In recent remarks to supporters, founding Director Jane McAdam reflected on the Kaldor Centre’s first seven years and sketched the strategic framework for the work ahead.
Forced migration is one of the biggest global challenges of our time. At last count, there were nearly 80 million displaced people in the world. Over half were displaced within their own countries – the vast majority by disasters and the impacts of climate change. Meanwhile, 26 million refugees had fled to other countries seeking protection from persecution and other serious human rights abuses. A challenge like this demands clear, long-term strategic thinking – thinking that is based on evidence, informed by history, and underpinned by legal principle. This is the mission of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, which I had the honour of founding in 2013.
The Centre opened just a month after the Federal election that brought Tony Abbott to power on the back of the ‘stop the boats’ campaign. It was a difficult moment to launch the world’s first research centre on international refugee law, especially since I was the only person in it at that point. But my objectives were clear: we needed to bring expertise and rationality to a discussion that so often lacked it. For our research to be taken seriously, academic rigour was essential. But we also needed to show that we would not be stuck in an ivory tower and that our work could have tangible, practical impacts.
Over the past seven years, it has been a privilege to watch the Centre evolve from a one-person team to a world leader in its field. We now have a core team of eight, plus a stellar cohort of PhD researchers, and a network of affiliates and partners that reaches across the globe, amplifying our impact exponentially.
As the Kaldor Centre marks its first seven years of impact, we wish to set an ambitious agenda for the next seven years, to find lawful, sustainable and humane solutions for – and with – people in need of protection.
The need for our work has never been greater. Around the globe, governments’ responses to people on the move are increasingly restrictive and nationalistic. Widening inequality, discrimination and limits on movement – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic – have highlighted the challenges of mobility and immobility alike. As contemporary crises interlock and compound, more people are likely to be trapped or displaced by the impacts of poverty, conflict, pandemics, disasters and climate change.
To ready ourselves for these challenges, we’ve developed a strategic framework that sets out a clear mission and priorities, drawing upon the lessons learned from our first seven years. It provides a set of goals that will enable us to be both focused and agile in addressing the questions that lie ahead.
Research is our engine for impact. Real-world solutions to displacement cannot be developed without deep, evidence-based, long-term thinking – which is what researchers are ideally placed to do. As we look ahead, our research agenda will be ambitious and solutions-oriented.
We are already leading the way.
For instance, the Centre is at the forefront of global efforts to ensure that people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters are protected. We are actively engaged in key international policy processes, from advising the UN Refugee Agency on its global strategy, through to informing frameworks that have been endorsed by the majority of the world’s governments. As a senior negotiator on the world’s first migration compact explained, ‘[m]uch of what is reflected in [that instrument] would not have been possible without the conceptual work done by the Kaldor Centre.’
Right now, we are providing advice to the Biden Administration about how the US could create protection and resettlement frameworks for people displaced by climate change impacts. At all times, our approach is informed by the views of communities on the frontline of climate change, garnered through our fieldwork in the Pacific, South Asia and Africa.
As we look ahead, we will build on our pioneering research to help such communities adapt to the impacts of climate change, while also enabling them to move safely out of harm’s way if the need arises.
In the Asia-Pacific, 7.7 million people are displaced. However, only a few countries in our region have ratified the Refugee Convention. In close dialogue with refugee-led organizations and Asia-Pacific scholars, with whom we’ve developed close links, the Centre will support stronger refugee protection and continue to explore what cooperation might look like in this part of the world.
We have created a research network that supports Asia-Pacific scholars. We are also developing a training program for judges, government officials and civil society in the region to improve understandings about the role of refugee and human rights law in protecting refugees and people seeking asylum. This is vital in a region that hosts millions of refugees but lacks robust protection frameworks.
In Australia, our research supports law and policy reform by interrogating the legal and historical dimensions of our refugee policies and by devising alternative approaches to the status quo.
