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Summary of IRLC Panel

Friday, April 26, 2013 – The ABA International Refugee Law Committee and the Africa Committee co-sponsored a panel at the ABA Section of International Law Spring Meeting in Washington, D.C., titled “Rwandan Refugees – Is it Safe to Come Home?” The panel addressed the situation of Rwandan refugees in light of the UNHCR’s recommendation to invoke Cessation of their refugee status on June 30, 2013. The Cessation applies to those who escaped events in Rwanda that occurred between 1956 and 1998.

Speaking to a packed room, panelists included Filip Reyntjens, Professor of African Law and Politics at the Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp; Olivia Bueno, International Refugee Rights Initiative’s Associate Director; and Mutuyimana Manzi a Rwandan refugee in Uganda since 2007.

The panel, organized and moderated by Northwestern Professor Galya Ruffer, provided a context of the situation in Rwanda today, considered the requirements for invocation of the Cessation of refugee status and presented a case study of who are the Rwandan refugees today and what are their concerns in regards to Cessation of their status. The focus of the panel then centered on lawyering and advocacy in such a situation in order to consider strategies, ethical concerns and responsibilities of lawyering in situations of severe oppression where lives are at risk.

As if playing into the theme of the panel, the Q&A resulted in a heated debate that carried on well past the end of the allotted time. In attendance was the Rwandan Ambassador to the United States who, along with a handful of other attendees, sought to discredit Professor Reyntjens and Mr. Manzi’s observations about the current state of affairs in Rwanda. The panel ended with moderator Professor Ruffer noting that in this difficult and complicated environment, it is indeed important to consider how lawyers give voice and protection in such a situation without making the refugees more vulnerable.

-Joe Hansen, Vice Chair of IRLC


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Refugee News Update

Solutions for Syria’s Refugees

It didn’t seem as if the situation in Syria could get any worse until last week when reports surfaced that the Syrian government may be using chemical weapons. Now U.S. lawmakers are calling on President Obama to take stronger action. But what should he do?

The most pressing problem seems to be the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. The generosity of Syria’s neighbors may be reaching its limit. What’s the best way to deal with the growing refugee crisis in the region?

Source: New York Times, full article here

Published: 1 May 2013

Colombia Tops IDMC Internally Displaced People List

Almost 29 million people lived in internal displacement in 2012, with 6.5 million newly displaced just in the past year, a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council suggests.

For the fourth year running, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people on the list.

Source: BBC News, full article here

Published: 29 April 2013

Immigration Reform Overlooks Asylum-Seekers

Harsh rules enacted in 1996 prevent them from working for months or years, making many destitute.

“Work authorization is not meant to get you rich, it’s to let you live,” said an Egyptian asylum-seeker who fled to the United States after a radical group beat him and tried to kidnap his wife and daughter. After fleeing persecution in their home countries, asylum-seekers like this man in New Jersey face a new type of maltreatment in the United States: The U.S. government won’t let them work during what is often a drawn-out asylum process.

As a result, vulnerable people who come to this country as their last hope too often end up destitute.

Source: L.A. Times, full article here

Date: 25 April 2013

Asylum Seekers Can Start Working Sooner Thanks To Class Action Lawsuit Settlement

The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have reached an agreement to allow asylum seekers whose cases have been pending for more than six months to apply for employment authorization — a huge relief to the thousands of people who have come to the United States to escape persecution who struggle to make ends meet as their applications are being reviewed.

At the heart of the class action lawsuit is the so-called “asylum clock” — the six month waiting period between the time an asylum seeker files for an asylum application and when that person can apply for legal work authorization. In the past, the asylum clock began only after the applicant was granted a hearing with an immigration judge and started without notice to the asylum seeker. But the settlement would give non-detained applicants at least 45 days to prepare for an expedited hearing.

Source: Think Progress, full article here

Date: 25 April 2013

Uganda Pilots Mobile Courts for Refugees

KAMPALA, 23 April 2013 (IRIN) – Uganda’s government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have launched a pilot mobile court system to improve access to justice for victims of crimes in Nakivale, the country’s oldest and largest refugee settlement.

The magistrate’s court, whose first session began on 15 April, will hear cases of robbery, land disputes, child rape, sexual and gender-based violence, attempted murder, and murder. The project – a collaboration of the Uganda government, UNHCR, Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project (RLP) and the Uganda Human Rights Council – aims to benefit some 68,000 refugees and 35,000 Ugandan nationals in the settlement.

