The Kaldor Centre welcomes Dr Tristan Harley as Senior Research Associate.

Dual-trained as a lawyer and historian, Dr Harley has also worked as a consultant with organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Refugee Council, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network and Act for Peace.

Dr Harley was honoured with the UNSW Law & Justice Dean’s Award for Outstanding PhD Thesis for his research, 'Beyond Storytelling: Refugee Participation in Decision-Making Processes'. His new role strengthens and expands the Centre's work in this area. As he takes up the job, we asked him to share some of his own story. 

How did you first get interested in forced migration and refugee law? 

My first substantive exposure to forced migration and refugee law was during an internship that I undertook at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre (now Justice Centre Hong Kong) more than a decade ago. This internship formed part of my Juris Doctor law degree at UNSW.

Hong Kong had no domestic laws relating to refugees at the time, nor any mechanism to determine the status of refugees, so the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) filled the void and conducted refugee status determination for asylum seekers in Hong Kong. 

Volunteering at the Hong Kong Refugee Advice Centre gave me the opportunity to work directly with asylum seekers on their protection claims and witness first-hand the human dimensions of international refugee law. This experience proved to be a defining moment in my professional life, sparking my passion and dedication for working in the field.

Tell us briefly about how your research interests have developed since that first spark, and what’s most interesting to you right now.

Since that first spark, my first major research interest was linked to an Australian Research Council project with Professor Penelope Mathew, where we explored the merits of regional cooperation frameworks for providing protection to refugees around the world. Our book Refugees, Regionalism and Responsibility emerged from this project and was published in 2016. It provides a detailed examination of past and present regional arrangements concerning refugees in Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia and the Pacific, and considers whether regionalism has resulted in protection and durable solutions for both refugees and participating states.

More recently, my research has focused on how refugees can be more meaningfully included in decision-making processes that affect them. Around the world, there is growing interest among various stakeholders for responses to displacement to become more inclusive, efficient, and respectful of the rights and dignity of those who are displaced. However, there is a lack of clarity and evidence as to what meaningful participation looks like and how the international law and policy framework governing participation can be best designed. With support from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, I am currently undertaking a research project examining these issues.

You’ve just completed your PhD, which is titled Beyond Storytelling: Refugee Participation in Decision-Making Processes. Can you share a little bit about the thesis and what you found?

My thesis provided an in-depth study of the international law and policy framework governing the meaningful participation of refugees in decision-making processes. In this project, I looked at what legal duties currently exist to consult with or include refugees in decisions that directly affect them, how and to what extent refugees have been able to participate in different decision-making areas in practice, and what potential reforms are needed in this area.

What my thesis found was that despite recent commitments towards meaningful refugee participation among states and other stakeholders, the international legal and policy framework has insufficiently provided for this to occur in practice. Whether it is in relation to decisions regarding the development of law and policy, the transfer of refugees from one jurisdiction to another, or the delivery of programs and services for refugees, refugees are frequently excluded from having a say in matters that impact their human rights. 

This exclusion is problematic and, as many refugees can testify, has real-world consequences. Insufficient participation can hamper the design and implementation of protection responses. This may be due to a lack of understanding of contextual conditions, for example, or a failure to consider relevant information that only refugees possess. But beyond this, it also undermines the agency and dignity of refugees and weakens democratic ideals of good governance. This is an area, I believe, where a more robust international law and policy framework is acutely needed.

How do you see ‘meaningful participation’ happening now; where can we look for examples of this being done well?

One of the things that I stress in my research is the need to unpack meaningful participation conceptually and to clearly demarcate the types of decisions that legally or morally demand refugee participation and the levels of participation that each decision requires. This is important, because the concept of participation can accommodate such a broad range of meanings and motives and, without attention to the distinctive types and aims of participation, there is a risk that participatory undertakings become oversimplified or implemented inappropriately. 

Around the world, there is currently a wide range of promising practices emerging in relation to refugee participation. UNHCR, for example, is beginning to include refugees more meaningfully in its internal governance and international meetings. Private philanthropists and other donors are starting to directly finance refugee-led organisations, in recognition of the unique and significant roles that these organisations play in supporting refugee communities. Governments have also publicly recognised, through the Global Compact on Refugees, that responses to displacement are most effective when they actively and meaningfully engage those they are intended to protect and assist. In some contexts, new national refugee-led networks have also emerged to engage more directly in domestic law and policy developments. Each of these developments is welcome and will hopefully drive meaningful reform in the sector.

What’s the biggest obstacle to it, or examples of it being done badly?

While promising practices are emerging, one of the biggest obstacles to the pursuit of meaningful refugee participation is the political will of stakeholders who currently hold decision-making power over refugees to relinquish some of that control. From one lens, the meaningful inclusion of refugees in decision-making processes can be seen as part of a broader political project to decolonise how the international refugee regime functions. There is a danger that, without sufficient political will and good faith engagement from key stakeholders, refugee participation will only be implemented in a piecemeal or tokenistic way. 

What are your interests outside work?

One of my main passions outside of work is spending time exploring the outdoors. I love to go on hikes in the bush or camping or backpacking with my family and friends. I feel very fortunate to live so close to the Blue Mountains and the Royal National Park. Back in 2016, I took this passion to the next level by co-founding Emu Trekkers, Australia’s first not-for-profit adventure tour operator run by volunteer guides. We offer hiking tours around Sydney and the Blue Mountains, with all proceeds going to support organisations such as the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and UNICEF.