Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law


Robert F. Barsky
Professor, Vanderbilt University; Guggenheim Fellow


Time to read

8 Minutes

Guest post by Robert F. Barsky (Professor, Vanderbilt University; Guggenheim Fellow).

Review of The Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law by Costello, Cathryn, Michelle Foster, and Jane McAdam (eds) (Oxford Handbooks 2021).

The Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law

The Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law is, by any criteria against which one might judge a work of this nature, a triumph. Cathryn Costello, Michelle Foster, and Jane McAdam have done an extraordinary job of editing, introducing, and contributing chapters to a work that totals 65 chapters, totaling more than 1,300 pages, written by 78 of the world’s leading IRL researchers, advocates, teachers and practitioners, this Handbook offers a wealth – nay a king’s ransom – of crucial insight into the history, the ethics, the politics, the intersectionality, the architecture, the institutions, the legal bases, the geographies, the limits, the procedures, and the next horizons in international refugee law and realms connected thereto. Situated inside of the broad areas of IRL readers are invited to delve into extraordinarily interesting chapters on gender, race, sexual orientation, disability rights, cessation, integration, restitution, repatriation, post-colonial theory, human rights, queer theory and feminism, supplemented by a comprehensive list of treaties and other instruments, and seminal cases. This work brings together people who, through their advocacy, clear-headedness, and devotion to fighting the good fight should be known by a broader swathe of the population. I thoroughly enjoyed the many hours I spent reading work by many of my favorite authors, researchers, advocates, and teachers, and some others whose work I discovered thanks to this process.

An exercise like this makes me wish that the superhuman efforts that went into creating this project, and the plethora of insights that it has produced, could resonate beyond the legal and refugee studies realms. I regret that a workshop that brought together many of its contributors, described in the acknowledgments, is not available online, as part of a website devoted to the deliberations that contributed to this work. I also think that the excellent introduction, and perhaps the first few pages of each chapter, could be open access rather than available through institutional access, to help guide the crucial conversations about vulnerable migrants that go on each day, without the benefit of work presented herein. In spite of all the other policies that are promoted by politicians in their quests to gain or maintain power, it remains the case that issues pertaining to forced migration and borders play a huge role in determining the outcome of elections, and the sickening stupidity of racist and xenophobic populism is an easy sell to people who haven’t heard anything beyond the dangers that ‘flows’ and ‘waves’ of unwanted ‘foreigners’ pose. It’s impossible to understand the catastrophic policies of Trump, Bolsonaro, Le Pen, Orbán, Modi and others without reference to vulnerable persons, especially vulnerable migrants, and this volume provides a plethora of facts and ideas that could help to counter the blatant falsehoods and horrendous policies that so many of us are then called upon to challenge and overturn. The only way to counter the sickening effects of racism, xenophobia, ignorance, and crass populism is to bring this work into the broader public discourse about refugees and forced migration. This is pretty unlikely, since it seems to be increasingly the case that people seek out texts and other sources that confirm rather than challenge their perspectives on crucial issues.

So, what are we supposed to do?

The first place to start is in educational settings, where future advocates and practitioners can be made to see beyond the relatively small corpus of legal texts that pertain to refugee law, and engage with the vast interdisciplinarity that constitutes refugee work. The problem is that most students don’t have the inclination, or the time that it takes, to read through 1,300 carefully argued pages; so they’re not likely to derive all the benefits that this multi-facetted approach to refugee law offers, nay, demands. This is a real pity. Nevertheless, if students or legal practitioners have specific questions about the origins, politics, ethics, and foundational bases of refugee law, they could read the essential contributions of Guy Goodwin-Gill, Rebecca Hamlin, Seyla Benhabib & Nishin Nathwani, François Crépeau and James Hathaway, and come away with a huge amount of crucial insight and understanding. Likewise, a scholar or practitioner interested in gender and sexual orientation will find the contributions of Adrienne Anderson, Michelle Foster, Nuno Ferreira, Carmelo Danisi, Catherine Dauvergne, Jenni Millbank truly eye and mind-opening. Students or practitioners who are seeking knowledge about specific regional refugee regimes can consult this section of the Handbook and find, for example, Deborah Anker’s fascinating overview of the legal frameworks, histories and evolutions of North American refugee systems; Maja Janmyr and Dallal Steven’s important overview of the refugee and human rights contexts in the Middle East; Khalida Azhigulova’s wide-ranging survey of the massive population movements in Central Asia and the recent policy shifts amongst some of the states therein; Michelle Foster and Anna Hood’s approach to the oft-overlooked region of Oceania that provides surprising insights about the principles, parameters and limitations of international refugee law from a part of the world where no regional refugee law system exists; or Susan M. Akram’s depressing overview of the unique and truly distressing challenges facing the Palestinian populations in the Middle East. On a more thematic level, researchers can consult Susan Kneebone & Audrey Macklin’s penetrating approach to resettlement, Georgia Cole’s fine overview of cessation, or Itamar Mann’s characteristically provocative and powerful work on border crimes as crimes against humanity. In other words, this is a handbook, and as such, scholars or practitioners can consult it on a need-to-know basis, and then expand their work outwards on the basis of what they learn therein.

