Rethinking international refugee protection

This research program examines key challenges to the international protection regime and its domestic implementation. It considers the capacity and limits of existing legal and institutional frameworks, including with respect to asylum processes, controls on movement and security concerns.

TURKISH-SYRIAN BORDER -JUNE 18, 2011: unidentified Syrian people in refugee camp in Turkey on June 18, 2011 on the Turkish - Syrian border.

The challenge

There are few greater challenges facing the international community today than how to provide safe, durable and legal solutions for refugees and other forced migrants. This research program examines both the capacity and the limits of existing international legal and institutional frameworks to ensure protection for those who need it. The international protection regime is dynamic and flexible, yet in some respects it has not kept pace with the changing nature of human mobility. The reach of refugee law is deliberately confined, and States have been unwilling to create new legal obligations in this area, including in relation to responsibility-sharing. There is also a growing implementation gap, with many States adopting restrictive approaches that hinder the ability of refugees and other forced migrants to access existing protection under international law. Yet, at the same time, developments in human rights law have had the effect of widening the class of people whom States must not remove.  With increasing numbers of people on the move, how can the international protection regime best respond to the needs of the world’s displaced people? 

Project highlights

Our work is at the forefront of international scholarly debates and policy discussions about the future of the international protection regime. Our research challenges orthodox assumptions about the origins of international protection and key legal concepts. 

Professor Jane McAdam and Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill are internationally recognised as intellectual pioneers in the field of international refugee law. Their book, The Refugee in International Law, now in its fourth edition (with the assistance of Dr Emma Dunlop) has been described as ‘among the most important volumes on the subject in a generation’. Their advice is sought by global leaders and institutions, and their authoritative work has been cited by courts and tribunals around the world. 

Our research is effective in promoting law reform and improving the protection of people seeking safety. For instance, Professor McAdam’s trail-blazing scholarship on complementary protection was instrumental in achieving major law reform in Australia, with 2012 legislation prohibiting the government from removing people at risk of torture; cruel inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; the death penalty; or arbitrary deprivation of life.

The Centre is proud to be the home of the International Journal of Refugee Law, the leading journal in the field.

Our work  

Our research reassesses conventional assumptions, critically evaluates existing approaches, connects the dots between fragmented policy areas, and considers how to maintain fundamental legal protection principles while devising better ways of delivering them. 

For instance, what should durable solutions look like in a world where mobility, transnationalism and knowledge exchange occur more easily than ever before, and where refugees are often caught up in more general migratory movements?  

Do discrete legal and empirical categories sharpen our understandings of people’s needs and create more nuanced solutions, or is a more holistic approach required? 

How are international legal and institutional frameworks interpreted and implemented by States, and how do we counteract the spread of increasingly restrictive domestic asylum policies around the globe?

By combining comparative, historical and legal analysis with strong doctrinal and theoretical foundations, we tackle the cutting-edge issues in a considered and contextual way. 

Explore

Watch the video or listen to the podcast of the launch of The Refugee in International Law

Watch the video or listen to the podcast of the launch of the Handbook.

  • We are recognised as leading scholarly authorities in the field of international refugee law. 

     Selected publications:

    • Guy S Goodwin-Gill and Jane McAdam, with Emma Dunlop, The Refugee in International Law (4th edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2021)

    • Cathryn Costello, Michelle Foster and Jane McAdam (eds), The Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law (Oxford University Press, 2021)

    • Jane McAdam and Tamara Wood, ‘The Concept of “International Protection” in the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration’ (2021) 23 Interventions – International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 191–206

  • If a person crosses a border to escape a risk of persecution, conflict, a disaster or the impacts of climate change, how ‘imminent’ must the feared harm be before another State is required to offer protection? In international refugee and human rights law, the appropriate test is whether there is a real risk of harm in the reasonably foreseeable future. However, there is a concerning trend, particularly in cases concerning protection from the longer-term impacts of climate change, of decision-makers regarding such harm as too distant, and therefore denying protection. The ramifications of such reasoning are far-reaching and could unnecessarily and inappropriately restrict international protection. Through a detailed examination of international and national jurisprudence, Professors Jane McAdam, Michelle Foster and Hélène Lambert show why ‘imminence’ has no place in the international protection regime. 

