Why Refugee Law Is Difficult … Even Without the Politics – Mid-Week Review

By Sam Ryan
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By Sam Ryan. This review is part of our December 2012 and January 2013 focus on Asylum Seekers.

“Sometimes there’s nothing better than a good rant” is how The Wheeler Centre sums up its weekly Lunchbox/Soapbox sessions.

Refugee law is not an easy thing to “rant” about to a lay audience, especially in 20 minutes while providing backdrops and explanations of conventions and the intricacies of international law.

At one of these sessions last month, Susan Harris Rimmer sought to do just this and provide some context to the politically abused topic of forced migration, although she did manage to keep her passion on the subject politely on the reasonable side of ranting.

Unfortunately, it isn’t really enough time to properly flesh out some issues, especially those that tangled up in the complex and contentious world of international law, yet Harris Rimmer did manage to give a presentation that was accessible and thought-provoking with just enough detail for weight.

At any one time, there are approximately 190 million people, 3 per cent of the world’s population living somewhere outside the country in which they were born

Susan Harris Rimmer is the Manager of Advocacy and Development Practice at the Australian Council for International Development, peak body for Australian development NGOs, and gives longer versions of the same presentation to the military.

A key take-home point was one of her first, as she raised the audience high above the planet for a wide view of global displacement and people movement to rebuff fears that are easily provoked through migration and asylum seekers.

The fact is, Harris Rimmer pointed out, that most people movement happens within state boundaries.

At any one time, there are approximately 190 million people, three per cent of the world’s population living somewhere outside the country in which they were born, a figure that has remained stable for 50 years. Of those, 70 million are heading from a developing country to a developed country. The other two-thirds are moving from one developing country to another.

… [international law] has very little to say on forced migration far less than it does on the law of the sea, space, or fish.

“Poor people, generally, stay put or, if they move, they move within their boundaries,” Harris Rimmer stated.

At present there are around 14 million refugees in the world. Far from heading to Australia in droves, most head to poor neighbouring countries, with about 500,000 seeking asylum in the “west”.

There are around 26 million people, more than the population of Australia, internally displaced due to natural disasters and conflict.

Canvassing the technical ground of what international law has to say on the matter, Harris Rimmer rushed through some key conventions and components, but commented sadly that it actually has very little to say on forced migration far less than it does on the law of the sea, space, or fish.

“I have absolutely no answers as to what to do with people smuggling,” she later added, “other than to prevent people needing to be smuggled.”

While states and the United Nations need to work to fill these gaps and modernise Cold War documents like the 1951 Refugee Convention that were not made with issues like internal displacement, climate change and mass poverty in mind, part of the reason it does not have the same legal stature as other international issues, she said, is because there isn’t as much global migration as people think.

Harris Rimmer was diplomatic but seemed to feel strongly with regards to how we think about people smugglers, and be a little more open minded to the complicated issue.

“It is a very wicked problem and its a very real problem. And it is a very difficult issue for policy makers. Myself, I draw a line between ‘for profit’ people smugglers and members of the diaspora … but it’s dangerous,” she said.

“I have absolutely no answers as to what to do with people smuggling,” she later added, “other than to prevent people needing to be smuggled.”

Again, it is an issue that Harris Rimmer sees as one that needs much greater attention.

Susan Harris Rimmer spoke in a controlled and very professional manner throughout, but her underlying, deep passion for this was evident, and it is clear that she desperately wants to see greater and better informed public discourse.

It is complex, emotional and highly politicised. Yet if you step back and look at some of the real numbers, it seems odd that a problem so small in Australia can be used so effectively to generate fear in the community.

Watch the video recording of this presentation on the Wheeler Centre website.

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