The Kaldor Centre today welcomes Associate Professor Daniel Ghezelbash as its new Deputy Director.
An excellent scholar and a practising refugee lawyer, Ghezelbash is currently researching fairness and efficiency in fast-track asylum policies as part of his Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) project. He is also interested in how technology can improve access to justice; in his previous role, Ghezelbash founded and directed the Macquarie University Social Justice Clinic and led the Law and AI stream at the Macquarie AI-enabled Processes Research Centre.
He is a regular media commentator on refugee, access to justice, and legal technology issues, but as he takes up this new challenge, we asked Ghezelbash to share thoughts on his own journey to the Kaldor Centre.
How did you first get interested in forced migration and refugee law?
It has always been an area very close to my heart. My parents came to Australia as refugees from Iran shortly before I was born. From a young age, I was aware of how lucky I was to be here and to enjoy the safety and opportunities available to me, compared to our friends and family back home. I always felt with that privilege came a responsibility to assist others.
My parents were lucky to be able to get to Australia at a time when it was still reasonably easy to obtain a visa to travel here. Over the years, I saw my family members resorting to increasingly dangerous journeys to get out of Iran and travel to Australia. In my final years of high school, my cousin attempted to make the journey by boat from Indonesia. He had kept his plans from my family here, and the first we heard of it was when one of his friends contacted us after media reports that two boats carrying asylum seekers had been lost at sea. We all feared the worst, but after a week, thankfully, received news that he had made it safely to Australia. He then spent a number of agonising years being shuffled around various remote immigration detention facilities across Australia.
The trauma of both his journey here and his time in detention confirmed my decision to pursue a career in this area, and advocate for more humane refugee and asylum policies, both here in Australia and around the globe.
Tell us briefly about how your research interests have developed since that first spark, and what’s most interesting to you right now.
That central goal of improving protection for refugees and asylum seekers continues to permeate my work to this day. What has changed are the tools and approaches I use to this end. I’m always exploring new and innovative areas of research that can build an evidence base for law and policy reform. My research transcends traditional disciplinary barriers, drawing on everything from law to computing, political science, international relations, behavioural psychology and data science, as well as my own lived experience and refugee background. My central focus is combining these different perspectives and approaches to influence law and policy and real-world outcomes for those in need of protection.
Your first book, Refuge Lost, examined the diffusion of restrictive asylum policies around the world. How have you viewed the increase in this phenomenon since you published the book in 2018?
In Refuge Lost, I documented the vicious cycle we are seeing around the world, with States competing with one another to implement progressively harsher policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers and blocking access to their territory. In this environment, States closely monitor and emulate (and often outdo) restrictive policies introduced in other jurisdictions. Sadly, that trend has only accelerated since the publication of my book. The COVID-19 pandemic provided the cover for States to tighten their border control measures, making it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers to cross borders to access protection. More recently we have seen the spread of policies such as offshore processing – with the UK and Denmark seeking to emulate Australia’s failed policies. Much of my more recent work has focused on strategies and approaches to countering this race to the bottom we are witnessing around the world.
Your latest publication looks into co-opting border and surveillance technology to improve refugee protection – what can you tell us about this aspect of the field and how important it might be for scholars and advocates in the future?
There has rightly been a great deal of focus on the risks and dangers of the use of technology in border control and surveillance. But there are also opportunities to use technology to monitor and expose governments’ mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers. In my earlier work, I documented how States use the tactic of obfuscation to evade their international obligations toward refugees. Asylum-control measures are carried out in remote locations far from the public gaze. This includes things such as boat push-backs at sea, offshore processing, or the use of remote detention facilities. Technology provides an opportunity to document the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and build an evidence base for strategic litigation as well as public advocacy campaigns. This can be as simple as asylum seekers and refugees sharing images and videos recorded on their smartphones, or the use of more sophisticated surveillance technology such as drones and satellite imaging. These tools can gather evidence that pierces the veil of secrecy constructed by governments and contributes to greater accountability.