    Our pioneering research has stimulated debates about the role of time in international protection claims, particularly with respect to harm that may eventuate in the longer-term rather than immediate future. We have articulated why, as a matter of law, it is erroneous to require that a person face an imminent risk of harm if removed – a threshold that has seemingly been used to deny people protection in the face of future climate impacts. Rather, the appropriate test is whether a person faces a real risk of serious harm in the reasonably foreseeable future. This requires an assessment of the intensity, severity and nature of future harm, based on its foreseeability in light of the individual’s circumstances. 

    We thank the Australian Research Council for its generous support of this research through a Discovery Grant (DP160100079). 

    Selected publications:

    • Michelle Foster and Jane McAdam, ‘Analysis of “Imminence” in International Protection Claims: Teitiota v New Zealand and Beyond’ (2022) 71 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 975–82

    • Michelle Foster, Hannah Gordon, Hélène Lambert and Jane McAdam, ‘“Time” in Refugee Status Determination in Australia and the United Kingdom: A Clear and Present Danger from Armed Conflict?’ (2022) 34 International Journal of Refugee Law 163–91  

    • Adrienne Anderson, Michelle Foster, Hélène Lambert and Jane McAdam, ‘A Well-Founded Fear of Being Persecuted … But When?’ (2020) 42 Sydney Law Review 155–81

    • Adrienne Anderson, Michelle Foster, Hélène Lambert and Jane McAdam, ‘Imminence in Refugee and Human Rights Law: A Misplaced Notion for International Protection’ (2019) 68 International and Comparative Law Quarterly 111–40

  • This PhD project research, undertaken by Aidan Hammerschmid, focuses on the meaning of article 1F(c) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which denies refugee protection to an individual who ‘has been guilty of acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations’. The research explains how a person seeking asylum, as a natural person rather than a state or an international organization, can contravene the UN’s purposes and principles, which are set out in the Charter of the United Nations and which formally bind only UN member states and the UN itself. The research aims to produce actionable guidance for the competent national authorities of asylum States, which bear primary responsibility for performing refugee status determination and for deciding the question of exclusion under article 1F(c) of the Convention.

  • National responses to COVID-19 starkly revealed the significance of internal movement and its regulation. Yet, the focus of scholarship on medico-legal border control has been almost exclusively on international movement. This project addresses that major gap by researching the regulation of internal movement in past and present pandemic times, with a focus on plague, influenza, SARS and COVID-19. Bringing law and history together, it seeks to clarify how internal movement has been, and can best be, lawfully regulated. The research also considers the legality of Australia’s strict international border controls during the pandemic, which severely restricted the rights of citizens and permanent residents to leave and to enter the country. 

    The project is generously funded by an Australian Research Council Special Research Initiative grant (SR200200683). The legal team is comprised of Professor Jane McAdam and Dr Regina Jefferies; the history team is comprised of Professor Alison Bashford, Dr Chi Chi Huang and Tiarne Barratt. 

    For more information, visit the project page here: https://historyandpopulation.com/health-disease-population/

    Selected publications
    • Regina Jefferies and Jane McAdam, ‘Locked In: Australia’s COVID-19 Border Closures and the Right to Leave’ (2023) 41 Australian Year Book of International Law (published online) 

    • Regina Jefferies, Jane McAdam and Sangeetha Pillai, ‘Can We Still Call Australia Home? The Right to Return and the Legality of Australia’s COVID-19 Travel Restrictions’ (2021) 27(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights 211–31

    • Michelle Foster, Hélène Lambert and Jane McAdam, ‘Refugee Protection in the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond: The Capacity and Limits of International Law’ (2021) 44 UNSW Law Journal 103–24

