What are the consequences for a developed nation like Canada to not accept any refugees? Are there grave consequences for not accepting any refugees?

I am asking, because almost every country on the planet accepts refugees as if they were forced to do so, yet I don't see any law that forces any country to do so. What are the factors that compel countries to do so?


6 Answers 6


An important factor here is the treaties a country has signed up to. In this case, a relevant one is the 1951 Refugee Convention. From UNHCR:

The 1951 Refugee Convention is the key legal document that forms the basis of our work. Ratified​ by 145 State parties, it defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.

The core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law.

Then there is the 1967 convention, which Wikipedia has the following about:

Where the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees had restricted refugee status to those whose circumstances had come about "as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951", as well as giving states party to the Convention the option of interpreting this as "events occurring in Europe" or "events occurring in Europe or elsewhere", the 1967 Protocol removed both the temporal and geographic restrictions. This was needed in the historical context of refugee flows resulting from decolonisation.

Many countries are party to those treaties, as illustrated by the image below:

enter image description here

Image from Wikipedia, in the public domain

The legend:

Light Green = party to only the 1951 Convention
Yellow = party to only the 1967 Protocol
Dark green = party to both

Regarding consequences

As for consequences of not taking refugees in practice, there don't seem to be many, if any at all.

UNHCR reviewed the treaties in 1989 and point 23 of that review illustrates the tone with which nations are addressed:

  1. The above is a general survey of the types of problems which impede the full and effective implementation of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol. They are presented with a view to opening constructive dialogue on how States and UNHCR, individually and jointly, might facilitate and improve implementation of the Convention and Protocol on a global basis.

Furthermore, in its conclusion, it restates the goal, which is providing protection to refugees, not to force individual signatory states to take refugees:

The ultimate goal of this exercise is to strengthen the collective capacity of States to meet the protection needs of all refugees.

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    It is notable than two countries who are not party to either convention, Lebanon and Jordan, are the ones who host the most refugees in 2019 (relatively to their population at least).
    – Evargalo
    Jul 5, 2019 at 10:45
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    This map is weird. Am I reading this correctly; the 1967 treaty is the only one that matters since the 1951 one is restricted to "as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951"? Why care about whether someone's signed the 1951 one at all?
    – JollyJoker
    Jul 5, 2019 at 11:13
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    @JollyJoker: For historical reasons. The 1951 Convention was mostly intended to address people displaced by WW2 and its immediate aftermath (which I imagine is why the US didn't bother to sign it - they probably figured the war was an ocean away and not relevant to domestic immigration law).
    – Kevin
    Jul 5, 2019 at 17:39
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    @JollyJoker I think the 1951 is included just to illustrate how it went historically (i.e.. see who signed up to only one of them). At the time, it was obviously just the one treaty so there was no question of a more important one.
    – JJJ
    Jul 5, 2019 at 19:03
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    @Dunk these treaties are the corner stone of what compels countries in general to take refugees. Well, of course it's the other way around, they signed up to the treaty because they supported what's in it. The Dublin Regulation is how the EU deals with refugees internally, it's not about why they take them or what makes (for lack of a better word) them take refugees.
    – JJJ
    Jul 8, 2019 at 22:58

Really the compulsion is a moral and practical one, rather than something enforced by international law: refugees tend to arrive in large numbers, turning them away is both difficult and tends to get them killed. It may be difficult to deport people to a war zone, e.g. if there are no functioning airports.

The shadow of the Holocaust hangs over 20th-century refugee policy. Before WW2, lots of Jewish refugees were turned away. It became clear afterwards that this was complicity with their mass murder.

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    "refugees tend to arrive in large numbers" - Note that not all people who arrive (whether in large numbers or as individuals) are genuine refugees. Some may be genuine; others may be lying, or exaggerating their claims. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asylum_seeker . So each must be assessed on an individual basis on their own merits. Obviously there are historic examples whereby there were indeed masses of genuine refugees (Jewish people from Nazi Germany etc). However in modern times it's important not to blindly accept anyone who claims to be fleeing persecution, as genuine. Jul 5, 2019 at 11:02
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    @ChrisMelville not sure if the comparison with Jewish refugees is very apt, many weren't treated as genuine refugees. Consider the term 'internment of refugees as enemy aliens' in a review of Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy, Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust.
    – JJJ
    Jul 5, 2019 at 15:40
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    These questions are asked in a particular time and context. I echo @ChrisMelville; in the Syrian Refugee crisis circa 2015-16 an allegation was made that the majority of asylum seekers entering some countries were majority young men not from the Levant. In other words, migrants instead of refugees.
    – Lan
    Jul 10, 2019 at 14:13

What are the consequences for a developed nation to not accept any refugees?

This is a very broad question, and it depends on the situation.