For instance, we are examining how Australia can develop safe, complementary pathways for refugees to find protection, so that they are not compelled to make dangerous journeys. We are working with Talent Beyond Boundaries to explore how labour mobility can provide solutions for refugees, building on its successful pilot scheme to offer employment and permanent skilled visas to refugees and their families.
We also work to ensure that bad laws pioneered here are not replicated elsewhere. Earlier this year, the Centre presented hard-hitting evidence to a UK House of Commons Committee about Australia’s experience of offshore processing. Our intervention prompted the Scottish National Party to demand absolute assurances that the UK government would never consider following the Australian model. By bringing solid evidence, knowledge and experience to a debate that is so often politicized, we will strive to avert copycat policies abroad.
We know from the past seven years that our research can play a vital role in the forced migration law and policy ‘eco-system’. We will continue to provide authoritative and accessible analysis to help power the work of civil society, legal practitioners and policymakers alike.
Our role as independent, non-partisan experts enables us to maintain an active dialogue with key actors across the political spectrum, cementing our position of trust and influence.
We will leverage this unique role to drive principled debate and decision-making into the future.
We will seize upon opportunities for policy change, using the Kaldor Centre Principles for Australian Refugee Policy as our roadmap for action. Our Principles provide an alternative vision for Australia in which both refugees and the nation can prosper, and they have been widely welcomed as both principled and pragmatic.
We will build upon our highly regarded Policy Brief Series, which brings top scholarly expertise to bear on live policy issues. Our policy briefs make clear, actionable recommendations for reform both here and overseas, and are even set as ‘required reading’ in some government departments.
We will continue to scrutinize every piece of asylum legislation, and share our expertise with others in the sector. Holding lawmakers to account for their international obligations can help stop bad laws in their tracks, even if the prevailing policy environment does not provide immediate opportunities for broader law reform. We will ensure that when politics hampers rights-oriented progress, there is a clear public record of account.
Change will require not only high-level policy engagement, but a better-informed and more positive public conversation about refugees. Here we have learned that while evidence is important, stories matter too. To shift public opinion, we need to connect our expertise with people and values. We did this with enormous success in our award-winning digital storytelling project, Temporary. Working together with our inspiring colleagues at RACS (the Refugee Advice and Casework Service), we reached an audience of over 80,000 through a media partnership with The Guardian. By combining refugee stories with accessible legal explanations, we were able to open people’s eyes to the effects of Australia’s policies and motivate them to take action for real change.
As we look ahead, we will build on this success, seeking creative and compelling ways to communicate our expertise while highlighting the voices of people with lived experience of displacement.
Finally, we will catalyse change by bringing people together to share knowledge and generate new insights. Acting as a bridge between scholarship, policy and practice, we help to strengthen the sector’s capacity as a whole.
We will also advance the voices of refugees and others with lived experience of displacement within academic and policy fora. We will work in partnership with refugee-led organisations to promote research practices that engage meaningfully, ethically and constructively with refugees.
We will also expand our efforts to nurture future thought-leaders in our field, from our own PhD students to scholars much further afield. In particular, we will grow our programs to support scholars from refugee backgrounds, who often face barriers to education and are underrepresented at universities, both as students and researchers. This will include building on our peer-mentoring scheme for scholars who have themselves experienced displacement. A current participant described joining the scheme as ‘the best ever decision [he had made in his] scholarly journey.’ We believe this work is not only life-changing for individuals, but is also vital if we are all to better understand and respond to the challenges of forced migration.
At the Kaldor Centre, we have a shared vision that inspires us, and inspires those with whom we work.
When the Centre was launched in 2013, I said: ‘Leadership is about encouraging people to see things differently. This takes time, and requires trust.’ Since then, the Kaldor Centre has well and truly made its mark as a leader in world-class research with global policy impact. In this next stage of our work, we will continue to find lawful, sustainable and humane solutions for – and with – people in need of protection. Thank you for supporting us as we embark on this journey.