Jacqueline Bhabha,
Professor, Harvard School of Public Health




The world has recognised the importance of refugee protection and rights since World War II. Unfortunately in the last 20 to 30 years the commitment to refugee laws has significantly declined thanks to issues of border protection and cultural integration. You can see this play out particularly in West Asia and the Mediterranean today; the latter having received the label of a 'watery grave' because thousands of refugees die in it every year as they are bounced from country to country throughout Europe all in the simple quest to find protection and make a new life. There is also a change in the general nature of the refugee population - this demographic is no longer as Caucasian or educated as they used to be.Interestingly at present there are 10 to 15 million officially certified refugees in the world today and double the number of Internally Displaced People (IDPs). Not counting mixed migration refugees, the number already touches over 50 million people in need of protection. That is why the need for international protection and recognition of refugees and issues of migration and forced migration are more relevant now than ever before. There is certainly a growing interest in studying, researching and working in refugee law today. I have students from around the world at Harvard, many of whom come from the Indian subcontinent as well. They pursue a diverse range of topics from domestic violence, child-related persecution (the rights of minor refugees), conflict and war survival, health, state obligations and education for refugees (nearly 70 to 80 per cent of the 3 million Syrian refugees do not have access to schools). There is a lot of interesting work being done in the context of refugee camps and integration. The IKEA Foundation for example is working towards building tents that are high enough to allow refugees to stand not crouch and which insulate against extreme temperatures.
There are four key issues at hand today. The first is the enforcement of the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. This is law is the key legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of countries who offer them protection. The subsequent Protocol introduced in 1967 removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the earlier Convention. Unfortunately while we have a great international law, we have no international body to oversee the effective and fair implementation of the law. So contested matters usually end up in the hands of domestic courts and this greatly weakens the law. So critically studying and questioning to what extent the law can actually deliver in today's world is of key importance. What is the point of a law if people are blocking refugees at every turn?
When I was in practice myself, I have often had to work to fight for the rights of people who would be turned away at the airport itself, often accompanied by young children. The objection was that these people did not have a 'well-founded fear of persecution' (which defines whether you can be granted status as a refugee or not). But how can this be concluded without proper examination and investigation? This is a very common occurance even today in the US, especially in the case of Asian refugees. So ensuring that refugees receive a chance to prove their case first before being turned out is another issue. Subsequently it is also critical to look at access to legal advise for refugees. You can have the best laws on paper, but if poor refugees don't have proper counsel and are not even allowed to exit an airport, then the law has no real meaning.
The conditions of refugee camps and areas are also worth questioning. In the cases where refugees do gain proper status and a right to live in a given country - how are they integrated, how are their rights protected and how can they rebuild their lives are all key questions. At present some of the conditions under which refugees live are really deplorable and terrible. You will find camps where protection against the weather is not available and food is scarce. This is a really interesting subject area and is of increasing relevance. Going forward, there is a lot of potential for refugee law as a vocation. As natural disasters, war and political turmoil become increasingly prevalent, the rights of those affected becomes a hotly contested area of debate. In the end it all just boils down to a very simple fact. Everybody has the right to enjoy a dignified quality of life - refugee law works to ensure this for those who have no home, no support and nowhere to go.
Quick tips how to succeed in Refugee Law:

  • Have a firm understanding of the relevance and context of the law in today's world. One must be up-to-date with recent events and circumstances.
  • Choose your specialisation carefully. You can contribute legal, psychosocial, medical or even evironmental skills to the field.
  • Understand that your work can guarantee someone a dignified quality of life.
  • Sometimes working with refugees can be emotionally-taxing. So be prepared.

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