Refugee law rewarded
Dr Michelle Foster always knew that academia and specifically international human rights law was her future.
Dr Foster, a lecturer in the Melbourne Law School has been awarded the University of Melbourne’s prestigious Woodward Medal in Humanities and Social Sciences in 2009.
She won the Woodward Medal for her first book, International Refugee Law and Socio-economic Rights: Refuge from Deprivation, which argued that the deprivation of socio-economic rights is a form of persecution.
“Refugee law is a field that’s both old and new,” she says. “It’s as old as civilisation itself because people have always been displaced and had to move, but the refugee regime we know today dates from the United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, so in some ways it is young.”
In working in this field Dr Foster is realising a long-held ambition. After completing an undergraduate major in public law, constitutional law and human rights law she worked in public law in New South Wales, but, she says, she always wanted to continue her studies. She went on to complete her Masters and then her PhD at the University of Michigan.
She cites the presence of internationally-renowned refugee law expert and former Dean of Law at Melbourne Professor Jim Hathaway as a motivating factor for going to the University of Michigan to complete her Masters and then her PhD. “I was impressed and inspired by his work even before I left Australia,” she says.
Evidently he was impressed by her work too. Professor Hathaway supervised Dr Foster’s doctoral thesis and they have published together on a number of occasions, currently working on an ambitious three-year ARC-funded project.
This project is another book that, they hope, will become the definitive work on refugee determination, providing the most principled interpretation of the Convention that includes contemporary refugee flows. This will give the International refugee law community a reference that articulates the most principled, contemporary approach to refugee determination.
Dr Foster chose to specialise in refugee law because she is passionate about the intellectual puzzles the field offers researchers, and the opportunities for researchers to make a difference in people’s lives.
While people working on the ground with refugees play an important role in their welfare, she says that academics can directly impact on the lives of refugees by influencing policy decisions.
Refugee law academics can impact society through their research by influencing judgments and government policy, lobbying the government and making submissions, because the judiciary takes notice of academic work in refugee law more so than other fields of law.
“You have to influence only one House of Lords decision to have an impact on many lives,” says Dr Foster.
Academics in her field have another important role, Dr Foster believes – informing the public. “More than any other area of public discourse, the amount of misinformation around this issue is really quite extraordinary,” she says.
“Academics are perceived as more independent, so are able to explain to people what the situation really is. For instance, the media gives the impression that we’re going to be completely overrun with refugees, and implies that we’re the only country to deal with this, but it’s an international issue.”
Dr Foster is particularly concerned about the misinformation around the number of refugees coming to Australia. Australia took 1.8 per cent of the refugees who went to industrialised countries last year. “Not 1.8 per cent of refugees in the world,” she stresses, “only 1.8 per cent of those who travelled to industrialised countries.” This percentage translates to 6500 refugees between Australia and New Zealand out of the 380 000 people who fled to industrialised nations.
“The idea that we can’t handle it is ludicrous,” she says.
“It’s a tiny percentage. Everyone thinks refugees want to come to a developed country like Australia, but the reality is most people never leave their country, let alone their region. Imagine what it takes to just up and leave.
“It’s a difficult area but we need informed debate, not one that’s based on hysteria and unwarranted fear.”
The challenge of refugee law extends to the language of the Convention, which was drafted to be enduring but is over 50 years old and is written in archaic language which makes interpreting it in a modern context difficult.
Dr Foster highlights some of the questions that the Convention presents: “How do you ensure that the Convention remains relevant to contemporary refugee flows when the nature of the world has changed so much? How do you achieve some kind of uniformity, or at least consistency, and have that consistency be in best practice?”
There isn’t an international court that interprets the refugee convention, Dr Foster explains, because international law is based on consent. States become bound only by a treaty that they choose to ratify, and each signatory interprets it differently in their domestic law, depending on the national context. “So from an intellectual perspective, refugee law is fascinating,” she says.
Answering these complicated questions is a challenge that Dr Foster relishes, but her belief in social justice, and her desire to make an impact, to make a difference in society, is also critical to her work.
“It’s not an abstract exercise,” she says. “It’s a passion because I’m committed to social justice.”