Department of Comparative Politics
Citizen or refugee

Who is (un)protected by the law?

– Migration is an important field of law because legal status makes an enormous difference. If you have status as ‘citizen’ you are protected by the law in a completely different way than refugees and migrants.

Returning refugees is now at the core of many countries' asylum policy and states are becoming more innovative in finding ways of refusing refugee the protection they need. What are the consequences of such legislation, ask the researchers in the PROTECT and TEMPRO projects.

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These were the opening remarks of Professor Siri Gloppen, who earlier this week invited four migration researchers to present their research on how the law – or the absence of it – affects the lives and rights of refugees and migrants.

The UiB researchers Hakan G. Sicakkan from the Department of Comparative Politics and Jessica Schultz from the Law Faculty were physically present to the research of the projects PROTECT and TEMPRO, which both grapple with the consequences of changes and developments in European and global asylum politics and legal frameworks.

paneldeltakerne i seminaret sammen med Siri Gloppen

Director of the LawTransform Center, Siri Gloppen chaired the seminar on migration and law earlier this week. Physically present were colleagues Jessica Schultz and Hakan G. Sicakkan. The seminar was part of 'Bergen Exchanges on Law and Social Transformation', an event organized annually by LawTransform, CMI, and Bergen Global.

Mari Lund Eide

A goal of ‘returning’ rather than receiving

In the wake of the refugee crisis in 2015, many European countries developed restrictive asylum policies to prevent high numbers of refugee arrivals, explains Jessica Schultz.

– Return policies are now at the core of many states’ asylum and migration policy and we see innovations in states’ ways of deferring refugees seeking protection as a ‘return turn’ in the practice of refugee law, she says.

Schultz exemplifies by referring to Denmark’s asylum policy, where pushing returns has become an apparent priority:

– Denmark sees both refugees and asylum seekers as future ‘returnees’ and are organizing both integration policies and interpreting the Refugee Convention in a way that makes protection contingent on an ongoing protection need.

Denmark is not alone in deploying such a strategy, says Schultz:

– Among the restrictive tools states apply are granting short-term protection permits to refugees from certain groups, stricter requirements for receiving permanent residence, and regular protection reviews to identify people whose need for asylum no longer exists, says Schultz.

– We want to look at how these policies and laws are being justified and what effect they have on refugees from different nationalities, unaccompanied minors, and others, she says.

Ønsker flyktninger velkommen

Virtually present were the American researcher Jeffrey Staton and the Mexican anthropologist Edgar Cordova, who both use visual approaches to document the lives and challenges of refugees and migrants.

Ra Dragon/Unsplash

Professor Hakan G. Sicakkan explains the changing political and legal landscape surrounding asylum jurisdiction as a result of nationalist and nativist influxes in European parliaments and beyond:

– Nativist and nationalist influences are becoming more and more powerful in politics and are now represented in both national and European parliaments. The result is that existing laws and policies are being interpreted and implemented more restrictively in the entire global north, says Sicakkan.

His project PROTECT The Right to International protection studies how the increasingly hostile political climate surrounding refugee and asylum issues affects the rights and protection of refugees globally, citizens’ attitudes to refugee protection, and the quality of institutional architectures aimed at securing refugee rights.

Can new ‘soft law’ tools secure refugee rights?

Sicakkan and the PROTECT-researchers are interested in whether the legal protection frameworks, the UN Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants, which were launched in 2018 after two years of member state negotiations, will bring about positive changes for refugees.

As global displacement has reached an all-time high, the Compacts set out a common will for the international community to solidify the principles and objectives of the 1951 Geneva Convention, which was the first and only legal charter dedicated to securing refugee rights.

– The Refugee Compact encourages more concerted actions to mobilize states to take on the responsibilities of the Convention and share the burden of the world’s refugees. PROTECT is looking at the consequences of these compacts on the right to international protection, on the refugee law and its international governance, and whether they might change the perception of refugees into legitimate citizens in our society, says Sicakkan.

Studying the impact of the law: a myriad of approaches

Both TEMPRO and PROTECT apply a variety of approaches to study how changes in national and international legal frameworks are impacting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants.

A central approach of PROTECT’s legal scholars is studying how the Global Compacts might advance global refugee protection – despite its non-binding nature:

– Our legal experts examine how we can link the Compacts to the human rights norms and the refugee protection tools that already exist today and how they make refugee protection possible although they are soft-law instruments with few mentioning of existing human rights law and principles, says Sicakkan.

By gathering legal scholars and experts - and representatives from intergovernmental organizations, NGOs and CSOs focused on refugee protection for six Expert Forums - the PROTECT researchers will try to create dialogue and exchange ideas on the implementation of the Compacts, which in turn will form the basis of further academic exploration of the new legal tools.

PROTECT’s political scientists, on the other hand, will explore the best-performing institutional architectures of refugee protection whereas the social anthropologists will study the impacts of the Compacts on the ground through ethnographic fieldwork in the EU’s, Canada’s and South Africa’s refugee entry ports.

Interdisciplinary methods are also central in TEMPRO’s approach and Schultz explains that collaborations between legal scholars such as herself and her anthropologist colleagues have allowed them to study the law and its consequences from multiple perspectives:

– Instead of only using traditional legal methods such as researching the practice and interpretation of the law we are using bridging concepts from the broader migration literature such as ‘legal subjectivity’, which allows us to include how people themselves understand their legal status and the way it affects how they organize their lives, explains Schultz.

Panel and virtual participants

There is a turbulent political climate surrounding asylum and migration policies and legislation says migration expert Hakan G. Sicakkan. His research project PROTECT aims to find ways of advancing the current refugee protection system.

Mari Lund Eide

Dramatizing American immigration court experiences

Virtually present for the roundtable discussion were also the researchers Jeffery Staton from Emory University, US, and Edgar Cordova from Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), Mexico, who both have applied visual methods to study the experiences of migrants and refugees.

Professor Jeffrey Staton has engaged in an interdisciplinary research project that dramatizes and re-enacts court observation experiences from across the US.

The project collaborates with NGOs and Human Rights Organizations and their goal is to give civilians a chance to watch what goes on inside American immigration proceedings:

– One of the things we want to see is what would be the effects of observing immigration court be if you could get everyone in the United States to go?

By re-enacting and filming the court observations the court space, ordinarily a restricted room, becomes available to a larger audience. Staton also points out that the data collection from inside the courtroom is helpful in the advocacy of the NGOs involved:

– One thing they (NGOs, journ.remark) want to do is measure how professional the immigration judge is and whether they are treating people with respect. 

The project is one of two driven from an interdisciplinary learning lab, the Immigration Law Lab, where undergraduate and graduate students work together to develop student ideas into research projects.

Communicating refugee experiences through photography

With the camera as his research tool the anthropologist Edgar Cordova from CIESAS, Mexico has documented and explored the lives of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees and migrants in a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, which serves as one of the main gateways to Europe for migrants and refugees coming from Middle-East.

During his time on Lesbos, Cordova observed and interacted with refugees over a longer period and in various situations.

He argues that photography is a helpful tool to display the multi-faceted lives of refugees in camps and dispute established representations of refugees, such as one-dimensional portrayals of refugees often framed by journalists and the media:

– I saw many journalists who came to take photographs that follow editorial lines, so, young orphans posing in the most desolated areas of the camp: revictimizing them – while at the same time dozens of kids were helping to build a football court, says Cordova.

– And as soon as the journalists left, you could see the same person they interviewed leaving the camp to participate in demonstrations against policies while posting their disagreement on Instagram, he says.

According to Cordova, research through photography is therefore a tool to de-stabilize established representations of what a migrant or a refugee is – or must be.