How Can Academics Help? Conclusions from the Collaborative Meeting with Researchers and Civil Society Leaders

Academics can play a significant role in society by developing knowledge, providing analysis and informing public debate, thereby having an impact in the community. This is particularly important in an area such as refugee policy where there is a great deal of misinformation.

In order to reflect on the role of academics in this context, the Comparative Network on Refugee Externalisation Policy (CONREP) held a forum of the CONREP research partners with civil society leaders from a wide variety of local, national, and international organisations operating in refugee protection and assistance. Through constructive dialogue and engagement, the participants gained deeper insights into what civil society actors regard as the most effective ways that academics can support and contribute to refugee advocacy and assistance efforts.


Teaching is a central competence of academia and a useful place to provide added value to civil society advocacy and refugee assistance efforts. Academics play a key role in educating students about refugee issues based on research and evidence, thereby helping to shape future narratives and policy-maker preferences. It is also an important site to contest anecdotal and hate-based media reporting. Inviting civil society leaders to contribute to lectures, both in content and presentation, helps to amplify civil society voices and brings practical knowledge to university lectures. Civil society leaders also reported that staffing challenges in preparing court cases create obstacles to providing legal support to refugees. One civil society leader suggested that academics could assist in this area by supporting students in providing the backend resources that might be required to help build cases to be brought to the courts. This could potentially take the form of group projects or internships.


Research is another central competence of academia which can support civil society advocacy and refugee assistance efforts. Although there is a rich literature analysing the causes and consequences of forced migration, there remains much room for further research. Further analysis is needed of the drivers of refugee movement and how this relates to changes in migration patterns. For example, in the case of Australia, an investigation into the causes of the observed decrease in boat arrivals is needed. Given the Australian Government’s claims that Operation Sovereign Borders is the cause of the decrease, such analyses are necessary to assess the validity of these claims.

Expanding the regional focus of research

Another area of research is the role of asylum in the greater context of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Extensive literature exists examining asylum and asylum policies in Australia. However, a lacuna in the literature exists regarding the impact of Australian externalisation policies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. This expands the focus of research beyond Papua New Guinea and Nauru as sites of externalisation to include Thailand, Indonesia, and Pacific island nations amongst others. Furthermore, analysis is needed regarding how Australia’s externalisation policies affect local populations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. For example, research is needed examining the impact of the Medevac process on the people of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Such analysis of Australia’s policies in a regional context illuminates the broader impacts of externalisation policies which may have far-reaching political, social and economic consequences.

Research and reframing the narrative

Framing and narrative-shaping are another area of research and activity in which academics can provide added value to civil society efforts. Academic research provides the foundations for data-driven policy decision-making and narrative-shaping. Through objective data collection and analysis, academics provide increased transparency – a necessary component of accountability in asylum governance. Data and research findings also provide legitimacy to framing and narrative-shaping, especially concerning public opinion. Academic research can also contribute to broader understandings of framing and narrative-shaping, such as investigating what it means to change public opinion and the best strategies to shape a given narrative. Academics can also actively participate in narrative-shaping by engaging with public debate in the media. Increased visibility and approachable dissemination of research findings contribute to shaping public narratives. One area of narrative-shaping research in which academics can contribute is investigating further the place of individual human experiences in deterrence agendas. For example, personal story telling places the person at the centre of the narrative. This can help re-frame the narrative to highlight injustice and harm in externalisation policies. As one civil society leader indicated, people are concerned with their own lives and the impact that refugees would have on them. Re-framing the narrative to focus on the individual may therefore facilitate increased public support for more humanitarian refugee policies. There is also a need to re-frame this narrative in terms of a “decent society” and show how refugee issues can fit within the idea of making a decent society on an individual level.

Researching the role of NGOs

Pursuing further research into the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in asylum policy externalisation constitutes another way in which academics can also contribute to civil society activities. Civil society leaders cited the need for a deeper understanding of the effects, both beneficial and detrimental, of NGO actions in refugee externalisation. In particular, one civil society leader noted the need to better understand the role of the International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) in providing support to offshore detainees. Civil society leaders also raised the need for further research in assessing the role and benefits of UN bodies such as UNHCR and the Global Compacts in addressing externalisation.

Activism and lobbying

Activism and lobbying are another area in which, according to civil society leaders, academics can contribute to refugee advocacy and support. Increased public dissemination of academic research helps reshape public narratives and add scientific legitimacy to policy change demands. An increased presence of academics in the public debate can also help to hold governments accountable to policy promises. For example, the Australian Government set a goal of zero detention population in “early 2020”, which it has not achieved. Academics can help hold the Government accountable by drawing attention to this policy failure.


We hope that this can provide an agenda going forward to guide the way in which academics can best support and assist civil society in the context of refugee law and policy.

Short biographies

Kelly Soderstrom is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Melbourne. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science/International Relations from Carleton College and a Master's degree (distinction) in International and European Politics from the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD thesis analyses how responsibility shaped Germany's governance response to the 2015 refugee crisis. Her research interests include immigration and asylum policies, identity and belonging, governance, organisational behaviour, and institutional change. She has published analyses of migration and asylum policies in The Conversation, Election Watch, and Pursuit. In 2018, she was awarded a postgraduate fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Maria is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Monash University and a member of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Maria has completed a PhD thesis on cessation of refugee status under Article 1C(5) of the 1951 Refugee Convention and is the author of a number of international and national publications on the subject of refugee law. These include an edited volume on access to refugee protection and procedures: ‘States, the Law and Access to Refugee Protection - Fortresses and Fairness’ (Hart, 2017), co-authored with Dallal Stevens, University of Warwick, and a monograph on the durability of protection:  Refugee Law and Durability of Protection: Temporary Residence and Cessation of Status (Routledge, 2019). Maria is also a regular media commentator on refugee law and policy and has been published by The Conversation, Refugees Deeply and Asylum Insight.