University of London

Small Navigation Menu

Primary Menu

You are here:

Dr David James Cantor

Dr David James Cantor talks to Peter Quinn about refugee protection, researching in a war zone and effecting policy change. 9 July 2014.

 

Written by Peter Quinn |

Dr David James Cantor
"Research can have an impact in improving the protection of displaced persons": Dr David James Cantor.

Case studies allow students to gain familiarity with the dynamics of real-life refugee situations from across the world and to analyse them using a range of tools from different disciplines


On World Refugee Day, 20 June 2014, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide now exceeds 50 million, the highest figure since World War Two (source: UNHCR, World Refugee Day). Has the scale of the global refugee crisis dramatically worsened in recent years or has it remained fairly static?

Over the last decade, overall refugee numbers have remained largely constant, whilst the number of internally displaced persons has risen. Nonetheless, situations such as the conflict in Syria impact considerably on the overall figures. The scale of the displacement in Syria is just phenomenal, with some estimating that almost half the country’s population of 22 million has been displaced since the start of the conflict in 2011. In neighbouring Lebanon alone, there are over a million Syrian refugees – this means about a quarter of the population of Lebanon is now composed of Syrian refugees. This is one of the big challenges, whether you’re an academic, government or humanitarian agency like UNHCR – knowing the scale of displacement, where those people are going, how they impact on both Syria and neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and what their needs are, and trying to keep track of this as the situation develops very, very rapidly.

Global forced displacement - 1993-2013 (end year)
Global forced displacement - 1993-2013 (end year)
Major source countries of refugees - (end 2013)
Major source countries of refugees - (end 2013)

UNHCR estimates suggest that, from a total of 15.4 million refugees worldwide at the beginning of 2013, 46% were under 18 years old (source: UNHCR, Global Facts and Figures). Why is this figure so heavily slanted towards this younger demographic?

Most refugee crises affect developing countries – countries in the global south – and, of course, there the demography is one which is slanted to younger age groups. It is also not unusual to find refugee families made up of a single parent – often a mother – accompanied by many children, not only her own but also those of other family members who have died or gone missing. There are also more general mobility factors which promote movement by more ‘footloose’ younger people, as opposed to older generations who may be more likely to stay settled, and are less able to uproot themselves.

How far do you think the task of protecting the human rights of refugees and forced migrants is hampered by the politicisation of the subject in the popular press, both in the UK and elsewhere?

It's a question, I think, that cuts both ways. There have been opportunities for refugee protection which have existed because of the domestic and international politics of a particular time. One need think only of the reception of refugees from communist states during the latter half of last century. However, an idea that’s become increasingly dominant over the last 20 to 30 years in the global north is that refugee numbers should be controlled. This pushes governments into adopting measures for deterrence, to try and close borders, in a way that states in the global south simply don't have the capacity to do. So there's a differential between the way in which those sorts of politics play out in the global north and in the global south. 

Addressing the problem of statelessness is a focus that has really been picked up with increasing interest over the last 10 years by the international community, which recognises it as a problem.


The right to a nationality is widely recognized in international law and yet millions of people worldwide remain stateless, especially in some countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. How is this problem being addressed?

Although there's the right to a nationality in human rights law, each state also has a wide discretion to decide how it is going to accord nationality and to whom according to its own criteria. The latter is an issue that's governed only relatively minimally by international law. However, addressing the problem of statelessness is a focus that has really been picked up with increasing interest over the last 10 years by the international community, which recognises it as a problem. In fact, UNHCR has now been given by the United Nations a formal interest in the problems of statelessness and stateless persons as well as refugees.

As a formal field of academic inquiry, Refugee Studies is relatively new. Why do you think there has been such an increasing interest in this area?

As a visible manifestation of conflict and other kinds of humanitarian emergency, refugees attract significant public interest and occupy a high place in the public agenda. This political side has also been taken up with increasing urgency in recent years by civil society, non-governmental organisations and international organisations. The need for better understanding of, and responses to, refugee situations and forced displacement has certainly helped to drive scholarship in this field.
 

The emerging intersection between refugee issues and climate change is a topic that is currently very high on the scholarly agenda, although it has attracted far less attention from policy makers.


Could you describe some of the main intersections between refugee issues and other areas of public policy?

One needs only to think about issues surrounding the ‘destitution of asylum seekers’ in countries such as the UK to realise just how powerfully refugee issues intersect with human rights policy and with immigration policy. Another example is the emerging intersection between refugee issues and climate change, which is a topic that is currently very high on the scholarly agenda, although it has attracted far less attention from policy makers. This is an area, then, in which scholarship is running slightly ahead of public policy. For its part, academic research is encouraging politicians and lawyers to deal with this emerging challenge.

