Protecting refugees where there is no legal safety net

March 12, 2015

by Rana Khoury and Galya Ruffer

The number of people forced to flee their homes on account of conflict, environmental disasters, and gross human rights abuses has reached crisis proportions this year, with more people forcibly displaced today than in World War II. There are an estimated 9 million displaced people from the Syrian crisis alone as well as over 50,000 children from Central America fleeing into United States. As the nature of displacement changes, so too must the international and national response to refugee protection.

With the number of unprotected refugees reaching a catastrophic level, particularly in countries with few or no official policies to assist them, refugee protection demands greater attention. Despite all these challenges, Galya Ruffer, Director of the Center for Forced Migration Studies (CFMS) at the Buffett Institute, affirms that refugee status is an “increasingly coveted status for tens of millions of people.”

To address the crisis, CFMS convened an international workshop in May titled “Refugee Protection Outside the International Legal Framework,” part of a broader interdisciplinary research study led by Galya Ruffer (Political Science) and Bruce Spencer (Statistics). Thirty-five academics and practitioners from around the world deliberated on topics such as the history of refugee reception, formal and informal refugee determination processes, and the methods of measuring and studying refugee issues.

Defining “refugee protection” and its importance in the current global climate

The most essential question asked at the workshop was, “What do we mean by protection?” For some, it means the rights guaranteed by UN standards. As the celebrated scholar Barbara Harrell-Bond stated, “Formal recognition saves lives.” Yet others contended that legal processes are also problematic – law is inherently hazy and often ignored. In practice, recognition does not always translate to protection.

Even in places where there are formal refugee status determination (RSD) processes—which up to this point have received the most scholarly and practical attention—protection is neither uniformly administered nor consistently provided. Quasi-legal and informal processes, such as social networks and civil society organizations, prevail where there are no formal legal processes.

Reception of refugees by host nations has historically been restrictive, with political and economic interests often overruling humanitarian ones. That exclusionary tradition persists today, particularly in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and European states that are increasingly reluctant to be held to the letter or spirit of the Refugee Convention. Conversely, Asian countries tend to offer the fewest formal protections, and yet these countries also receive the greatest number of refugees.

The workshop participants agreed on fundamental principles moving forward. Scholars and practitioners must work together to fill research gaps and advance protection. The production of this knowledge will be greatly enhanced by the Center’s commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration, which is critical for taking on these ambitious agendas that aim to advance both knowledge and policy.

That collaboration will continue to flourish thanks to CFMS’s partnership with the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration, the Refugee Research Network, the Asian Pacific Refugee Rights Network, and the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network. The workshop was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation Law and Social Sciences Program, with additional support from the Institute for International and Comparative Studies at Northwestern University.

For a list of participants, summary of remarks, and additional resources related to refugee protection, please visit the Center of Forced Migration.

Human Rights, Law, Migration