Sunday, October 5, 2014

Rebecca Hamlin's "Let Me Be a Refugee"

Rebecca Hamlin is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Grinnell College.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Let Me Be a Refugee: Administrative Justice and the Politics of Asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia, and reported the following:
Let Me Be a Refugee takes a close look at how liberal democracies decide who among the thousands of people who arrive at their borders seeking asylum qualifies for a refugee protection visa. One hundred and forty-seven states have signed on to the relevant international treaties promising to protect refugees, and all of these states use the identical definition of a refugee from the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Yet, because international refugee law asks states to accept people who may not have followed the proper migration channels, wealthy liberal democracies are often very concerned about abuse of the system, characterizing asylum seekers as “queue jumpers” or as economic migrants in refugees’ clothing.

Page 99 describes Canada’s reaction to growing numbers of Mexican asylum seekers in the early 21st century. The agency responsible for assessing refugee claims, the Immigration and Refugee Board, issued several precedent-setting decisions that interpreted the refugee definition to make claims from Mexico very unlikely to succeed. However, the number of applications continued to rise until 2009, when the Canadian government decided to require a visa for people travelling from Mexico. Page 99 quotes the Immigration Minister defending this decision by saying:
“We’re not talking about the kinds of people that are living in UN refugee camps by the millions who are victims of war and state-sponsored persecution.... It’s an insult to the important concept of refugee protection to allow it to be systematically violated by people who are overwhelmingly economic immigrants.”
This statement highlights one of the core themes of Let Me Be a Refugee. The reasons that motivate people to migrate fall on a broad spectrum, ranging from purely economic factors on one end, to people who are forced out by oppressive regimes. The adjudication and distribution of refugee status requires decision-makers to turn this continuum into a binary, but increasingly, asylum seekers fall into the great grey middle between obvious refugees and obvious economic migrants. Rather than a dictator’s targeted persecution, they are fleeing the suffering caused by generalized violence, failed states, famine, and climate change. Decision-makers are tasked with applying a definition from 1951 to a more complex range of life experiences than ever before, leaving much room for interpretation. Further, because receiving states have resolved these questions differently from one another, whether or not someone is a refugee often depends on which border they cross.
Learn more about Let Me Be a Refugee at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue