information on the Refugee Convention.

Recent history 

The end of the Cold War brought a global shift in refugee policy, with a turn towards restrictive measures across all traditional asylum countries. This correlates with a significant increase in refugee numbers, most recently as a result of the conflict in Syria. 

The increase in refugees combined with an insufficient increase in resettlement places offered through regular migration channels has resulted in greater numbers of people seeking protection through irregular migration channels. This has fueled the politicisation of the concept of asylum and generated hard-line responses designed to limit access to such irregular movement. 

Click here for more information on the current global asylum context.



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Last updated November 2016.