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International Law and Administrative Insulation: A Comparison of Refugee Status Determination Regimes in the United States, Canada, and Australia


Rebecca Hamlin ( is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Grinnell College. She has a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. I thank the Canadian Embassy in Washington, DC, as well as the Pacific Rim Research Program and Institute for International Studies at Berkeley, for generously funding portions of my research. I am grateful to Irene Bloemraad, Ming Hsu Chen, Ken Haig, Robert Kagan, Leila Kawar, Gordon Silverstein, and Philip Wolgin, as well as three excellent and insightful anonymous reviewers, for their feedback at various stages. I also thank Elisabeth Rennick for her valuable research assistance, and my interviewees for their time and candor.


International law provides nations with a common definition of a refugee, yet the processes by which countries determine who should be granted refugee status look strikingly different, even across nations with many institutional, cultural, geographical, and political similarities. This article compares the refugee status determination regimes of three popular asylum seeker destinations—the United States, Canada, and Australia. Despite these nations' similar border control policies, asylum seekers crossing their borders access three very different systems. These differences have less to do with political debates over admission and border control policy than with the level of insulation the administrative decision-making agency enjoys from political interference and judicial review. Bureaucratic justice is conceptualized and organized differently in different states, and so states vary in how they draw the line between refugee and nonrefugee.