“With the nearest law court currently 50km away in Kabingo, Isingiro, access to justice has been a real problem for refugees and locals alike. As a result many fail to report crimes and are forced to wait for long periods before their cases are heard in court,” said a UNHCR briefing on the programme.

Source: IRIN, full article here

Published: 23 April 2013

When It Comes to Somalia’s Displaced, Don’t Mistake Ambition for Achievement

As the number of internally displaced people in the world reaches record levels, Somalia’s situation highlights why creative solutions are needed to assist returnees.

Somalia’s new government is beginning to build confidence in its ability to progress the country’s recovery. The UK opened its new embassy – a collection of shipping containers painted white – in Mogadishu last week, and other European countries are following suit. Somalia’s progress raises an immediate question: is it now time for hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people living in the region to return?

Source: The Guardian, full article here

Date: 29 April 2013

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Conversations with International Refugee Law Attorneys: Zaid Hydari

Zaid Hydari is a graduate of Fordham University School of Law. As a Deans’ Fellow following graduation, Zaid co-directed a Leitner Clinic project that addressed the human rights implications of U.S. immigration law. As the recipient of the James E. Tolan Human Rights Fellowship, Zaid served as a legal adviser with HCA-RASP from Sept 2010 to Sept 2011, when he began his current role as the co-coordinator of the Refugee Status Determination Legal Assistance Unit.

– How did you become interested in the field of international refugee law? 

In addition to the interest sparked in me by my own family history of migration, as a teenager in Houston, TX, I accompanied my mother as she volunteered to assist resettled refugee families from Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Helping children with homework and arranging furniture donations influenced my decision to pursue an understanding of refugee law while a student at Fordham Law School. Committed to public interest but not sure where exactly to focus my attention, I was drawn to refugee legal aid as an opportunity to work directly on pressing human rights issues facing millions of the most vulnerable people worldwide.

– How and when did you become involved with the Refugee Solidarity Network?

The idea behind RSN was formulated before I began working for the Helsinki Citizens Assembly Refugee Program (HCA-RASP) in Istanbul. When I joined the NGO in 2010, I was immediately impressed with the level of professionalism and expertise demonstrated by the organization, but was also struck by their funding and resource limitations. When I heard that an idea existed to make a connection between our NGO and the United States, I was inspired to make it a reality. With the help of current and former colleagues, we formalized this idea and began thinking of all the ways in which refugee rights advocates in Turkey and the U.S. could engage with and learn from one another.

– What do you consider to be the greatest achievement of the Refugee Solidarity Network?

The project is new but we have already made great progress in raising awareness and building a network of interested parties in the U.S.. I am very proud of our board of directors and advisory board who have helped us start the transition between the initial start-up phase and an operational one. We have already launched a research support project in partnership with Northwestern University’s Center for Forced Migration Studies, and are continuing to develop two very exciting legal engagement projects in which we hope to bring together the American and Turkish legal communities to discuss how pro bono hours and law school clinics can be institutionalized in Turkey. We also continue to explore ways to raise funding for refugee legal aid in Turkey, and hope to have our 501c3 status soon to start soliciting donations.

– How are refugees treated by the Turkish government and people?

In Turkey, only European refugees are given the option for long-term integration into Turkish society. Asylum-seekers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, the largest groups seeking asylum each year, are only given temporary asylum, which means even if recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and the Turkish government, they await resettlement to third-countries (U.S.A., Canada, Australia, Norway), which is limited. That being said, the Turkish government is trying to make changes to its incomplete asylum system through new legislation, but we are talking about a very substantive challenge. Turkey is a major country of asylum and transit, currently hosting about 200,000 Syrian refugees as well as receiving around 20,000 applications from individuals from other countries in 2012. Despite huge increases in arrivals on a yearly basis, Turkish people are not generally aware of what asylum-seekers have been through. Like any population, there are elements that are xenophobic, while others are generous. We think that there is a lot of potential for sensitization and awareness-raising among all sectors of Turkish society to the issues and experiences of refugees.

– Is there anything different in your approach from other organizations that work in the field of refugee law? 

