My frustrating (but ultimately hugely rewarding!) experience of studying International Refugee Law

As I head into the final week of my Laidlaw research project, I can’t help but look back. I realise now that I was naïve to think that I had everything figured out, but that I am also incredibly proud of how far I have come. At the start of my 10 weeks I had, what I thought, was a pretty solid plan and a pretty clear idea of where my project was going to go. I even had what seemed like a pretty solid idea of what conclusions I would be able to draw from my research. Boy was I wrong! The seemingly simple task of looking at the discrepancies between state refugee laws and international refugee law turned out to be much more complex than I thought.

The first shock came when I realized how difficult it was to navigate the complexities of international law. Whilst I thought I knew what the key document, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol stated and meant thanks to my Human Rights module, I was unaware of the sheer amount of debate that surrounded the interpretation and scope of this regime. This was daunting, and honestly scared me quite a bit, as I soon learnt that I still had a lot to learn before I could even begin to look at the national level. However, once I eventually wrapped my head around the different interpretations and some of the literature on this, I learned to view these academic debates as incredibly interesting and something I could end up contributing to.

The next reality check came in trying to navigate the complex state policies and immigration law for each of the individual states I was studying. There were a couple of reasons for the difficulties. Firstly, I do not have any law experience, so reading law documents for each of the four states I was surveying was extremely difficult. I helped myself out by reading explanations of the laws instead of the laws themselves and then using the laws only to double check my understanding. Secondly, government websites presenting these laws turned out to be horrendously difficult to navigate. This turned what was supposed to be a relatively simple task of finding various refugee policies into a test of my patience and determination. Surprisingly, the Swedish government website was the easiest website to navigate (despite the potential for the language barrier to be an issue) and the British government was the most difficult. I ended up just having to power through and adjust my original research schedule.

The final major difficulty came in trying to remain positive when reading about the harrowing treatment of refugees by states. As I was examining the tensions between national state immigration law and the rights refugees are afforded under international law, I became aware of the importance of my research. This part of my project could be framed as a constant struggle between the sovereign right of states to decide their own national refugee and immigration laws, and the supposedly inalienable rights afforded to refugees under international law. Many refugees lack the ability to demand these rights for themselves and end up having to fight against the governments of the states that are meant to provide them with a safe haven. However, it is important that these struggles are brought to light. This is increasingly important in the face of justifications from politicians that are framed in such a way that seems to protect refugees whilst simultaneously taking away their ability to claim particular rights.

My usual set up in the Main Library, where I did most of my research

All in all, this has been an amazingly rewarding summer. Whilst my motivation and confidence have definitely fluctuated constantly (and it was definitely hard to spend time in the library on the rare days that St Andrews became sunny and warm), I am incredibly thankful for the experience. I have learnt that research doesn’t always go perfectly to plan, but that this is okay. Finally, I have also learnt to trust myself and trust that it will all work out in the end. A huge thank you to my supervisor, Professor Patrick Hayden, for the helpful guidance and reassurance. A further huge thank you to Lord Laidlaw and the University of St Andrews for providing me with the opportunity to pursue this opportunity, I can’t wait to see where it takes me in the future.

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