The Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights (NUCHR) is in its 8th year, and this year’s topic is Human Rights in Transit: Issues of Forced Migration. NUCHR is probably the best student-organized conference on human rights issues, addressing a given topic over a three days of lectures, study sections, and speeches. NUCHR involves college students from around the US through a lengthy application process which attracts hundreds. Successful applicants become NUCHR “Delegates,” with assigned working groups and specific areas in which they become experts. After a day and half here, I can tell you that this is really one top-notch group of thinkers and doers, at any level of the academic hierarchy.
Today’s panels were “Defining Forced Migration” and “The Displaced: The Psychological and Cultural Effects of Forced Migration” (which is why yours truly is here — I was a panelist in the latter). Defining Forced Migration featured legal scholars Deborah Anker of Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Howard Adelman from the Griffith University in Brisbane (Australia), Susan Gzesh of the Human Rights Program at University of Chicago, and Maureen Lynch of Refugees International in Washington, DC. It’s always instructive for refugee service providers (and people who think a lot about providing refugees services, like me) to hear legal perspectives on our field. Anker made the point that refugee law is first and foremost “palliative, not political” — meaning that it is primarily designed to relieve tension instead of solve the difficult situations that cause displacement — and so it’s place in the “human rights regime” (which is political) is tenuous. I have often thought that refugee healthcare — also primarily palliative — is in a similar bind; while healing may have political consequences in that it may make people able to more easily demand that their rights be respected, it is not the case that healing is in and of itself a political act (not usually anyways). When people ask me about “health and human rights” I usually tell them that what I do is health, rarely human rights.
Howard Adelman gave a comprehensive history of refugee policy, and said something I had been completely ignorant of: the first refugee policies in international law were Wilsonian (as in Woodrow Wilson) efforts to bolster the idea of nation states by transferring minority ethnic groups out of one state to others. In other words, their goal was to make homogenous states and these “ethnically pure” states would somehow be less likely to have internal conflicts. It wasn’t until after World War II (during which ethnic purity had some rather nasty consequences) that refugee law began to shift to protection of individuals who would be persecuted if they returned to their home countries. This was primarily designed with Cold War refugees in mind. Adelman also pointed out that the “right of return” — a value at the intersection of human rights and refugee rights — has never been successfully implemented by anything other than force (e.g., Tutsis in Rwanda); most peacefully negotiated returns have involved only a few, mostly older refugee returnees and many who came home, sold their stuff, and went back to their (richer) host countries (e.g., Bosnian refugees). Adelman’s history lesson leaves us with some sobering contemplation about where we go from here — although exactly what we should do differently isn’t quite clear.