Briefing paper

Complexity of Choice in Asylum Seeker Decision-making

A summary and key findings from this policy brief for the UN University outlining the complexity of asylum seeker decision-making.
Parent and child holding hands


This policy brief explores the complexity of asylum seeker decision-making and the complexity of the wider social systems within which these decisions are made. This paper draws on an extensive review of academic and policy literature, as well as the authors’ engagement with asylum seekers in the United Kingdom and in North Africa 1 , to propose that policymakers adopt “complexity theory” - identifying and explaining patterns of change and feedback effects across dynamics systems - to understand the decision-making process of asylum seekers.


This paper looked at the complexity of asylum seeker decision-making and sought to understand:

  • the factors that influence asylum seekers
  • the influences beyond asylum seekers
  • the complex systems of asylum seeker decision-making

Policy implications

  • Asylum seeker decision-making is complex, non-linear, and multidimensional. Policies should reflect the diverse range of factors that influence asylum seeker decision-making which is shaped by factors on many levels: individual, familial, political, national, and international. Some factors are unknown and unknowable.
  • Asylum policies need to be grounded in an understanding of the contexts with which asylum seekers interact. Instead of analysing asylum seeker decision-making in an atomistic manner, it needs to be understood as part of an adaptive process in complex social systems in which their beliefs, expectations, and decision-making adapt and change dynamically.
  • Asylum policies should reflect an understanding of more comprehensive micro-behavioural data and analyses which explain motivations as well as how asylum seekers process information.
  • Asylum policies need to account for perception and behavioural biases, such as confirmation bias.

Read the full report on the UNUCPR website.


  1. The policy brief draws on a larger study co-authored with Gayle Munro, Deputy Director of the Centre for Children and Families at NatCen, Ini Dele-Adedeji, former Senior Researcher with NatCen International, and Conor O’Shea, Researcher with NatCen International.