International refugee law is seen by many as constitutive for national refugee policy. Yet, as asylum has become politicized, many countries have adopted procedural and physical deterrence mechanisms to prevent refugees from accessing protection. The present article examines these policies, as well as the legal responses to them, as a critical case study for understanding the relationship between international law and refugee policy. Based on a theoretical triangulation of the dominant accounts of the interplay between international law and politics within liberal, realist and critical legal studies scholarship, it is argued that the two should rather be seen in a dialectic process of co-evolution. This speaks both to the continued power of international refugee law, but also to the instrumentalist approach of certain states trying to contest or circumvent their international legal commitments.