The Bordering and De-Bordering of Asylum

By Eline Wærp
PhD student, Malmö University

During the course of the summer school we have had lectures about the deadly impacts of the securitized EUropean border regime in the Mediterranean; discussed how border management has become more digitalized and externalized into African countries; the often violent effects of material border infrastructures (such as the fences in Ceuta and Melilla); and how we can create more safe and legal routes for refugees and migrants to reach Europe, especially now with the situation in Afghanistan (with media reports of European policymakers’ fear of a new ‘refugee crisis’, similar to the one in 2015-16).

In the working group on territoriality and the responsibility of states vis-à-vis refugees we discussed the issue of how to ensure access to the asylum procedure as provided by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which requires people to be precisely outside of their own country in order to apply for asylum. We discussed the provision of humanitarian corridors such as resettlement programs through the UNHCR (and their limitations), humanitarian visas (both EU-wide and for individual member states), and the possibility of lodging asylum applications at embassies or consulates.

What all these issues point to, however, is the seeming bordering of asylum or the right to apply for asylum, which is rooted in the sedentary, territoriality of the Refugee Convention and its definition of ‘refugee’ (a ‘territorial trap’ perhaps, akin to Agnew?). Here we should in mind the political context in which the Convention was drafted, envisaged mainly as a tool to resettle already displaced Europeans after World War II, as the geographic and temporal restrictions made very clear (limiting the Convention rights to people displaced in Europe before January 1, 1951). The Refugee Convention was thus not intended to be universal, as states feared this would open their borders to an unknown number of ‘masses’ seeking asylum.

Although these restrictions were removed for states who adopted the 1967 Protocol, the territorial logic of the Convention remains and people continue to die at the external borders of Europe in order to access their supposed ‘right’ to asylum. This sort of bordering of the right to asylum has led to a situation where more than 90% of those who apply for asylum in Europe arrive via irregular routes, many paying a high price for smugglers and spending years on the hazardous journey (European Parliament 2018).

Moreover, a record number of 82,4 million people are displaced worldwide – an unprecedented amount since WWII, which has been steadily growing over the last two decades – out of which the majority (48 million) are internally displaced persons (UNHCR 2021) and thus not even considered to be refugees by the Convention definition. Whereas border management has been blamed for much of the suffering at the EUropean external borders the last two decades, it is perhaps merely a result of this bordering of asylum, which has seemingly received less attention. It might therefore be time to reconsider the limited, territorial definition of ‘refugee’, which has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths in just the last two decades in the Mediterranean Sea, where people are literally dying to access this supposed ‘right’ they have (a right which seems to also include the ‘right’ to die trying at the hands of an ever-growing border regime devised to prevent them from entering, and thus exercising that right).

During the last two weeks Norbert, Carolin, Sarah Green, and others have been advocating for the need to think in alternatives when it comes to migration and border management, and the responsibility of scholars to try to imagine how things could be otherwise (and hopefully convince policymakers at the same time). What kind of future migration, asylum and border regime do we want in EUrope? This is an important question which critical research needs to deal with, and which remains pertinent as the EU is soon to have its first uniformed, standing corps of 10,000 border guards ready to intervene on our behalf in Greece, Hungary, the Canary Islands, the Balkans, or wherever people might try to exercise their territorial or bordered ‘right’ to asylum. As Commissioner for Migration and Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, often reminds us, ‘migration is normal, migration has always been here, migration will always be here’ (Johansson 2020: 1), so perhaps it is time to think of alternatives to the current short-term, ‘emergency’ solutions that have been presented by the European Commission in its most recent ‘pact’.

Perhaps a good place to start is by de-territorializing or de-bordering the Refugee Convention, the refugee definition, and the right to asylum, since that would widen the scope of people who can make use of that right; remove the necessity to engage in expensive, long and dangerous routes with the help of smugglers; actually put an end to the smuggling business once and for all (instead of fueling it by further militarizing the borders); and channel massive EU and member state funds (tax payers money) to other areas than the deadly border industrial complex. After all, we should not forget that accepting the status quo is also a choice and a political decision not to change anything.


European Parliament (2018). ‘Humanitarian Visas: “A Right to be Heard without Risking Your Life”’. News, November 8. Accessible from: [Accessed 25/8/21].

Johansson, Ylva (2020). ‘Speech by Commissioner Johansson on the New Pact on Migration and Asylum’. European Commission, September 23. Accessible from: [Accessed 25/8/2021].

UNHCR (2021). ‘Global Trends – Forced Displacement in 2020’. June 18. Accessible from: [Accessed 25/8/21]

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