It is estimated that by 2050, as many as 200 million people will be displaced by natural disasters and climate change (source: Refugees International, Confronting Climate Displacement: Learning from Pakistan's Floods). How well equipped is the UNHCR and other international bodies to cope with such a huge upsurge in numbers?

Environmental issues are not yet being taken sufficiently seriously. Yet global law and policy will soon have to engage these issues with urgency. The scale of displacement that's being predicted is extremely high, with estimates in the tens of millions of persons. We're also not talking about people fleeing human persecution, events that may possibly be reversible – here you're talking about long-term changes to the environment and therefore more permanent forms of displacement. UNHCR would not be the agency to deal with this – it's not really a refugee problem of the kind that UNHCR is equipped to deal with, it's a problem about environmental change. Until governments are prepared to sit down and talk seriously about that problem, then talking about UNHCR assisting ‘climate change’ refugees in isolation makes little sense. 

The MA is unique in its practical focus on international law and policy, applying the concepts that governments, UNHCR and NGOs use in their everyday practice.


Refugee Studies draws on concepts from anthropology, sociology, international relations, international law, politics and history. How are these disciplines brought together in the new MA in Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies?

The MA is unique in its practical focus on international law and policy, applying the concepts that governments, UNHCR and NGOs use in their everyday practice. But, parallel to that, this interdisciplinary degree also utilizes a range of approaches from different academic disciplines that scholars use to analyse real refugee situations, such as anthropology, international relations etc. Bringing a variety of standpoints to a particular problem allows students on the course to gain a rounded and more comprehensive understanding not only of the phenomenon, but of how law and policy may be applied to influence that situation in the future.

As well as critiquing law, policy and practice in the field, does the MA enable students to develop actual policy recommendations?

Absolutely. The course will enable students to think constructively about policy and law. There seems little benefit in simply critiquing current laws and policies – these are what we work with in the real world, and as somebody who has worked for the last 15 years in the refugee field, law and policy are the meat and bread of what we use to try to improve the humanitarian situation of refugees and other displaced persons. A critique by itself is useful, but of far less value than the positive recommendations that need to be generated. 

Could you tell us a little bit about some of the case studies that are covered in the MA?

We use a wide range of case studies across all of the modules of the MA. These allow students to gain familiarity with the dynamics of real-life refugee situations from across the world and to analyse them using a range of tools from different disciplines. They also allow students to get to grips with practical issues in the application of refugee law and policy in real-life contexts. For example, in a mass influx of refugees fleeing from civil war, how should we respond to the fact that members of a rebel army from across the border may be mixed in among the refugee population? Similarly, how does one deal with the ethical consequences of humanitarian aid in these very difficult contexts?

Refugee protection
The MA is unique in its practical focus on international law and policy, applying the concepts that governments, UNHCR and NGOs use in their everyday practice.

The first core module, ‘The Protection of Human Rights, Refugees and Displaced Persons in International Law’, explores the fundamentals of international law in relation to the protection of refugees and human rights. How fast-moving is this area of law – is it constantly shifting?

It's an area of law that contains certain fundamental principles but, building on those fundamental principles, the law does have to move relatively quickly – more quickly in certain contexts than in others. So if one looks at the European Union common asylum system, then it can be seen that some very far-reaching laws and frameworks have been developed over the last 10 years based upon those principles. These changes have had significant consequences for protection of refugees.

In terms of the changing legal landscape, how does academic research keep up with that pace? You're standing on quicksand aren't you? 

I think if we were simply trying to describe what the law is, then our work would indeed date very rapidly. However, within the field, what we're often trying to do is to understand how the law is changing, or where the law should change. So we're always looking forwards and, as my example indicates, sometimes we're also involved in implementing positive changes to the law.

Do you think that academic study in this area can have a positive influence on refugee policy and practice?

Yes, and I'll give you one example from my own work. I studied the situation of Colombians, living in Colombia, who had been displaced by the political violence and the civil war, and looked at how they returned to their homes following displacement. This work was carried out in some of the principal war zones in Colombia, in rural areas. I studied the ways in which those communities tried to negotiate their return to situations which were still very unstable. After finishing the research, I was able to go back and share my analysis with the Colombian government agencies, humanitarian agencies such as the UN and Red Cross, NGOs and a range of displaced communities themselves. As a result of this academic study, positive changes were made to one of the most significant pieces of Colombian human rights legislation of the last 50 years: the 2011 Colombian Victims Law, which gives reparations to victims of the armed conflict. A number of provisions relating to displacement were improved on the basis of advice and information provided through my academic study.

As a researcher, that must have been pretty satisfying?

I think that working in this field is unusual, because one not only wears the hat of an academic – a student of humanity, as it were – but also there's the imperative to try to use that knowledge to improve the situation of the subjects of one's own research. As the preceding example shows, research can certainly have an impact in improving the protection of displaced persons.