RSN does not seek to reinvent the wheel. RSN believes that there are already committed organizations and individuals working within Turkey’s civil society on asylum and migration issues and they need to be supported. Many times organizations working overseas want to impose solutions or programs. RSN hopes to organize and coordinate willingness to help on the American side and translate that into effective ends for Turkish refugee rights advocates.

-What advancements in the law do you think would help improve the situation for refugees? 

Refugees around the world face similar difficulties, like being prohibited the legal right to work or gain access to basic services. RSN and its local partners work on such issues, at the national, regional, and international level. For example, HCA RASP was actively involved in influencing Turkey’s first-ever comprehensive legislation on asylum and refugee issues last year, a law that has been introduced to Parliament for consideration, while also working at the European level. Such advocacy hopes to raise the bar not only in Turkey, but across the world. RSN’s role is to take best practices from the American model and try to apply them to Turkey, while leaving the worst practices behind.

-Any advice you would like to give to law students and attorneys who are looking to work with international refugees?

Funding is readily available for international internships over 1L and 2L summers, but those are only periods of about 10 weeks, and therefore not enough time for NGO’s in the field to train students and also allow them to contribute meaningfully before their departure. RSN hopes to engage in training programs to help address this issue, but law students should put pressure on their law schools and legal communities to fund post-graduate opportunities overseas.  Funding for 6 months or more is much more valuable to NGOs. Getting familiar with refugee law, client interaction, language skills, and securing funding are concrete things that can be undertaken to make oneself a more productive volunteer or potential employee.

For More Information on the Refugee Solidarity Network visit:

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Moot Courts: Jessup International Law Competition

(Cross-posted from Forced Migration Current Awareness.)

I recently learned from Guy Goodwin-Gill that the 2013 Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition is focusing on a hypothetical case involving, among other things, climate change-related migration, an island state that disappears, boat people, immigrant detention, and the proposed transfer of detainees to a third state. For those of you who are not familiar with the Jessup competition, it is a “simulation of a fictional dispute between countries before the International Court of Justice, the judicial organ of the United Nations. One team is allowed to participate from every eligible school. Teams prepare oral and written pleadings arguing both the applicant and respondent positions of the case.” It’s organized by the International Law Students Association (ILSA).

The problem in this hypothetical case is presented in the form of a “compromis,” which is defined as “a formal agreement between nations submitting a dispute to arbitration and defining the terms of the submission… .” The 2013 Jessup compromis is officially titled “Compromis between Alfurna (Applicant) and the State of Rutasia (Respondent) to Submit to the International Court of Justice the Differences between the Parties concerning the Alfurnan Migrants”; the text is available here, where visitors will also find corrections to/clarifications of the text as well as additional competition materials (i.e., relevant legal instruments).

Moreover, this ILSA-IBA web cast features Guy Goodwin-Gill and Michael Waibel discussing the issues raised in the compromis with Joe Terrenzio, ILSA’s Jessup Competition Coordinator, and providing helpful suggestions for additional reading and resources that might assist teams in the preparation of their arguments.

The compromis certainly highlights a number of forced migration topics which are currently the subject of extensive debate and its “sinking island” scenario may not remain hypothetical for much longer. It is no secret that many island states today are actively exploring different avenues for protecting themselves in the face of rising sea levels. So it will be interesting to see what the participating teams come up with next spring!

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New Book: UNHCR and International Refugee Law

(cross-posted from Forced Migration Current Awareness)

(This Note was contributed by Corinne Lewis, a former legal officer with UNHCR, who now works in the area of business and human rights law. She is currently drafting a book for Advocates for International Development that provides guidance to law firms on the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.)

I am delighted to have an opportunity to provide information about my book UNHCR and International Refugee Law: From Treaties to Innovation, which was just released by Routledge this summer.

Following nearly ten years of work as a legal officer with UNHCR, with posts in Headquarters in Geneva and in the field, I decided to couple my practical experience with research done in connection with my PhD thesis in order to have a more global understanding of UNHCR’s role related to international refugee law. This book builds upon a number of preliminary ideas I had, which were published in an article in the International Journal of Refugee Law in 2005, titled “UNHCR’s Contribution to the Development of International Refugee Law: Its Foundations and Evolution.”

In the book, I focus on the ways in which UNHCR contributes to the creation of refugee law and works to ensure that States actually implement such law in their policies as well as their practices. In general, the book attests to the organisation’s dynamic contribution to the evolution of international refugee law and thus, the law’s continued viability in protecting refugees.

