Date of Graduation

Spring 5-18-2019

Document Access

Project/Capstone - Global access

Degree Name

Master of Arts in Migration Studies


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Abigail Stepnitz


When the United Nations defined the word “refugee” at the 1951 Convention on Refugees, the concept of asylum was very different then it is in the modern day. Although new technology has made it easier than ever for people to move around the world and refugee numbers have climbed to over 25 million[1]in recent years, the central question remains the same: who receives international protection from persecution? Although many national and international protections have been put in place to help vulnerable migrant groups, the changing and ever-expanding landscape of migration has caused a protection gap between these modern asylum seekers and the documents historically written for their protection. This gap is the result of a gradual shift in who receives asylum, occurring at both the international and national level. It is caused by the expansion of national policy regarding asylum and the language used by organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) in policies which address refugees and asylum seekers. Using a variety of case studies, I argue that although the core definition of refugee has remained relatively unchanged since the document’s inception, it has failed to protect modern asylum seekers in a complete and effective way because of subtle and gradual shifts in the interpretation of the document and the emergence of restrictions on who receives asylum at a national level. I support this argument by tracking the way that the definition of refugee has been interpreted in recent history in order to better accommodate rising flows of asylum seekers and to support the motivations of national state actors. I further argue that this is negatively impacting the level of protection that refugees receive.

[1]United Nations, “Figures at a Glance,” UNHCR, June 19, 2018,