I hear about the migrant crisis in Europe every now and then. Recently in Macedonia, some undocumented migrants amassed at the border and they were trying to push through but they were blocked by the Macedonian police. Also, Calais, France, I saw undocumented migrants picketing that says "Open the border".

I could not help but ask, Is crossing the borders of a sovereign state protected by the international laws for refugee/asylum seekers?

For example, I'm living in South Korea and let's say a war broke out between both North and South Korea.

Would I be able to just hop on a dinghy to Japan and the government of Japan is obliged to provide me with protection, food, water, shelter and medical care

What are the international laws on refugees?

  • I suspect if war broke out with North Korea, it would be the North Koreans looking for refuge. Sep 1, 2015 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


The main international law governing refugees is the 1951 Refugee Convention. The majority of the nations in the world have signed this treaty (and/or its 1967 Protocol); notable exceptions include most of the Middle East, and most of South and Southeast Asia. (As to your example, Japan has signed it.)

The full text of the treaty can be found at the website of the UN High Commission for Refugees. I think most of your questions can be addressed by reading it, but in particular, we have the following excerpts from Articles 32-34:

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. [...]

The Contracting States shall not expel a refugee lawfully in their territory save on grounds of national security or public order. [...]

The Contracting States shall as far as possible facilitate the assimilation and naturalization of refugees. They shall in particular make every effort to expedite naturalization proceedings and to reduce as far as possible the charges and costs of such proceedings.

So very generally speaking, if you were to flee from this hypothetical Second Korean War and end up in Japan, then Japan would be obligated under the 1951 Convention to take you in, provide for you in a manner comparable to its own citizens, and give you an opportunity to eventually become a Japanese citizen.

Of course, this has various limitations and caveats. For instance, they could investigate (via legal proceedings) whether you really were a refugee under the definition of the 1951 Convention; and they could expel you if you had committed a serious crime or posed a risk to national security.

  • It might also be worth mentioning that the EU has additional rules regarding migrants and refugees. Sep 1, 2015 at 15:03
  • @PointlessSpike: I don't know much about those. Feel free to add another answer! Sep 1, 2015 at 15:05
  • I suspect few will know the minutia of EU law, and I'm not one of those few. Oh, by the way, it wouldn't be the second Korean War, it would still be the first. The war never ended. Sep 1, 2015 at 15:07
  • Does the Convention say anything about preventing refugees from entering in the first place? The quoted section just seems to address once they're already in the country.
    – Bobson
    Sep 1, 2015 at 15:36
  • @Bobson: It doesn't seem to be specifically addressed in the text, as far as I found. But I think what you ask is a deep question; there are lots of possible ways of "preventing refugees from entering", and for that matter, many possible definitions of "entering". I expect some would be considered acceptable and others not. My impression is that in practice, once a refugee shows up at a port of entry of a Contracting State, they're entitled to the protections of the Convention; but I don't have text to support that. Sep 1, 2015 at 15:53

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