Securing the Borders Against Syrian Refugees: When Non-Admission Means Return

31 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2017

See all articles by Elizabeth Leiserson

Elizabeth Leiserson

Yale University, Law School, Students

Date Written: December 6, 2016


Ostensibly to protect its citizens, the European Union, like the United States and many other countries in the Global North, has developed policies that aim to stop refugees before they can enter their destination countries. The treatment of Syrian refugees provides a tragic example of this phenomenon: In the wake of terrorist attacks, it has become routine for politicians to call for an end to the admission of Syrian refugees. These non-admittance policies violate the Refugee Convention’s prohibition on refoulement, or returning refugees to persecution. An in-depth analysis of the Convention’s preparatory materials and the early practice following the drafting of the Convention shows that the order of the day was cooperation to admit refugees in the absence of particularized security threats — not cooperation to deny refugees access wherever a security threat could be imagined. As this Note explains, the Convention’s exception to the non-refoulement principle, allowing refugees to be returned when they become a “danger to the security of the country” of refuge, does not and was never intended to justify large-scale programs that bar refugees in the name of national security. This Note uses the European Union’s agreement with Turkey as a case study to showcase a possible method to challenge both overly narrow interpretations of the obligation to admit and overly broad interpretations of the national security exception to non-refoulement.

Keywords: refugees, refoulement, international law, Syria, European Union

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Leiserson, Elizabeth, Securing the Borders Against Syrian Refugees: When Non-Admission Means Return (December 6, 2016). Yale Journal of International Law, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth Leiserson (Contact Author)

Yale University, Law School, Students ( email )

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