There are approximately 79 million people displaced around the world, representing the highest level of displacement since World War II. Among these are some 26 million refugees, some 45 million persons displaced in their own countries, and some 4 million asylum seekers. More than half of these are under eighteen years of age. An estimated 25 percent are women.
Refugees and other displaced people are among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society, and they are particularly at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. The majority are hosted in developing countries, where they often have limited access to water, sanitation systems, and health facilities. The pandemic has interrupted supply chains, limiting the ability of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other relief programs to provide critical food and other aid. While the pandemic has created hardships for everyone, the disaster is particularly harsh for refugees, who have no resources to cushion its effects. The difficulties are magnified in the United States by the administration’s increasingly restrictive limitations on refugee admissions and the asylum process.
On June 17, 2020, Santa Clara’s Center for Global Law and Policy, Center for Social Justice, and High Tech Law Center collaborated to present a panel of international experts on refugee law, in honor of World Refugee Day, celebrated each year on June 20. The panelists included Father Luis Arriaga, S.J., President of ITESO, the Jesuit University in Guadalajara, Mexico; Maite Garcia, Senior Attorney with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Arizona; and Mary Anne Kenny, Associate Professor of Law, Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia. Together with their moderator, Professor Pratheepan Gulasekaram of Santa Clara Law, the panelists gave compelling and inspiring presentations.
Each of the panelists discussed a different aspect of the current refugee situation. Father Arriaga began by describing the historical work of the Jesuit order, including the creation in 2018 of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which currently operates in 56 countries around the world. He emphasized that recognition of the dignity of the person and the concentration on the most vulnerable in society are the cornerstones of Jesuit refugee work. Father Arriaga also described the work of Jesuit universities around the world on behalf of refugees through the International Association of Jesuit Universities, of which Santa Clara is a member.
Maite Garcia spoke about her work providing direct representation to detained individuals in Arizona, near the southern U.S. border. She reported that on any given day, more than 6,000 men, women, and children are detained in Arizona. She also spoke about the current challenges to asylum seekers at the U.S. border, including family separation, extended detention times, remote hearings, the third country transit ban, the “remain in Mexico” policy, due process violations, and the policies and rhetoric from the administration and others that promote xenophobia. These conditions have only worsened as a result of COVID-19.
Mary Anne Kenny spoke about the challenges facing individuals seeking protection in Australia. While Australia has a strong program for bringing overseas refugees to Australia, the country has imposed physical and legal barriers on travelling directly to Australia to seek asylum. These include detaining asylum seekers on outlying islands and intercepting and turning back boats seeking to reach Australia.
Both Maite Garcia and Mary Anne Kenny spoke of the effects on lawyers of advocating for refugees and asylum seekers. Maite said the current situation is the most difficult she can remember in terms of advocating for her clients, in part because of the rapid changes in U.S. immigration policy. She spoke about the importance of self-care for lawyers–reserving time for family and non-work activities in order to preserve the ability to continue her advocacy work. Mary Anne Kenny reported that she also reminds lawyers in Australia who represent refugees to also take care of themselves in order to be able to continue to care for others.
Each panelist left attendees with meaningful advice. Father Arriaga emphasized that international human rights law is a powerful instrument of social transformation, that promoting social justice is a very important part of the Jesuit mission, and that lawyers have an obligation to speak out against human rights abuses. Mary Anne Kenny reiterated that advocates, academics, and academic activists are incredibly important because of the vulnerability of refugees, who may have a lot to lose by speaking up. Maite Garcia reflected that, because of the sheer expanse of the restrictions and changes in U.S. immigration and refugee law, she cannot always affect the bigger picture. She can, however, work for her clients. As she put it, what she does is “a drop in the bucket, a drop in a drop in the bucket, but I can tell you that it is incredibly meaningful to the people I help.” She left us with a final piece of advice: don’t allow the rhetoric to continue. Instead, tell the stories of individuals, because that is how we can demonstrate to others that the plight of refugees and asylum seekers is an important issue and one that everyone should care about.