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Humanitarian protection in an age of asylum

ESCR Post-doctoral fellow: Dr Chloë M. Gilgan

The one-year fellowship (October 2019 – September 2020) has been awarded through a generous grant by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK).

As a result of the civil war in Syria and the international community’s ineffective response in the region, 1.2 million Syrians fled to a mostly unwelcoming Europe. European states failed to reach consensus on how to respond to the 2015 refugee crisis, thus challenging the presumption that they are committed to fulfilling their ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) as agreed in 2005. Under R2P, all Member States agreed to use ‘diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means to help protect populations from mass atrocities.

My PhD examined how the UK defined its responsibilities to Syrian refugees fleeing mass atrocities during 2014-2016. The UK restricted access to asylum and encouraged resettlement in the region due to security concerns. Due to public pressure following tragedies in the Mediterranean, the UK implemented its largest resettlement programme to date. The response was not due to perceived obligations under R2P or the 1951 Refugee Convention. Instead, my PhD revealed that the UK misunderstands R2P, conflating it with military intervention, regime change and political transition.

There are three aims of the fellowship, which uses academic research to inform policy and practice. The first aim of the fellowship is to contribute significantly to the academic scholarship by disseminating, through publications and participation at academic conferences, the first in-depth study of how the UK understands its international responsibilities for protecting people from mass atrocities in order to:

  • Provide information to researchers and students given the gap in the scholarship up until now by adding new knowledge around how powerful liberal states internalise human rights norms in similar ways to illiberal or authoritarian states.
  • Make a significant contribution to socio-legal studies at the intersection of multiple disciplines (international law/politics, international refugee law, forced migration studies), which will add new knowledge to the academic literature on refugee protection by expanding the boundaries of empirical and conceptual thinking in relation to debates over sources of responsibility.
  • Use the empirical case findings for development and application of the research framework and methods for deployment in new ways. The findings revealed important information about the respect/enforcement of human rights and the limits of certain frameworks as tools of measurement, which significantly impacts constructivist studies in politics and law.
  • Ensure international reach of research findings to specialist academic audiences, such as presenting at the International Studies Association annual conference. This will enable me to make further links beyond the UK and contribute to international debates around state responsibilities to those fleeing mass atrocities, thereby extending academic networks to maximise the reach of the PhD findings.

The second aim of the fellowship is to inform, educate and ultimately impact policymakers and practitioners working in mass atrocity policy in the following ways:

  • The PhD research on the UK’s implementation of its international protection responsibilities will be provided to relevant civil society organisations in order to inform their advocacy to UK government officials around developing more coherent mass atrocity policies. These practitioners have requested the findings to be translated into policy briefs because it is the first in-depth study of the relationship between R2P and refugee protection. The purpose of collaborating with UK civil society is to inform UK policymakers to adopt a more coherent mass atrocity policy, which will ultimately help protect populations on the ground. As a powerful country, the UK’s policies will influence other liberal democracies to do the same, which over time may result in significant practical impact for vulnerable populations.
  • The research will also be used to co-produce policy briefs with the proposed partners for a launch of the findings in Whitehall for UK officials in the FCO, DFID, Parliament and the Home Office in order to inform the UK’s developing/evolving mass atrocity policy. The FCO, DFID and Parliament are end users who have interest in and will derive a benefit from the findings because the research answers their existing queries on the relationship between R2P and refugee protection responsibilities and clarifies their critical misunderstandings that R2P requires regime change and political transition. Additionally, the Home Office is an end user well-placed to benefit from dissemination of the research findings because it partners with DFID on the UK’s largest resettlement scheme to date, which forms part of the UK’s international response in the region. During the PhD, policy leads on Syria from these organisations requested access to the findings, so there is an established need for the information and there is a public interest to disseminate the research to address policymakers’ critical misunderstandings of the UK’s responsibilities.
  • The research is the only existing in-depth study of how the UK, or any liberal democracy, implements R2P, which will inform Europe’s understanding of its international obligations as it redesigns its current mass atrocity policy. This will be achieved by collaborating with the policy directors of Protection Approaches and the European Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (ECR2P) as they have asked me to contribute my findings and participate in this European initiative.

The third aim is to identify and apply for research funding for a project that builds on a key theme of the PhD that liberal states cannot be presumed, just by virtue of their democratic label, to adhere to or implement human rights norms, particularly in the context of asylum seekers. This post-doctoral fellowship research will explore how liberal states respond to private citizens who violate or resist domestic laws and policies in order to defend refugees’ universal human rights. I am currently developing a research proposal and grant application through various training initiatives at the University of York.