  • Are there many people who crossed into the country who are now seeking refugee status from within? That is the case for most refugees. It's not a matter of "shall we take those people in or not". It's usually rather a matter of "those people are at our doorstep or already inside our country — what do we do?". In that case, the consequences of not accepting them will be that, at least, the nation needs to do something else with them. It also depends on what exactly is meant by "not accepting". Some possible ways to handle asylum seekers who will not be accepted as refugees:
    • Deporting to home country? That is not always possible. Home country may refuse to take them back, or not have any functioning airports. Sometimes the host country may not even know for sure what country an asylum seeker is from; some asylum seekers lie in the hope of improving their chances at asylum (a human smuggler may have told them that if they say they are from Syria or Afghanistan, they can stay in host country). If they do manage regardless, the consequence is probably that the host country will become less popular to seek refugee status. The host country may also damage its international reputation.
    • Deport to previous country they passed through, if not home country? Again, transit country may not want them. I think Germany and Belgium would be not amused if the next Dutch government would decide to bus all asylum seekers to the border and dump them there to make them "somebody else's problem". Consequence: serious reputation damage.
    • Detain them indefinitely? Most countries have laws and such that prevent this. If such laws are withdrawn? Serious reputation damage. To essentially permanently detain people who have done nothing criminal and who are unable to leave would be, to say the least, quite controversial (cf. concentration camp). It would also be very costly, assuming you're still providing water, food, and healthcare (and if you don't the consequence would be of your name entering history books next to Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot...); refugees in refugee centres cost far less to society, in particular when they are allowed to learn the language and work — some of them may have skills for which there is a shortage in the local labour market needs, so accepting refugees can actually economically benefit the host country (or not).
    • Pretend they don't exist, i.e. not accepting them as refugees and removing them from the system "on paper". This is quite common practice in many European countries. In practice, the people involved may up living an undocumented life, perhaps in slavery, or perhaps a reasonably good life paying taxes and sending kids to school. Many foreigners live in Saudi Arabia, including people from war zones, yet they don't have refugee status. Consequences: very little, as this is already done in practice in various ways and a quite convenient short term solution from a bureaucratic point of view (let (other) local authorities deal with the problems...).
  • Are people unable to get to the country in the first place, and trying to seek refugee status from outside? In this case, the consequences of not accepting any are very small. They can say they follow the letter of the law, yet de facto not take in any, without needing to face any of the "difficult choices" (to use a euphemism) listed above. Case in point: Japan. In theory, probably someone in Japan could seek refugee status, in practice asylum seekers can't get there and Japan has takes in very little refugees, yet it's not treated as a pariah nation for this. Note that countries like Japan and Hungary also have a problem with an aging population and shortages on the local labour market, but that can be related to lack of immigration in general and not of refugees specifically (refugee immigration tends to be based on the needs of the refugee, work visa immigration on the needs of the host country).

Are there grave consequences for not accepting any refugees?

As mentioned above: depending on circumstances/context, the consequences may be serious reputation damage, or the consequences may be minimal.

  • Good points. As for detaining them, money is also a big issue. You need food, drinking water, hygienic supplies (not just to be nice, but you don't want an outbreak of some disease in your country), people to police them (as nobody likes being locked up in such conditions), etc.
    – JJJ
    Jul 6, 2019 at 18:06

This can be complicated. Some countries recognize other countries as decent, safe nations. Some countries on this planet only border safe countries and may have established "safe third country" treaties with them where neither country will recognize refugee claims by anyone who travels through the other country and arrives at the border. (The idea being that they are already at a safe country and therefore can't seek asylum since they are already safe.) This is further complicated by other factors of course like countries that allows free travel among eachother.

I bring this up because in the modern conversations around European and North American refugee claimants, some people and governments (cough Trump) have asserted they shouldn't accept refugees who have traveled through safe countries (cough Mexico) because the refugee was in a safe country before arriving.

My own country, Canada, is in a particularly nasty situation where for the past number of years we've had people cross our southern border then claim refugee status. If we deny them refugee status, where do we deport them? The US won't be happy and we can't ship them to the country they are fleeing from. If we accept them, we're tarnishing our relationship by functionally calling the USA an unsafe country.

  • What countries are they coming from? "Safe country" isn't all that meaningful to certain kinds of Asylum cases. Consider if Edward Snowden were at your door.
    – Joshua
    Jul 5, 2019 at 17:35
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    Canada has an agreement with the US, so people who fall under that agreement would indeed be sent back to the US to claim asylum there. But the agreement only covers people entering Canada at a pretty of entry. This is why people are trying to cross onto Canada irregularly from the US, because that allows them to have their asylum claim heard in Canada.
    – phoog
    Jul 6, 2019 at 0:22
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    Most of Mexico is indeed very much safe. Trump isn't making it up. Jul 6, 2019 at 11:22
  • @JonathanReez it depends on your definition of safe. In terms asylum seekers, it may mean that certain things (e.g. political statements made in the past, sexual orientation) may cause a place to be much more unsafe for specific people whereas millions live there without such problems every day. Another one is war, which may cause most infrastructure to stop functioning and threatens basic things like access to food and water. That's not the case in Mexico.
    – JJJ
    Jul 6, 2019 at 17:51

Japan hardly accepts any.

As far as I can tell, they aren't suffering for it, geopolitically, socially, or economically..


Poland didn't accept any non-christian refugees. EU wanted to press them with sanctions and other financial burdens, but wasn't very successful. Italy also stopped accepting any refugees in recent years. Recently a refugee ship entered italy's harbour, it's german captain is now in jail. Germany tries to get her out though.

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    Please add references to support your answer.
    – JJJ
    Jul 10, 2019 at 8:26

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