The right of asylum was first added to the Spanish constitution in 1978 and regulated by law in 1984. This law enshrined refugee status according to the Geneva Convention and created asylum regulations based in national law. On account of generous admission requirements for asylum seekers and the possibility for asylum on humanitarian grounds, these regulations were regarded as rather liberal.
This changed with the 1994 reform of Spain's asylum law which focused on three central issues. First, the confusing division between the procedures for granting asylum and refugee status was abandoned. Henceforth, only refugee status as outlined in the Geneva Convention existed. Territorial asylum and asylum based on humanitarian grounds were discontinued, with the latter only remaining possible under exceptional provisions in the Aliens Act. In return, the scope of protection for recognised refugees was expanded beyond Geneva Convention standards, so that residence and work permits were automatically granted with the approval of refugee status. Second, and most importantly in terms of the harmonisation of asylum rights in the EU, preliminary proceedings were added as part of the asylum application process. As a result, overtly incorrect or unsubstantiated applications could be excluded from the recognition process (inadmisión a trámite). This new procedure was in line with agreements at the European level and reflected provisions contained in the Schengen and Dublin agreements, such as the regulation of jurisdiction over the application review process and the concept of safe third countries of origin. The third substantial amendment to the asylum law pertained to the consequences of application rejection. Previous regulations had, in principle, enabled a person whose application was rejected to stay in the country. Because this was considered a fundamental reason behind choosing asylum as a path to immigration, the new regulations required persons who were denied asylum to leave the country in accordance with the Geneva Convention, unless they could meet the conditions for obtaining a visa under the provisions of the Aliens Act.
Spain, however, has never been a particularly attractive country for asylum seekers. This could be due to the relatively low acceptance rate making it easier to enter the country illegally as a foreign worker and become legalised later. In comparison to its European partners, the number of asylum-seekers in Spain remained at low levels in the 1980s. Their number (including family members) rose slowly from approx.
1 100 in 1984 to 4 100 in 1989. Only in 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of Eastern European borders, did the figure double to over 8 600. In the three years that followed, it grew to 12 600 (1993). With the reform of the asylum law, the number of applicants fell back in line with numbers from the late 1980s, even if for no other reason than the rejection of 60 to 70% of cases during the preliminary proceedings. Additionally, the approval rates remained extremely low at around 3%. With increasing coordination among European countries, this effect was relativised, so that increases in the number of asylum seekers at the end of the 1990s resulted in growing numbers in all European countries, with Spain again reaching 9 500 (2001). In the following years about 5 500 asylum seekers came to Spain per year, with Nigerians representing the largest group for a considerable period. Since 2005, however, this position has been taken over by Columbians looking for an alternative route following the end of visa-free entry into Spain in 2002. Here, too, there are evidently bands of people smugglers at work providing Columbians entering Spain via Barajas Airport (Madrid) with whole packages of false documents to enable them to make a credible application for asylum.
Even though some human rights organisations and researchers criticise Spain's restrictive approval practices, asylum remains a topic of little relevance, playing only a secondary role in Spain's immigration debate.