Related question: Are there international laws that compel Mexico to prevent migrants from crossing the border and into the U.S.?. My question is not a duplicate because the question I linked is about laws for Mexico, while I am asking for any and all international laws.

I am asking if there are any international laws or treaties that encourage countries to not let people illegally leave. Please also include if the law or treaty is binding or not.

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    What do you suppose counts as “leaving illegally“? If you think it through, you will see why this would be highly problematic.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 26, 2021 at 13:24
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    @ThomasKoelle That's not true. The rules are more subtle than this. The destination country can ask the responsible country (definition is a bit more complicated than country of entry) to “take care” or “take back” that person (which should in turn provide a strong incentive not to leave in the first place). There is absolutely no rule about actively preventing refugees/asylum seekers/protected persons from leaving nor is there is any provision against accepting their application.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 26, 2021 at 13:39
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    There is also no rule forcing any one to apply to get their refugee status in recognised in the first country they entered (as opposed to any other country in the EU), although there were discussion to introduce one.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 26, 2021 at 13:47
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    @Relaxed I could see that, but one possible way to define “leaving illegally” is trying to go exit a country at the border of another country that you cannot lawfully enter (for instance a caravan of people heading from Mexico to the US where most of them don’t have passports) Mar 26, 2021 at 14:08
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    @Yay Note that Sweden does something not completely unlike this in that they prevent citizens to leave to non-EU country without a passport (but they do not enforce that on third-country citizens AFAIK). It's still problematic, at least in theory. Case in point: Swedish citizens can actually enter a few Balkan countries without a passport (with their ID/insurance card).
    – Relaxed
    Mar 26, 2021 at 14:30

1 Answer 1


International law generally discourages countries from preventing people to leave, for example article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Or article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights

Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.

Obviously, this is more a broad statement of intent than a legally binding and enforceable provision but the principle is clear. It is generally agreed that preventing someone from leaving should be limited to very specific situations (minors leaving without a guardian, decisions by the criminal justice system to keep someone in the country before a trial) and that broader restrictions on leaving are the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. In particular, the covenant on Civil and Political Rights was directed against Soviet-aligned countries, which had very restrictive policies on international travel.

Importantly, the fact that entry at the destination might be forbidden doesn't mean that leaving is itself forbidden from the perspective of the departure country. These rules are also a mess to enforce: Should the police know all the details of the law in neighbouring countries? Take decisions on behalf of all the countries one could fly to? It's much easier to let other countries (and transportation businesses) deal with their own rules and the people who want to go there.

In practice, there are however many examples of richer countries trying to deputise weaker poorer neighbours to “take care” of migrants for them but those efforts are often questionable from the perspective of international law and criticised as such. If and when this is formalised in a treaty or agreement of some sort, it would be ad hoc and bilateral.

More often than not, destination countries also specifically want to prevent the departure of people who do have a right to enter under international and national law (e.g. refugees), precisely because they had rather not have them there but have no clean legal way to refuse entry and send them back if they do make it to the border. By contrast, someone from a stable country with no believable claim to asylum who presents themselves to an airport is not such a big deal. They can be removed expeditiously and (relatively) easily. The dirty little secret in all this is that the people you want the least are those who have a bona fide claim to international protection, for it is not illegal for them to leave, enter through a border entry point nor even to cross an international border irregularly.

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    This isn’t related to my original question, but can you please give me a link to the law that requires countries to let in refugees that show up at their border? Mar 26, 2021 at 14:06
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    @Yay Internationally, the main source would be article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. There is similar language in the 1967 protocol. From there stems the general principle of non-refoulement. The letter of both treaties do leave a bit of leeway to a country like the US because it is about refugees coming directly from a country where they are in danger. This opens the way to the notion of “safe third country” (e.g. someone from Nicaragua at the Mexico-US border could be deemed to be safe in Mexico even if Nicaragua isn't).
    – Relaxed
    Mar 26, 2021 at 14:16
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    EU law has a slightly more robust interpretation of this non-refoulement principle, anchored in a series of directives and case law. In practice, the whole safe third-country business only works with the cooperation of the intermediate countries (like the EU tries to do with Turkey) as you cannot force a country to take someone who is not a citizen.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 26, 2021 at 14:18
  • @Yay In Germany there is a phrase granting a right to asylum in the Grundgesetz, roughly equivalent to the constitutition.
    – quarague
    Mar 27, 2021 at 7:37
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    @Yay Artikel 16a says 'Politisch Verfolgte genießen Asylrecht.' Rough translation 'political refugees have a right to asylum'. What counts as political is complicated. The idea is that belonging to a persecuted group counts, as does a war in your home country. Just hoping for a life in less poverty does not.
    – quarague
    Mar 31, 2021 at 9:07

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