You’ve also incorporated technology into your own work – can you describe what you’ve done, how you came to it, what you’ve learned about tech as a research tool, and how you see it potentially shaping your future work?
I’ve always been interested in collating new data points that can be used as evidence to inform effective reform advocacy in the refugee space. Technology and computational methods provide exciting opportunities in this regard.
I’ve applied this approach to study the judicial review of refugee cases in Australia. Along with my research student, Keyvan Dorostkar, we developed a Python code that automatically processes published judgements and provides novel statistical data and insights into the judicial review process. For example, we have for the first time documented the high degree of variation in terms of success rates across individual judges – confirming the anecdotal experience of many lawyers that your chances of success vary greatly depending on the judge who is assigned the case.
In my Australian Research Council DECRA project examining fast-track and accelerated asylum procedures, we are using a similar approach to quantify the average time it takes for asylum claims to be finalised, from initial lodgement through to judicial review. Our preliminary findings are that fast-track procedures are not only unfair and harmful, but once you factor in the delays caused by the significantly higher rates of success at judicial review, the process may be in fact failing in the goal of increasing efficiency, too.
I’m also very interested in the potential for technology to increase access to justice. Fewer than 15 per cent of Australians with legal problems currently manage to access legal assistance. Legal technology and automation can play a significant role in closing this gap by increasing the efficiency of legal service delivery. This would enable free legal services to assist more people, and also bring down the cost of commercial legal services. At Macquarie University, I was involved in establishing Wallumatta Legal, which harnesses the power of technology to deliver low-cost family law services to individuals who would otherwise be unable to access legal assistance. I’m also one of the founders of the National Justice Project’s Tech4Justice platform, which is using technology to make discrimination complaint-making easier and more accessible. This includes assisting users to navigate the hundreds of different complaints pathways available in Australia and identify which one is more appropriate for their circumstances, and using chatbots to assist users in drafting their complaints.
You are both a scholar and a practitioner. In addition to your academic roles, you are the Vice President of Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) and Special Counsel at the National Justice Project. How do those different aspects of your work feed each other?
My experience practicing as a refugee lawyer permeates all my research and teaching. It helps me to keep up to date with the latest law and policy developments, as well as gain insights into the lived experience of asylum seekers and refugees navigating the legal system. My work with RACS has been particularly rewarding. I began volunteering as an undergraduate student and have stayed involved in various capacities since then. It’s a real honour and privilege to now be part of the management committee. My work with the organisation has helped me identify areas of research that can assist lawyers and organisations working on the frontlines of refugee protection.
Are there any cases you’ve worked on that stay with you?
Very early in my career, I assisted an extended family who were survivors of the horrific 2010 Christmas Island boat disaster. The fishing boat they were travelling on had sunk after crashing against rocks at Christmas Island, and the majority of the people aboard the vessel had perished at sea. Our clients had lost parents, children, brothers and sisters. It was by far the most challenging and tragic case I have been involved in, and I developed a close bond with the family. I remain in contact with them to this day. That experience really confirmed my belief and commitment to advocating for safe pathways for accessing protection. No one should have to risk (or lose) their lives in a bid to reach safety.
Your latest turning point is to join the Kaldor Centre as Deputy Director. What attracted you to the Centre, and what do you hope to achieve here?
It is honestly a dream come true! I’m so excited to join what is no doubt the world’s leading research centre in this space. I have always been such a fan and admirer of the Centre and its commitment to creating and advocating for evidence-based solutions with real-world impact. I’ve also always admired the incredible work the Centre does in mentoring, supporting and amplifying the work of other scholars – and I myself have greatly benefited from such support over the years, including through the Centre’s excellent Emerging Scholars Network.
I’m thrilled to now be joining the team, particularly at such an exciting and hopeful time in terms of possibilities to influence progressive law and policy reform in Australia. I look forward to continuing to learn from and collaborate with the incredible team, and work together to progress the Centre’s core mission of advocating for more humane refugee and asylum policies.
Image credit: Jesse Taylor