    • Jane McAdam, ‘A Watching Brief on the Impacts of COVID-19 on the World’s Displaced People’ (2020) 32 International Journal of Refugee Law 364–66

    • Daniel Ghezelbash and Nikolas Feith Tan, ‘The End of the Right to Seek Asylum? COVID-19 and the Future of Refugee Protection (2020) 32 International Journal of Refugee Law 668

    Selected media
  • This project, led by Daniel Ghezelbash, involves pioneering work to reimagine the methods and approaches to studying refugee law, including through interdisciplinary, empirical and quantitative approaches. It aims to break down the silos between refugee law scholarship and the broader field of refugee studies, and foster an integrated transdisciplinary research agenda on refugee law. It also includes broader work reflecting on and shaping methods and approaches to studying comparative migration law.

    Selected publications

    • Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, Daniel Ghezelbash and Helene Lambert, ‘Special Issue: ‘Towards a Transdisciplinary Research Agenda on Refugee Law’ (2023) Journal of Refugee Studies (forthcoming)

    • Daniel Ghezelbash and Keyvan Dorostkar, ‘Understanding the Politics of Refugee Law and Policy Making: Interdisciplinary and Empirical Approaches’ (2023) Journal of Refugee Studies (advance) https://doi.org/10.1093/jrs/fead039

    • Daniel Ghezelbash, Kevin Fredy Hinterberger, Carole Viennet and Lukas Heckendorn Urscheler (eds), ‘Special Issue: Comparative Migration Law: Methods, Debates and New Frontiers’ (2023) 7(2) International Journal of Migration and Border Studies https://www.inderscienceonline.com/toc/ijmbs/7/2

  • This project examines the processes through which restrictive asylum policies are spreading around the globe and the competitive deterrence mindset that is fuelling this diffusion. It also explores the tactics that governments have used to justify these policies and evade their international obligations. This work is vital to inform strategies aimed at greater accountability and safeguarding the protection of refugees and other forced migrants in a volatile international political climate.

    Selected publications

    • Daniel Ghezelbash, ‘Legal Transfers of Migration Law: The Case for an Interdisciplinary Approach’ (2023) 7(2) International Journal of Migration and Border Studies 182

    • Daniel Ghezelbash, ‘Hyper-Legalism and Obfuscation: How States Evade Their International Obligations Towards Refugees’ (2020) 68(3) American Journal of Comparative Law 479

    • Daniel Ghezelbash, Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World (Cambridge University Press, 2018)

    • Daniel Ghezelbash, ‘Legal Transfers of Restrictive Immigration Laws: A Historical Perspective’ (2017) 66(1) International and Comparative Law Quarterly 235

    • Daniel Ghezelbash, ‘Forces of Diffusion: What Drives the Transfer of Immigration Policy and Law Across Jurisdictions?’ (2014) 1(2) International Journal of Migration and Border Studies 139

    Media

  • This project examines certain aspects of international refugee law from a gender perspective. Natasha Yacoub's research applies feminist approaches to different areas of refugee law, including the protection of women fleeing by sea, cessation of refugee status and voluntary repatriation as a durable solution. This research draws on decades of work in conflict and non-conflict countries on gender and refugee protection. It both critiques and offers to transform refugee law through collaboration with and contribution to the work of feminist scholars including those with lived experience. Yacoub's PhD research applies a gender-sensitive approach to voluntary repatriation in international refugee law through the case study of Sudan. 

    Madeline Gleeson's research explores how the asylum claims of women fear serious forms of discrimination against women, including gender-based violence, are assessed under international law. This research focuses in particular on the application of the non-refoulement obligation implied in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and on the normative value of the individual communications procedure of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

    Anna Talbot’s research examines the interaction of gender-based harms and refugee externalisation, building on over a decade’s experience working with refugees and other survivors of gender-based violence as a legal practitioner in both domestic and international settings. Her research focuses on due diligence obligations under international human rights law.

    Selected publications