Coming to Spain as an Asylum Seeker/Refugee (Immigration/Visas)

Spain is home to a reasonably small number of the world's 68million-plus refugees (2018).

Compared to some of its European neighbours (Germany and Italy in particular), it receives a very small percentage. But Europe as a whole is in the midst of a refugee crisis, and Spain is not unaffected by it.

Governmental figures for 2017/18 are not yet available, but the International Organization for Migration shows that the number of asylum seekers arriving in Spain by boat is rapidly growing: 21,468 in 2017, compared to 6,046 in 2016. More recent stories from other sources are trickling in, suggesting that the numbers are surging still more quickly.

Ceuta, Spain’s North Africa enclave, is a particular target of people desperate to enter Europe. Hundreds storm the fence, often violently.

Many sources are claiming that Spain is not equipped to deal with such a huge influx. It is certainly a cause of political strain.

Video guide to seeking asylum in Spain

You can get a quick overview of seeking asylum in Spain by watching this video interview (below) with Spanish lawyer Miguel Manzanares. You can also scroll down and read the guide he has written with us, and see our other residency/visa guides for Spain.

What is a refugee?

Spain accepts the definition of a refugee contained in the Geneva Convention (which it joined in July 1978):

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

Spain also accepts the second limb of the convention’s definition of a refugee as somebody:

…who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

What is the difference between refugee status and asylum?

An asylum-seeker is somebody who is applying for refugee status. A person who’s been accepted as a genuine refugee is classed as a refugee.

How can somebody claim refugee status in Spain?

If a person wishes to claim refugee status in Spain, he or she must do so immediately upon arrival in Spain.

In practical terms, this means that – if they arrive by conventional means – they must do so at the point of entry and at the time of entering the country. If they arrive by unconventional means (such as hidden in the back of a truck) they must claim refugee status within one month of their arrival in the country.

Failure to claim will usually result in their being sent back to the country from which they came. However, this is subject to the restriction in the Convention that a government of a contracting state may not return a refugee to a territory where:

…his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social or political opinion.

What is the effect of claiming refugee status in Spain?

Once an asylum seeker applies for refugee status, their presence in the country is immediately made legal until the outcome of their application is determined. This is the case even if they arrived in the country illegally. Although their presence in Spain is legal, they will have to wait six months to be permitted to work and they will have the right to certain aids and to public health.

By law, the application for refugee status must usually be admitted for processing within one month.

In order to process the application, the asylum seeker will be interviewed by the Spanish Administration on one or more occasions.

If a person is refused for processing his refugee application status they may appeal to the Spanish Courts.

If the claim is allowed, the refugee will be granted permission to remain in Spain – which includes the right to work – for a maximum period of five years. If the circumstances that gave rise to their fear disappear or reduce within that five-year period they may be required to return home. If the circumstances go on beyond the five-year period they will be able to apply for a further five years permit to live in the country and they could apply for Spanish citizenship as well. See our Guide to Immigration, Visas & Residence in Spain for more information on this.

Once a person has been granted refugee status they will have the right to live, work and claim benefits in Spain and they also have the right to apply for their spouse and any children under the age of 18 to join them.

What if the claim to asylum is refused by Spain?

Subject to the restriction in relation to returning people to countries where their life or liberty is in danger, a failed asylum seeker – i.e. someone who is not granted refugee status – will be returned to their country of origin.

Legal advice for asylum seekers coming to Spain

Asylum seekers should seek immediate advice from a lawyer experienced in dealing with refugee cases. There is a panel of such lawyers who will give their time free of charge. Their details can be obtained from any Department of Immigration officer or post.


If you come to Spain as an asylum seeker, you must act immediately for your presence to be legal. Don’t risk waiting. See a lawyer and declare yourself.

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