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The Buzz

A Long Way from Solid Ground: Finding Rights for Refugees in Limbo

By Rissa Roth on March 4, 2016

Refugee law is some of the strongest international law we have,” Emily Arnold-Fernandez, Esq. said during "Human Rights and Refugees in Europe" at Bechtel Conference Center on Friday, January 22.

And yet, the average refugee spends 20 years in displaced circumstances, most often internment camps. During this period, most can’t work, access health care, or attend school.

In other words, refugees are subject to human rights violations that often last decades.

So, despite very clear laws enumerated in the United Nations’ Refugee Convention regarding what nations be doing, the lack of an enforcement mechanism for international law leaves many of the 20 million refugees across the world today in the lurch. In response, Arnold-Fernandez founded an organization called Asylum Access that provides one-on-one legal services and advocates for refugee rights in the international policy arena.

At the talk, Stanford Law professors Jim Cavallaro and Jenny Martinez sat down with her to discuss refugee law, human rights, and the current refugee situation in Europe.

Arnold-Fernandez honed in on Europe’s crisis, pointing out that while countries like Lebanon and Turkey have many more refugees both in number and also per capita compared with the rest of the world, Europe's "crisis" [quotes are hers] gets most of the media coverage, and garners a disproportionate amount of sympathy from the western world.

To achieve refugee status in the destination country, refugees must demonstrate reasonable fear of persecution in the country they are fleeing. If asylum-seekers come to Europe directly from Syria, this condition is met. However, it gets more complicated when refugees use countries like Lebanon as a stepping stone before coming to Europe for better economic opportunities, as many do. Because Europe is their second stop, asylum-granting agencies question whether or not applicants faced persecution in Lebanon, which is, strictly speaking, the country they are now fleeing.

To further obscure matters, the definition of persecution is not clear cut. Whereas the armed conflict in Syria certainly counts, some seemingly stringent human rights violations in Lebanon are challenged.    

Asylum Access focuses on getting refugees the right to work regardless of their itinerant history. Arnold-Fernandez wants to dismantle legal barriers that prevent refugees from joining the workforce. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other refugee-focused organizations usually target either basic needs such as delivering food, shelter, and medical care, or try to spur economic development with microfinance loans and market solutions. There is a salient gap, however.

Although more than 125 countries have agreed to let refugees work, most of their domestic legal frameworks do not grant refugees labor protection, property rights, or access to markets. This is not just sad; it’s economically stupid.

There’s a prevailing assumption that refugees are a drain on the economy, that they take jobs from national citizens and slow economic growth. In reality, these allegations are far from true. Arnold-Fernandez points to several studies that follow economic changes in countries that allow refugees to work. In all cases, economic growth rates stayed the same or showed a slight positive increase. Refugees seem to have entrepreneurial drives.

Discrepancies between international and domestic law, coupled with substandard infrastructures for granting asylum and working rights, are market failures with drastic consequences for human rights. Stanford Law Professor Jim Cavallaro pointed out that mass migrations like the current European situation are only going to escalate in the next ten to twenty years.

It’s time to work out the bureaucratic kinks and start moving the policy needle.




Rissa Roth is a political science major. She will be an Ethics in Society Honors student next year. 

"The Buzz" is the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society's student-driven news portal. We review events and speakers and we feature initiatives that are of broad interest. Undergraduate Stanford students write the articles and the Center for Ethics in Society edits and produces the content so that the student writers learn to translate academic subject matter into accessible terms and strengthen the clarity and precision of their writing.