In March, Hungary, which already had lined 109 miles of its border with razor wire, passed a law requiring asylum-seekers to remain in camps constructed from shipping containers while their cases are reviewed—a process that could take years. The detention scheme has been condemned by human rights groups, but does it violate international law?
Kenya has hosted the world's largest refugee camp since neighboring Somalia destabilized in the early 1990s. The government wants to close the camp and send its 260,000 denizens home. But is drought-afflicted Somalia obligated to accept them?
The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the North African coast have long been an entry point for migrants seeking to enter the European Union. Recently, Spain has cracked down on unauthorized border-crossing, sending migrants back to Morocco on the spot. Are these so-called "hot returns," which don’t allow for potential refugees to have their claims heard, a violation of European Union legislation?
These are just some of the legal questions states and international bodies must wrestle with at a time when, according to the UN Refugee Agency, some 34,000 people flee their homes every day because of war or persecution. And these particular conundrums have to do with an especially tricky area of international law, refugees' freedom of movement—the topic of this year's Colloquium on Challenges in International Refugee Law, recently hosted by Michigan Law's Program in Refugee and Asylum Law.
"These really are the cutting-edge issues that governments, and NGOs, and refugees are worried about," said James C. Hathaway, the James E. and Sarah A. Degan Professor of Law at Michigan and director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law. "We're not lawmakers, but our goal is to help make the debate more informed and thoughtful."
The biennial colloquium, held since 1999, will add to a set of recommendations known as the Michigan Guidelines on the International Protection of Refugees, which deal with the interpretation of international treaties and agreements such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
"The Michigan Guidelines have been picked up by courts around the world," said Nora Markard, junior professor for public law, international law, and global constitutionalism at the University of Hamburg, who is one of 10 international experts invited to participate in this year's colloquium along with Michigan Law students. "This effort brings together people from different regions in the world, both academics and practitioners from high levels, and the Guidelines are a really important set of standards."
The face-to-face portion of this year's colloquium took place over three intense days in the Lawyers Club Lounge. While arguments grew heated at times, Hathaway said, they also were productive. Credit is due in large part to the students, he adds, noting that each set of Michigan Guidelines is the product of a two-year process that begins with a team of students conducting intensive research more than 18 months before colloquium participants meet in person. The meeting itself is intimate and collegial, an atmosphere that facilitates a productive discussion.
"The informal format, with so few participants, means you're more likely to get down and deep into the particular issues that are being discussed," said Justice Susan Glazebrook, who has sat on New Zealand's Supreme Court since 2012 and decided several cases involving asylum-seekers. "I was very pleased to be invited."
Once the new Guidelines are ready, they may inform myriad pending cases, helping to clarify refugees' rights and nations' obligations as mass displacement in the Middle East and Africa clashes with resurgent nationalism in the West.
"Countries are saying, 'We're full; we have too many people already, and we can't let any more in," said Markard. "Border regimes are tightening, and they're tightening on the backs of refugees and their families. It's so politically fraught—and that's why it's important to get the message out about what the legal standards actually are."
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