But I think there’s another approach, and therefore a very different way to conceive of the value of this text. Readers would not be wrong to think that my description of this handbook sounds like it offers the basis for a serious liberal arts education minus, alas, insights from more humanistic or artistic approaches to the field, to which I have come to be strongly wedded. This is not a critique of this particular project. Another Handbook that would focus upon the representation of many of the issues described herein from the perspective of the Great Books, visual arts, performance art, and storytelling would be a terrific companion to this extraordinary effort. Together, the two Handbooks could be the basis for an entire undergraduate (or graduate) curriculum that would bring to bear insights from a broad array of fields and disciplines to address this complex realm. I’m not being facetious; rather, I’m thinking through challenges facing professors and administrators as they seek to connect studies within hallowed halls to challenges that students will (or should) be called upon to address when they graduate.

Universities are experiencing existential crises regarding their make-up, structure, governance, and role in society in part because the entire edifice is rather arbitrarily divided into faculties are still mostly divided up on the basis of departments and programs. This means that intrinsically interdisciplinary realms such as refugee studies are taught in departments of Political Science, Sociology, History, Anthropology, Geography, Economics, Global Studies, European Studies, Area Studies, ‘Foreign’ Languages and Law/Legal Studies. This creates challenges for students seeking to engage with the many dimensions of forced migration while still trying to satisfy the requirements for their degree. At the graduate level, there are wonderful institutes, clinics or programs that were founded (Debbie Anker at Harvard, Khalida Azhigulova in Kazakhstan, Rêz Gardî at the University of Auckland, James Hathaway at Asylum Access, Laura Waas at the Tilberg Law School), or are directed by, contributors to this volume. Many of my own best students who discover their own passion for refugee work as undergrads have sought to pursue their studies at places like the Refugee Studies Centre Oxford, the Centre for Refugee Studies York, the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University Cairo, the Refugee Law Initiative U of London, or the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International refugee Law U of NSW Australia. A Handbook like this one, or others, should be required reading in places like these, of course.

There’s another model that could help to align students’ studies and research with the kinds of work that they would like to pursue after graduating, which is to advocate for inter and multi-disciplinary programs of study. At the undergraduate level, this approach has gained traction over the years, and directed large swathes of students into programs such as: Art, Culture and Technology; Global and Urban Education Studies; Atmosphere / Energy; Translation and Intercultural Communication; Medicine, Health and Society; Border Studies; or Human, Social and Political Science. These compendiums tend to be more question driven, rather than focused on providing students with preparation to become (say) a Sociologist or a Political Scientist. This has also created a strong interest in Global Studies programs, which then (by necessity) helpfully engage with ‘foreign’ languages, translation, and intercultural communications. All of these programs need to promote interconnected, multidisciplinary, multi-facetted perspectives, and a Handbook like this one could serve as a central node from which an appropriately diverse curriculum could be built for the study of international refugee law.

This leads us to the next set of challenges, which are in some ways identified by reading this volume. Studying refugee law in Law School can be a rather disappointing affair, in part because it’s not treated with the same sense of importance as the ‘Doctrinal Courses’. This means that many schools don’t even offer specific IRL courses, and students aren’t encouraged to look beyond the law school to connect with other programs or departments. There are clinics, in most major law schools, but they don’t usually try to cover the vast gamut of issues directly connected to borders, border crossing and vulnerable migrants, opting instead for some cursory overviews of the procedures, and then engagement with specific cases. Well-advised students can be encouraged to look beyond the walls of the law school and into the adjacent colleges, but while possible in most places, it’s surprisingly unusual. A few graduate students from (say) Latin American Studies might take or audit a law school class on IRL or International Law, and there is the rare law student who ventures out to enjoy courses or talks on ‘main campus’; but there’s seldom any impetus to do so. Furthermore, there’s the pernicious tendency in law schools to encourage students to downplay whatever it was that they studied or learned before entering law school, because, after all, philosophy, ethics, African American Studies, literature and so forth are only treated as prerequisites, rather than integral parts of, the study of law. The advantage of a volume like this one is that it defies such deleterious ideas, so a curriculum built on its insights would be intrinsically interdisciplinary including, but not restricted to, questions of law and justice.

Finally, the challenge of a work like this one is to bring the knowledge contained herein to the people who really need it: refugees, undocumented migrants, and internally displaced persons.  It would also be valuable to consider the needs of those who are facing dreadful decisions about what to do in the face of violence or persecution, but have not yet decided how to escape or seek protection. Many of these people make horrendous missteps, like taking advice from the wrong people, which leads them into further persecution in course of their journey to seek protection. We can’t expect a single handbook to serve so many purposes, but there’s nevertheless real value in connecting the incredible efforts that were exerted to create this handbook to the mammoth challenges faced by vulnerable peoples.

An open access website that connects the kinds of questions that refugees have to answers, cases and resources available herein could be a useful starting point. A comprehensive and well-organized site could also be promoted to news sources where journalists could find actual information to challenge some of the destructive nonsense that pervades popular news and internet-based sources. All of this is akin to the experience of walking on a pristine beach that has been defaced by mountains of plastic garbage, and wondering how to address the situation. We can keep walking by it, pretending it’s not there. We can gather it up and put it into bins, in the hope that it doesn’t land up on some other shore, or burned, and thereby infused into the air that we breath. Or, we can look to the root of the issue, and discover that with a little more effort and insight, we could find other ways of hydrating ourselves, and others, that don’t require that we destroy the entire planet along the way.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

R. Barsky. (2022) Book Review: The Oxford Handbook of International Refugee Law. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/12/book-review-oxford-handbook-international-refugee-law. Accessed on: 26/05/2024

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