Guest Lecture: International Refugee Law and the Case of an Iraqi Family

by: Akshay Chalke, Adjei Frimpong and Martin Meyer

Last Wednesday, January 23rd, we had the chance to listen to an expert in international refugee law. Jolie Chai has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India, Syria, and Jordan from 2006 to 2012 and holds a B.A. and a Juris Doctor from the University of British Columbia in Canada. Her presentation outlined the basic legal framework of international refugee law and the UNHCR protection mandate. However, the aim of the lecture was not to give a summary of the international refugee law principles, but instead to unravel some of the real difficulties that appear within the regime based on a fictional case of an Iraqi family.

In the global refugee regime, Iraq is an interesting case study, on which many doctoral theses have focused. International refugee law is a concrete field within the field of international law. It overlaps with many different types of regimes like human rights and humanitarian law. Differently than most people in Western countries believe, most refugees stay in the region where they come from. Thus the current hotspots for the work of the UNHCR are Afghanistan and Iraq but with the deteriorating situations in Syria and Mali, these countries are also becoming regions of concern. As a result, the largest refugee populations are Afghani people with 2.7 million followed by Iraq and Somalia.

The international legal framework for refugee law was established after the Second World War. It constitutes core principles, the responsibility for the state to protect refugees, and the right of refugees not to be returned to their home country when their life or security is threatened. However, as a result from this responsibility comes the challenge to integrate refugees in society. The mandate of the UNHCR is to assist governments that are affected by refugee streams by protecting and supporting them. In addition, it provides refugee status determination, identification and doable solutions for the local integration of refugees.

One of the countries in which a functioning refugee program is in place is Jordan. In the case of Kholoud, she and her family fled from Iraq to Jordan to seek asylum. The refugee crisis there deteriorated in 2006 when sectarian violence against Sunnis and other minority groups took place that led to a massive outflow of refugees. It was estimated by the Jordan government that there were 450.000 refugees within the country at the time.

Kholoud’s parents and three younger siblings accompanied her when leaving Iraq, after the family was attacked because her father was a tailor for the family of Saddam Hussein. The family was denied entry from the government of Jordan but was later smuggled into Jordan. After they were smuggled from Iraq, the family moved to Amman, the capital of Jordan.

There, their struggle for a stable future really started. They had to register as refugees and had to wait months for this registration, and during this time they had no real protection. In the case of Kholoud, her father was responsible for completing the registration process, since they come from a paternalistic culture, and Kholoud and her mother were not able to make their case on their own. Soon, the situation of the family deteriorates. They have no savings left, live in a small apartment, the children drop out of school and there is no way to make a livelihood. The assistance to the family from the UNHCR is not even enough for the rent of an apartment.

Later on, another problem arises for the whole family because Kholoud’s father was in the military and entered Kuwait, which could lead to an exclusion of the status of refugee for the whole family. These assessments are not taken lightly because after such exclusion the person would lose his status as a refugee and would therefore not be protected by international refugee law anymore. Kholoud’s family then applies for resettlement and refugee status separately. In the meantime, she was illegally working as a cleaner, was caught and put in detention on charges of prostitution. Her resettlement did not take place and she remains in detention.

At the end of the lecture, the case of Kholoud was left open, which was meant remind all listeners of the situation of refugees in the region and their status, which remains unstable and unsure for years to come. In most cases they cannot return to their home countries and resettlement is not an option for most of them. Nevertheless, by introducing the fictional character of Kholoud, Dr. Chai made us think of the reality that every possible solution for refugee problems deals with real people. For each of them the status of being a refugee is not something that they choose but instead the status is forced upon them by unforeseeable events. In all the cases, the decision to seek asylum is one of the most severe because it means leaving the home country and going into an unpredictable future. The lecture provided an interesting and thoughtful insight into the principles, facts and practices of refugee law and the obstacles that every refugee faces.