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Seeking Asylum: A History


Admission requirements



The concept of asylum has a long and intriguing history. Asylum already represented a topic that instigated debate as far back as 2,500 years ago, when Aeschylus’ The Suppliants discussed whether fifty daughters of Danaos should obtain asylum in Argos to escape forced marriages. The term asylum also has its roots in ancient Greece, where it meant ‘an inviolable place’ or, more simply, ‘sanctuary’. This course will examine how the concept of asylum has developed from Ancient Greece until the present day. Particular emphasis will be placed on discussing what occurred in Europe from 1914 to 1951 and what has happened since the 1980s. Primary and secondary sources will be provided to enhance discussions in our weekly seminars, but less traditional sources, such as radio documentaries, films and art, will also be used throughout.

The course will start by studying asylum’s early religious associations (Christian and Muslim) before turning to its increasing politicalisation (e.g. Huguenots) from the late seventeenth century onwards. Unlike the revolutionary who wandered around Europe in the nineteenth century such as Mazzini, Marx or Bakunin, those seeking protection in the twentieth century no longer solely represented people who defied the established powers. Instead, it became clear that those seeking asylum often comprised people escaping persecution, wars and humanitarian disasters, as the period between 1914 and 1945 demonstrated so clearly. The horrors of 1930s and 1940s Europe led indirectly to the formation of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is still the cornerstone of most liberal democratic states’ asylum policies today. Two types of people sought asylum from the end of the Second World War up until the 1970s in western states: survivors of Nazi aggression, who states had resettled by the early 1950s; and escapees from the Soviet bloc. The first group served to allay guilt for past inaction. The second group, made up of Soviet defectors, received a sympathetic welcome because of their small numbers, the ideological advantages they offered, their relatively similar cultural backgrounds and their significant labour skills at a time of economic rebuilding. In contrast, the majority of the rising number of people who applied to western countries for protection from the 1980s onwards came from either the poorer South (and were often hence of a different skin colour to past asylum seekers) or the by-then less politically consequential post-Soviet Europe. Asylum thus awakened debate on a broad range of social, political, ethical and economic issues that we are still dealing with today.

Throughout the course, students will be assigned weekly readings. These will consist of primary sources, such as documents from the League of Nations, the International Refugee Organization and the UNHCR, writings from people who have sought asylum, and newspaper articles debating asylum. They will also comprise of secondary sources written by scholars on asylum. Each student will give one short introductory presentation on the weekly readings over the duration of the course. Students will also be expected to provide a short overview of their final research papers to the group. During the course, people who have gone through the asylum process in the Netherlands and Dutch bureaucrats who work in the department responsible for processing applications wiil, it is intended, speak at two of the seminars. It is also hoped that students will also get the opportunity to visit an asylum reception centre in the Netherlands.

Course objectives

Objectives of the course are that students acquire:

  • The ability to independently identify and select sources

  • The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question

  • The ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument

  • The ability to interpret a corpus of sources

  • Knowledge and comprehension of the specialisations Migration and Global Interdependence and its historiography specifically:

  1. The manner in which migrations (of people, goods and ideas) between and within states have led to shifts (in cohesion, ethnic composition, policies, imaging, culture, and power relations) in the period 1750-2000.
    1. The interdisciplinary approach (application of theories and methods from social sciences), the comparative perspective (diachronic and synchronic) and working with a large variety of primary sources;

Specific objectives: to provide students with the ability to:

  • Develop an understanding of how asylum has evolved over time

  • Analyse contemporary asylum debates from an historical perspective

  • Apply migration theory to empirical case studies

  • Identify new approaches within the migration literature

  • Compare and contrast Europe’s experiences of asylum with other continents

  • Develop their analytical and debating skills

  • Improve their English writing

  • Independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question

  • Analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument

Extra course objectives for Res Master Students:

  • The ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources

  • The ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates

  • Knowledge of the interdisciplinary aspects of the specialisation


Timetable History

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total: 280 hours

  • Hours spent on attending lectures and seminars (2 hours x 14 weeks) = 28 hours

  • Time for studying the compulsory literature (6 hours per week x 14) = 84 hours

  • Time for completing assignments (2 hours per week x 13) = 26 hours

  • Time spent preparing for seminar presentations (10 hours x 2) = 20

  • Time for research on the paper 72 hours

  • Time to write the paper 50 hours

Assessment method

  1. A Research note of 7000 words (60%) demonstrating the following skills:
  • The ability to independently identify and select literature

  • The ability to give a clear written report of the research results in English.

  • The ability to link research results to historiographical debates on migration, institutions and socialeconomic networks in cities.

  • The ability to independently identify and select sources

  • The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question

  • The ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument

  • The ability to interpret a corpus of sources

  1. Two presentations (10% x 2) – one on a set of seminar readings and another on your research paper, demonstrating the following skills:
  • The ability to give a clear oral report on the research results in English

  • The ability to link research results to a historiographical debate

  • The abilitiy to apply source criticism

  1. Participation in class discussion (10%), demonstrating the following skills:
  • Active participation in the discussion of the literature and the work in progress of other students.

  • The ability to provide constructive academic feedback

  1. Short weekly assignments (10%) related to the reading demonstrating the following skills:
  • Evidence that the literature has been read carefully

  • Clear familiarity with the subject and material under discussion

  • A willingness to engage with the literature

  • Quality of argument

Tthe final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average of the above assessments.

Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the teacher.

Additional requirements for the ResMa students: The paper has to be based on more extensive archival research or research based on primary sources. The student has to show (especially in the paper) innovative insights.


The course outline, bibliography, seminar readings (or links to that reading) and assignments will be posted on Blackboard.


Reading list

The core texts for the course is:

  • Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the twentieth century, (Cambridge, 1985).

The book is available from the library in the study area and from stacks. Copies of the book cost approximately €25 on and approx. €15 for a used version or a Kindle edition on Students can buy the first or second editions (Temple University Press, 2002).

A comprehensive bibliography will be uploaded to Blackboard in advance of the start of the course.


via uSis

Contact Contact information

dhr. Dr.I. Glynn


This course should appeal to anyone interested in migration and asylum history.