The recent stand-off on the waters of the Mediterranean between Italy, Malta and the rest of the EU is disheartening. But it is neither shocking nor unexpected given the trajectory of Europe’s response to people seeking protection on its shores, says Susan Reardon-Smith of the Refugee Law Initiative.

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. Similar policies and sentiments are echoed across the wealthy world, particularly in Australia and America.

The policies of these countries affect those seeking protection in their regions, and has an impact on refugee protection throughout the world. This happens because other countries are mirroring such restrictive policies (known as policy diffusion); there are funding gaps for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international humanitarian support (which countries rely on to help displaced persons on their territory); and most important, there is an erosion of refugee protection and the principles enshrined in the Refugee Convention more generally.

The refugee protection field, underwritten by refugee law and developed through policies and practices on the ground worldwide, is complex and multi-faceted. At its core is an international effort to ensure that displaced persons have 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 were not the intended outcome of the Refugee Convention. They 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 offer only a small step forward in what is a difficult political environment.

While there is a general sense of disappointment among refugee advocates in these processes, some argue that they still represent an important opportunity to draft guidelines that can then be built upon. Meanwhile, 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. Among 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, policymakers and practitioners in the refugee field. More than 180 participants will attend.

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 such as E. Tendayi Achiume (the UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance). The conference will 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.

Susan Reardon-Smith  is an academic support officer at the Refugee Law Initiative at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Drawing on her experience as a practitioner and a scholar, she coordinates and facilitates research across the RLI and its networks. 

Image: ©Mohammad Hasan