Human Rights & Refugees

An influential body of research on refugees and human rights has had positive impacts from local to international levels, but there is much more to be done.

International systems for the protection of refugees and displaced people have achieved many positive outcomes, but have also witnessed many failures. One enduring failure is the endemic sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls fleeing conflict or persecution. This is just one of many specific areas in which our research specialists have influenced significant advances in international law and social policy, to improve protection for displaced communities].

The Human Rights and Refugees specialist researchers at UNSW, particularly those within the Centre for Refugee Research (CRR), focus on international refugee flows, internal displacement, forced migration and refugee resettlement. They partner with community based refugee organisations, UN agencies and refugee service providers to identify issues of concern to displaced communities, and potential solutions to identified issues. They have conducted research in more than a dozen countries in Asia, Africa and South America, within refugee camps, urban slums and in post-disaster situations.

The work of the Centre for Refugee Research is grounded in the human rights framework and engages principles of community development, community participation and social justice. It takes a cross-disciplinary approach drawing on disciplines such as policy, social work, law, ethics and psychology. The Centre for Refugee Research has achieved international recognition in the areas of refugee women and girls, human rights, the ethics of research with vulnerable populations, refugee community development, anti-oppressive social work theory and the provision of culturally appropriate, community-based psycho-social support.

The Impact of our Work

The action research based methodology which underpins the Centre’s research approach ensures that research findings have both theoretical and practical applications. For example, key elements of the Centre’s research have been utilised by United Nations agencies, in particular the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Centre designed a tool for identification of and response to women at risk and, in partnership with UNHCR, developed this into the Heightened Risk Identification Tool which is now part of UNHCR’s operational toolkit. The Centre’s research and advocacy also strongly contributed to the adoption of a UN Conclusion on Women and Girl at Risk in 2006.

In 2010 and 2011 the Centre for Refugee Research was commissioned by UNHCR to research the situation of refugee women and girls around the world, and to evaluate current humanitarian and legal responses to their needs. The research involved the participation of over 1000 displaced women and girls and 300 displaced men and boys, and was conducted through a series of ‘dialogues’ in seven countries. The report and recommendations from these dialogues , authored by the Centre for Refugee research team, informed commitments made by Governments to improve protection for displaced women and girls at a high level meeting of Government Ministers in Geneva. The Centre for Refugee Research team was among the small number of civil society representatives invited to participate in this important meeting.

Not all of their work is so far from home; the Centre for Refugee Research also undertakes research with resettled and asylum-seeking refugee communities in Australia. An ARC-funded project on ‘Refugee women at risk: protection and integration in Australia’ was completed in 2012, and a new ARC project commencing in 2013 will investigate the meanings and understandings of rights amongst refugee groups in Australia. Our Human Rights and Refugees specialists also undertake projects in partnership with diverse local community-based organisations and refugee services across the eastern states of Australia, and work in partnership with other Centres and faculties at the University of New South Wales, including Law and the Social Policy Research Centre.

Evidence of Excellence

The influential research outputs of the Human Rights and Refugees group and the Centre for Refugee Research have been recognised at many official presentations and formal meetings of UNHCR. The High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr Antonio Guterres, has formally recognised the influence and strength of the group’s work, as had the former Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Ms Erika Feller. The Centre’s research is cited in many UNHCR documents and is acknowledged as an example of rigorous academic research producing practical and useful outputs.

Major contributions to academic expertise include work on the ethics of research with vulnerable populations, which has produced four journal articles, a book chapter and three keynote papers at international conferences. Concerns about ethics led to the development of a ‘reciprocal research’ methodology based on participatory action research, that has now gained international recognition and acknowledgement.

The significance of the human rights approach adopted by the Centre for Refugee Research lies in its power to include refugees as active participants, not merely as passive research subjects. The strength of a human rights approach is that it offers a solid legal basis for action and provides guiding principles for policies and programs, while acknowledging the strength and knowledge of people who have faced injustices.