Blog post written by Susan Reardon-Smith (RLI) reflecting on the theme and purpose of the upcoming RLI Third Annual Conference. The conference programme is online and registration for the event is now open. This post was originally published on the Talking Humanities blog.


The recent stand-off on the waters of the Mediterranean between Italy, Malta and the rest of the EU is disheartening, but neither shocking nor unexpected given the trajectory of Europe’s response to people seeking protection on its shores. As many have written (see here and here, for example), the EU has taken an increasingly restrictive stance particularly at a time when more people need protection, with the ongoing displacement crises in Syria and elsewhere, and the proliferation of causes of displacement. And by no means is this trend of hostility confined to the EU, with similar policies and sentiments echoed across the wealthy world, particularly in Australia and America.


The policies of such countries not only affect those seeking protection in their regions, but impact upon refugee protection throughout the world: through other countries mirroring such restrictive policies (known as policy diffusion); through funding gaps for UNHCR and international humanitarian support (which many countries rely on to support displaced persons on their territory); and most importantly, through the erosion of refugee protection and the principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention more generally.


The field of refugee protection, underwritten by refugee law and developed through policies and practices on the ground in countries around the world, is complex and multi-faceted and, at its core, represents an international effort to ensure that displaced persons are not left without a country to turn to in times of need. However, recent trends have meant that frequently following displacement, asylum seekers and refugees face further ordeals of confinement in camps or detention centres, perilous journeys to safer countries, hostile reception conditions and reduced rights and circumstances for many years afterwards. Such conditions obviously were not the intended outcome of the Refugee Convention and speak to the politics of fear and hostility that have since influenced the way in which protection is granted around the world.


Many have recognised the significance and worrying trend of this degradation of refugee protection, and the need for change is reflected in the commissioning of the ongoing inter-governmental processes – the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration. However, the ability for these compacts to significantly improve refugee protection is arguably slim, and they seem to offer only a small step forward in what is a difficult political environment. While there is a general sense of disappointment amongst refugee advocates in these processes, some argue that they still represent an important opportunity to draft guidelines that can then be built upon, while others posit that the whole process is flawed as the regime requires fundamental reform rather than incremental change.


Concurrently, there is a growing recognition that refugee protection in practice is not only reliant on international processes, as a range of regional and community initiatives are having significant impact. Amongst these are the private sponsorship schemes (such as those in Canada), the hosting of refugees within families and homes, and the efforts of cities and regions to welcome refugees where national governments will not. This circumvention of national directives is seen in acts of defiance such as the Italian mayors offering their ports in the aforementioned recent EU stand-off.


This reinforces the observation that public opinion is often more sympathetic than the national policies of governments, and that often those closest to the impacts of displacement are the most generous. Further to this, the excellent work that has always been and continues to be done by academics, lawyers, practitioners, support workers, community members and refugees themselves is vital to promoting humanity in an inhospitable world.



Symposiums such as the Refugee Law Initiative’s upcoming Third Annual Conference, ‘Refugee Protection in a Hostile World?’, seek to exhibit and build upon such work through a range of presentations by leading academics, policy-makers and practitioners in the refugee field, and with over 180 interested participants attending. The presenters draw from all corners of the globe and from fields such as law, policy, international relations, anthropology and social work. Such conferences provide a vital opportunity for information-sharing and collaboration across different fields, and will involve discussion and debate on a wide range of themes (view the conference programme here).


This year’s conference will cover topics as diverse as the interaction of human rights law and refugee protection, issues of protection in environmental displacement, the impact of the criminalisation of migration in Libya, and issues related to data protection. It will feature presentations from leading voices in refugee protection, including distinguished guests such as E. Tendayi Achiume (the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance). The conference will also be followed by a Special IDP Workshop, with an aim to revitalise discussion and research on issues related to Internal Displacement.


In an increasingly hostile world for refugees such spaces of convergence are vital to promote and develop good research, to build connections between different disciplines and geographic regions, and to dispute the ever-increasing restrictions for those seeking protection.



Photograph: ©MohammadHasan

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.