Human Rights Defender - special issue on researching forced migration

Twenty-five years ago, in 1992, the first edition of Human Rights Defender was published. Across fourteen black and white pages, this new national newsletter reported on human rights at the domestic, regional and international levels. The Defender was created by an innovative interdisciplinary research centre at UNSW in Sydney, now known as the Australian Human Rights Centre, and it was intended as a way to ‘bring together information and comment’ on critical issues – because, the editors wrote, ‘too often defenders of human rights work alone, not recognising their own expertise and its relevance to others’. 

That same year, in May 1992, the Australian government legislated to place all asylum seekers who arrived by boat without a valid visa in immigration detention. Since then the country’s treatment of asylum seekers has hardened further; in 2013 the Australian government combined remote offshore detention with a military-style policy of boat ‘turn-backs’ known as Operation Sovereign Borders, and the country’s two major political parties competed in a fear-filled public debate that securitised and de-humanised people fleeing persecution. 

It was at this point that philanthropists Andrew and Renata Kaldor, both former refugees, chose UNSW Sydney to be the home of the new Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. Their aim was to provide a principled, human-rights-based approach to issues of refugee law and policy in Australia and around the world. Today, four years on, the Kaldor Centre is internationally recognised for cutting-edge scholarship, and it builds on an outstanding interdisciplinary record of refugee and forced migration studies at UNSW.

This issue of Human Rights Defender unites the founding aim of this publication with that of the Kaldor Centre: it profiles the work of the Emerging Scholars Network, a community of more than 100 graduate and early-career researchers in the broad field of forced migration studies. The Network was established by the Kaldor Centre to help the next generation of scholars to share ideas across disciplines, and to see how their own expertise is relevant to the work of others.

Encouraging this cross-disciplinary conversation is essential if scholars are to address the global challenge that forced migration presents today. In 2017, the number of children, women and men displaced from their homes is at record levels, at more than 22 million refugees and a total of 65 million people displaced worldwide. At the same time, exclusion and deterrence have gained a stronger foothold in the politics and practice of many States, especially parts of Europe, the United States and, of course, Australia, and much to the detriment of those same children, women and men seeking safety.

To illustrate just one reason why this conversation is important, take the principle of non-refoulement: it is the cornerstone of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and a principle of customary international law, and it prohibits States from returning a person to any territory where their life or freedom may be threatened. Scholars – and policy-makers, practitioners and the public – are better placed to understand this principle with high-quality conceptual and legal analysis and empirical research to hand. The potential risk that a State could send a person back to persecution or serious human rights violations becomes far more tangible when scholars investigate return-oriented conditions in immigration detention, or analyse the way that a State’s protection obligations are interpreted by individual decision-makers.

In the following pages, Human Rights Defender explores these research areas and offers a prismatic look at forced migration. It features the work of eight Emerging Scholars Network members, beginning with Thomas Brown, of the University of Adelaide; his photographs capture the daily lives of Afghan Hazara refugees who reside in the hills above the town Bogor in Indonesia while they wait in hope for a resettlement place abroad. Brown shows how young men and women hold together a sense of community in the face of an uncertain future.

Before Australia began to routinely turn back boats in late 2013, those Hazara and other protection-seekers who risked the boat journey from Indonesia across the Java Sea were intercepted by Australian authorities and placed in immigration detention. Ryan Essex of the University of Sydney explores the perspective of the medical professionals who provide vital physical and mental health services to detainees.

The Defender then returns to Indonesia, where Atin Prabandari and Yunizar Adiputera of Universitas Gadjah Mada and Antje Missbach of Monash University explain the new ‘Presidential Regulation on foreign refugees’, which provides for greater consistency in the way that local, regional and national authorities treat forced migrants in that country.

The political will of States to uphold their protection obligations is an enduring question throughout this issue. Sangeetha Yogendran of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Rule of Law Programme Asia analyses how States within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are bound by the principle of non-refoulement under customary international law and their own Human Rights Declaration of 2012. As the region responds to the flight of Rohingya from genocide at this very moment, Yogendran’s analysis is timely and instructive. Philosopher Dr Nathan Bell, of Monash University, then explores political will in historical and linguistic detail. Bell tests the idea of an ‘ethos of responsibility’, through which States could view a responsibility to non-citizens as fundamental to their core identity.

Three Kaldor Centre doctoral scholars are examining how protection obligations are interpreted in practice. Tamara Wood pioneers a principled legal interpretation of the ‘expanded’ refugee definition set out in the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, while Riona Moodley questions whether or how the European Union could process asylum seekers externally in a way that accords with international and regional human rights law. And as the international community grapples with the current and future impact of climate change, Luke Potter reveals how local governments are critical to the management of disaster-related displacement.

The issue concludes with the Defender’s student editor, Hannah Wootton, sitting down with leading scholar and current United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, to explore the varied and interconnected reasons why people are forced to leave their homes. It is particularly appropriate for the Defender to feature this interview, because as an advocate of ‘strong interdisciplinary work’, Professor Alston has alerted generations of law students to the connection between poverty and forced migration, and inspired them to consider how the law can engage with other disciplines to try and prevent displacement in the first place. Professor Alston delivered the Australian Human Rights Centre’s inaugural lecture in 1987 and, three decades later, the Centre’s annual lecture in 2017, at which he received the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa from UNSW.

Both the Defender and the Kaldor Centre aim to bridge scholarship, policy and practice, and this issue highlights the valuable expertise that the next generation of scholars in forced migration studies can share with one another and with the wider community. Evidence-based, non-partisan research can make a difference to the way policy-makers and the public think about refugees and asylum seekers.

This kind of research is particularly important in Australia, where, at this moment, those concerned about the rights of asylum seekers have little cause for optimism. At the time of writing, more than 600 refugees and asylum seekers are without food, water, sanitation or health services at the now-closed detention centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, a consequence of the harsh ‘offshore’ policy of the Australian government. Meanwhile the horrors faced by Syrians, Rohingya, and many others around the world filter through the public news cycle. It can be easy to lose hope and shut our eyes. We hope that the articles and photos in the following pages offer inspiration, new possibilities and perspectives to our readers, and illustrate the many ways in which scholars are pursuing principled responses to forced migration.


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Dr Claire Higgins is a Senior Research Associate at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law and the Editor-in-Chief for the HRD. Claire completed doctoral study in History as a Clarendon Scholar at Merton College, the University of Oxford, writing on the development of Australian refugee policy from 1976 to 1983.

Hannah Wootton is a final semester Juris Doctor student at UNSW Sydney. She was the student editor of this issue of Human Rights Defender, and currently works as a financial journalist.