Specifically, the book addresses four questions:
1. What are the foundations for UNHCR’s role related to the development and effectiveness of international refugee law?
2. What are the formal and informal means that have facilitated the adaptation of UNHCR’s role?
3. How has UNHCR influenced the development of international refugee law?
4. How has UNHCR enhanced the effectiveness of international refugee law?

The initial two chapters consider the basis for UNHCR’s role related to international refugee law. The responsibilities that UNHCR was assigned concerning refugee law in its statute were greatly influenced by the mandates and work of the refugee organisations that preceded UNHCR. These refugee law responsibilities relate to two key areas: the development of international refugee law and ensuring the effectiveness of such law.

However, these responsibilities are not static, but have evolved during the more than 60 years of UNHCR’s existence as UNHCR has dealt with new movements of refugees, changes in States’ willingness to accept refugees and their treatment of asylum-seekers. Therefore, Chapter 3 considers the formal statutory means and UNHCR’s implied powers, which facilitate the changes in UNHCR’s role.

Chapter 4 examines how the crisis in international refugee law and refugee protection, which began in the 1980’s, brought to the fore the weaknesses in refugee law and the problems with States’ respect of such laws. The measures that UNHCR then undertook to address such weaknesses and to attempt to ensure that States respect international refugee law are considered in Chapters 5 and 6 respectively.

The final chapter, Chapter 7, weaves the observations from the first six chapters into an overview of UNHCR’s interaction with international refugee law and then suggests how UNHCR should extend and strengthen its role related to international refugee law.

I am greatly indebted to so many former colleagues in UNHCR who work tirelessly on behalf of refugees throughout the world and from whom I continue to learn. I hope that this book assists them and others working with refugees to have a greater understanding of how UNHCR influences the content of refugee law and works to ensure States’ respect for such laws so that this role can be further enhanced in the future.


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New UNHCR Detention Guidelines

UNHCR’s Division of International Protection has just released the following publication:

Detention Guidelines: Guidelines on the Applicable Criteria and Standards relating to the Detention of Asylum-Seekers and Alternatives to Detention (UNHCR, 2012)

With the aim of guiding governments and decision-makers, here is the stated scope of the guidelines (p. 8):

These Guidelines reflect the state of international law relating to detention – on immigration-related grounds – of asylum-seekers and other persons seeking international protection. They equally apply to refugees and other persons found to be in need of international protection should they exceptionally be detained for immigration-related reasons. They also apply to stateless persons who are seeking asylum, although they do not specifically cover the situation of non-asylum-seeking stateless persons, persons found not to be in need of international protection or other migrants, although many of the standards detailed herein may apply to them mutatis mutandis. This is particularly true with regard to non-refugee stateless persons in the migratory context who face a heightened risk of arbitrary detention. The Guidelines do not cover asylum-seekers or refugees imprisoned on the basis of criminal offences.

The volume proceeds to set out 10 guidelines and includes an Annex which outlines alternatives to detention.

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Guidelines for the Protection of People Fleeing Violence and Conflict

(cross-posted from the Forced Migration Current Awareness blog)

In his introductory statement to the 54th meeting of EXCOM’s Standing Committee, the director of UNHCR’s Division of International Protection referenced the evolving and complex nature of armed conflict and violence. In the interest of determining how best to protect those who flee from such situations, he noted that

…UNHCR will develop guidelines on how international and regional refugee instruments apply to people fleeing violence and conflict across international borders. They will also identify in detail those who may not necessarily be covered by existing instruments and explore possible alternative frameworks or approaches in such instances. This research thus fits within broader discussions on protection gaps and temporary protection that we looked at as part of the commemorations cycle (p. 11).

Three papers that have been published so far in this context include:
– The Causes, Character and Conduct of Armed Conflict, and the Effects on Civilian Populations, 1990-2010 (UNHCR, April 2012) [text]
– The 1951 Refugee Convention and the Protection of People Fleeing Armed Conflict and Other Situations of Violence (UNHCR, Sept. 2012) [text]
– Women and Girls Fleeing Conflict: Gender and the Interpretation and Application of the 1951 Refugee Convention (UNHCR, Sept. 2012) [text]

These titles have been issued as part of the Legal and Protection Policy Research Series.

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