In 2013, UNSW established the world’s first centre dedicated to the study of international refugee law, the Kaldor Centre, with Jane McAdam at the helm.

Under her guidance, the Kaldor Centre has evolved into a global powerhouse – shaping debates, influencing policies, and, above all, producing ground-breaking research.

Now, Jane McAdam is handing the leadership role to Daniel Ghezelbash, who has served as the Centre’s Deputy Director for the past two years. McAdam will spearhead a new research program within the Kaldor Centre, the Evacuations Research Hub, supported by a prestigious Australian Research Council (ARC) Laureate Fellowship.

In this podcast episode, McAdam reflects on the origins of the Centre, how it came to be so impactful during a period of great challenge for refugees, and her aspirations for the decade ahead.

An urgent time

The Kaldor Centre was founded in a period of heightened hostility towards asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. Domestically and worldwide, urgent questions abounded about the role of international law in protecting people displaced by persecution or, increasingly, by disasters or other impacts of climate change.

‘These were the background issues that we felt would be enriched by having a core group of people – a critical mass of people – working on questions of forced migration in the global context, with strengths in regional and national protection,’ McAdam says in the podcast.

‘The issue of refugees had become so polarising and toxic, in some ways, that even to call for such a Centre was almost a political act in and of itself,’ she says. ‘We were looking for philanthropic support to [create the Centre] and, for some time, not finding interest.’

That changed over a lunch with Andrew and Renata Kaldor, whose support made it possible to realise this vision. The Kaldors have been ‘champions, supporters, and instrumental in helping us create the Centre since 2013,’ says McAdam.

The Kaldors’ commitment to international refugee law reflects ‘their own family histories – coming from Europe when they were both young children as refugees and finding a home in Australia, and subsequently building extremely successful careers here.

‘They really felt that this was the way that they, and we, could try and transform public understanding, opinion, and knowledge of the issues.’

In the years since, the Kaldor Centre has gone from strength to strength, building a track record of impact both in Australia and globally.

Research in action

In the domestic arena, the Centre’s agenda-setting work includes the 2022 Principles for Australian Refugee Policy. These provide evidence-based guidance on how, and why, Australia can develop a more positive, sustainable and long-term refugee policy.

The Kaldor Centre also spearheaded innovative research on the history and practice of asylum policy in Australia. In her book Asylum by Boat (NewSouth, 2017), Senior Research Fellow Dr Claire Higgins goes back in history to show how policymakers can shape the mood of the country, for better and worse. Incoming Director Daniel Ghezelbash’s cutting-edge work on systemic bias in refugee status decision-making, through the Kaldor Centre Data Lab, has shaped reform of the administrative appeals process and been picked up as recommendations for courts.

The Centre has also brought the human consequences of Australia’s refugee policy to public attention. By documenting offshore processing, including with the 2016 publication of Senior Research Fellow Madeline Gleeson’s acclaimed book Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru (UNSW Press, 2016) ‘part of what we realised we were doing was simply putting on the public record what was happening,’ says McAdam.

McAdam’s own books for the general public, including Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum Is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not  (UNSW Press, 2014) and its updated successor, Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs (UNSW Press, 2019), co-authored with Fiona Chong, brought legal principles to bear on the myths and misinformation that govern political debate about people seeking asylum.

‘Even if we couldn't undo some of these laws that were being passed, we could, at a very minimum, demonstrate why they were flawed [and] why they were inconsistent with international law,’ says McAdam.

The Kaldor Centre’s award-winning podcast series Temporary, co-produced by Communications Manager Lauren Martin and Executive Manager Frances Voon alongside Guardian Australia and UNSW’s Centre for Ideas, revealed the impact of the Australian refugee regime to a wider audience. In their own voices, refugees and asylum seekers cast a light on the legal limbo created by Australia’s temporary protection policy.

Embedding change with refugees

The Centre’s record of impact is broader than Australia, spanning regional and international progress. In partnership with scholars with lived experience of forced displacement, Senior Research Associate Dr Tristan Harley co-leads a research team working to advance refugee inclusion in the Asia-Pacific region. He is helping to drive a working group developing an independent declaration affirming the right of refugees to actively participate in decisions affecting them. Also, with Program Coordinator Oudai Tozan, Harley helpd to steer the Centre’s consequential Displaced Scholars Peer Mentoring Program

‘If there is one change that I have noticed [in the field],’ says McAdam, ‘it is the recognition of the work that refugees themselves do to support this sector, but also that lived experience, and the value of the knowledge and experience that refugees themselves bring.

‘If you look at who drafted the [1951] Refugee Convention, a number of those people themselves had been displaced in Europe as a result of the events of the Second World War, and they deeply understood what it meant to be a refugee.

'In a way, we lost our way in not remembering and recognising that expertise until more recent times,’ she adds.

Pioneering climate mobility responses

The Kaldor Centre has been recognised as a leading global authority on climate mobility and the impact of climate change and disasters on displacement. Building upon decades of scholarship – including her long-standing work with the International Law Association, the UNHCR, and collaborators including Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill, former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Kaldor Centre – McAdam co-authored with Senior Research Fellow Dr Tamara Wood the 2023 Kaldor Centre Principles on Climate Mobility, a toolkit for developing rights-based responses to climate displacement that safeguard fundamental human rights and principles of climate justice.

The Principles draw upon McAdam’s contribution to the 2023 Pacific Regional Framework on Climate Mobility. as well as.

‘Having an opportunity to draft the initial [framework] for Pacific governments was an enormous privilege and challenge,’ McAdam says. ‘It was an opportunity to try and put into practice some of the ideas that I've been advocating for in my scholarship over many years.’

Now, with the launch of the Evacuations Research Hub at the Kaldor Centre, McAdam will turn her attention to generating legal and policy innovations to protect the rights of evacuees. ‘Evacuations are something in our field that we tend to talk about as a very positive, life-saving measure,’ she says.

‘But there's also a blind spot, which is that evacuations can be a form of displacement in and of themselves. And, very often, they can be the start of the disaster, rather than the response to it.’

The decade ahead

Looking to the future, McAdam sees the Centre in safe hands. ‘I would describe Daniel as a person and a scholar with enormous integrity, great drive and energy,’ she says.

‘He’s got the vision and the ability to lead the Centre into the next decade.’

Reflecting on her tenure leading the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, McAdam says three things stand out people, hope and promise for the future. ‘The thing that came immediately to mind was the people,’ she says.

‘That's the people in the Kaldor Centre, but also in our broader networks, and all of those who have supported us,’ McAdam says. ‘All around the world, whoever it is, those people make all the difference.’

‘Part of that, too, is the hope people retain that refugees and other forced migrants deserve – and hopefully will get – better protection.

‘With that comes a sense of commitment and determination – and that's absolutely evident within the Kaldor Centre, and all of those engaged with it.

‘So many people have given generously of their time and expertise and their support, and the Centre is so much more than the sum of its parts now,’ McAdam says.

‘I could never have imagined it being what it is today, and I know that under Daniel’s leadership, it will become something bigger and better in the next decade. And I'm so excited to see what that looks like.’

Listen to the full podcast interview with Jane McAdam sharing stories from the making of the Kaldor Centre.

For more information, visit the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.