In 2015 Europe’s refugee protection crisis triggered the effective collapse of the world’s most complex regional framework for asylum. A development both unexpected and unexplained by the hierarchical model of European asylum law that tends to dominate the scholarly field. The abandonment among member states of core obligations under international and EU law and the principles of solidarity and good faith is central to this crisis. This dynamic has been in the making since the accession process when EU membership was offered in exchange for transposing international obligations through the EU asylum acquis, collectivizing external border control and shifting refugee ‘responsibility’ to new member states with minimal standards for refugee protection and weak enforcement mechanisms. Yet, the critical feature of this asylum crisis is its development into a European constitutional crisis, impacting freedom of movement, sincere co-operation, democracy, and the rule of law. A hierarchical model of law offers only a partial explanation of this interplay between refugee protection and European governance. A turn to the methodological debates in international law urges the repositioning of the lens of refugee legal scholarship, offering insights into the evolution towards crisis by looking at law from below against the backdrop of law in history, subregional law-making, and shifting power constellations. This process suggests that refugee law scholarship could benefit from widening its methodological canon by visiting its parent field of public international law.