Program in Refugee and Asylum Law

The University of Michigan’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law

The University of Michigan Law School offers the world’s most comprehensive program for the study of international and comparative refugee law.


The foundation course of the Program is International Refugee Law (Law 724), an introduction to the legal definition of a refugee codified in international law, and adopted by nearly 150 states, including the United States. After coming to an understanding of who is entitled to asylum, students may enroll in the Refugee Rights Workshop (Law 461), which explains the way in which rights are guaranteed to persons who meet the international refugee definition, allows students to identify and analyze a current situation in which refugee rights are at risk, and gives each seminar member the opportunity to devise a legal intervention strategy that draws on refugee law and other branches of international human rights law. Students completing these two offerings will have a comprehensive understanding of international refugee law, both as designed and as implemented in the practice of states. Building on these two core offerings is a series of three advanced seminars — Comparative Asylum Law, Refugee Law Reform, and the Colloquium on Challenges in International Refugee Law — which immerse students in debate about the most difficult issues of refugee protection in the world today.

Direct engagement in law-making

But the Michigan curriculum does more than simply afford an unparalleled introduction to the refugee law regime; it actually gives Michigan students the opportunity to play a direct part in reshaping the substance and structures of international refugee law. Every second year a major challenge is identified for collective engagement over the course of a two-year work program (with students able to participate in one or both years, as they prefer). For the 2011-2013 period, the focus is on the duty of states to exclude persons suspected of being international criminals – including persons believed to be “terrorists” – from asylum, even if this means that they would be sent home to persecution. Recent developments in international criminal law on such issues as culpability, mitigating circumstances, and procedural safeguards have led to conflicts in state practice and real differences in access to protection that threaten the universality of the refugee regime. In Comparative Asylum Law (Law 462) students will identify the key risks and survey the nature of the divergence in state practice. This research will inform the drafting of an expert Background Study proposing possible avenues of reform, which students in Refugee Law Reform (Law 843) will debate and refine. Finally, in the Colloquium on Challenges in International Refugee Law (Law 848), Michigan students will join with a select number of top refugee law experts from around the world — including participating fully in a 3-day meeting with those experts in Ann Arbor — to identify a strategy for reform of the criminal exclusion provisions. The resultant “Michigan Guidelines on International Refugee Protection” have traditionally been drawn on by judges and officials around the world, and frequently inform the shape of both judicial precedents and governmental policy.

Michigan Fellows in Refugee and Asylum Law

In addition to the formal academic curriculum, Michigan Law School students who have completed the course in International Refugee Law are eligible to compete for a Michigan Fellowship in Refugee and Asylum Law. Michigan Fellows receive a grant from the Program to cover the living and transportation costs to undertake a one-on-one summer internship (6-10 weeks) with a recognized leader in the refugee law field. In the summer of 2011, fellowships have been awarded to work in Australia with the Regional Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific to assist him to develop a regional system for refugee responsibility-sharing; to work in London with Senior Judge Catriona Jarvis of the United Kingdom’s respected Asylum and Immigration Tribunal; and to intern with the global Director of Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Program, based in Washington, D.C.

Eligibility and structure

The Program in Refugee and Asylum Law has been designed to enable JD students entering in the fall of any year to complete the whole of the 12-credit program, should they wish to do so. LLM students who are in residence for only one year will be able to take 7-8 credits in the Program (the foundation course + two advanced seminars), while the courses and seminars available for audit by doctoral students and research scholars will vary with the length and timing of those individuals’ presence in Ann Arbor. All courses and seminars in the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law are offered on an intensive basis in the second half of each academic term.

For JD students, the Law School’s course in Transnational Law is a co-requisite for enrollment in the foundational International Refugee Law course (LLM and doctoral students, as well as research scholars, are exempt from this requirement). The International Refugee Law course is, in turn, a co-requisite for the three advanced seminars in the Program (Refugee Rights Workshop, Comparative Asylum Law, and Refugee Law Reform). Because these requirements are set as co-requisites, a student may enroll simultaneously in, for example, Transnational Law, International Refugee Law, and either Comparative Asylum Law (fall 2011) or Refugee Law Reform (fall 2012). Only the Colloquium on Challenges in International Refugee Law has a true prerequisite, namely Refugee Law Reform (as the latter seminar provides critical preparation for students who will join the Colloquium process).