Responsibility, Legitimacy and Accountability: Reflections on the CONREP Workshop in Prato 2019

Responsibility, legitimacy and accountability were just some of the rich themes surrounding refugee externalisation policies discussed at the Comparative Network on Refugee Externalisation Policies (CONREP) workshop on 14 June 2019 at the Monash University campus in Prato, Italy.

The event brought together academics, civil society leaders, and those with lived refugee experience from around the world to investigate various forms of externalisation and the impact these policies have on refugees’ access to protection.

An old and wicked problem

The externalisation of refugee policy is an old and complex issue. According to Professor Jeff Crisp in his presentation for the workshop, externalisation is defined as "measures taken by states in locations beyond their territorial borders that are intended to obstruct, deter or otherwise avert the arrival and admission of foreign nationals." Externalisation manifests in forms such as information/deterrence campaigns, carrier sanctions, conditional development aid, and military deployments. Consequences of externalisation policies include physical and psychological harm to migrants; and refugees being used as bargaining chips between states. With such complex causes and consequences associated with refugee externalisation policies, changes to this policy area demand a holistic and multi-level approach.

While externalisation policies and their effects have become increasingly salient with the global rise of refugee numbers, the practice of externalisation is nothing new. As Professor David FitzGerald argued in his workshop presentation that every form of externalisation used today was already in use during the 1930s. Understanding the history of externalisation is therefore vital to conducting an effective evaluation of current policies.

By taking a holistic, multi-level approach to the analysis of current and historical cases of externalisation, presenters at the CONREP workshop examined the challenges to responsibility, policy legitimacy, and state accountability posed by externalisation policies.

Types of externalisation

The workshop facilitated a robust examination of different types of externalisation. States and governments use a variety of instruments, methods, and mechanisms to externalise refugee policies. Interdiction at sea, communication campaigns, detention, third country interception, and containment were among the externalisation instruments and methods analysed throughout the workshop. Amir Taghinia, a refugee with lived experience from Iran, also gave a personal account of Australia's externalisation mechanisms through sharing his experiences detained on Manus Island.

The externalisation of responsibility was an especially prominent theme throughout the workshop presentations. Questions of how states shift and avoid responsibility for refugee protection - through delegation, interception, controlling narratives, or other form of redefining responsible actors - were of particular concern to presenters. While the exact mechanisms of shifting responsibility vary across states, there are patterns in the overall methods of externalisation. Italy and Australia both rely on interdiction to prevent asylum seekers from arriving in their respective territories by boat. Because asylum seekers have not crossed into the state's sovereign territory, the state is not obligated under international law to provide protection to the asylum seekers. Therefore, by preventing such cross-border arrivals, both states are effectively able to avoid the responsibility of providing protection to the asylum seekers. Similarly, the detention of asylum seekers and refugees, either offshore as in the case of Australia, or in controlled areas such as in Europe, prove to be a persistent method by which states externalise responsibility. Presenters also analysed the nature of complicity in the humanitarian and migration-based crimes of other states which are perpetuated through externalisation policies, such as restricting search and rescue operations at sea or denying resettlement options which force refugees to remain in unsafe countries.

Policy legitimacy was also examined extensively during the CONREP workshop. Desensitisation of the public, media campaigns, and changes to legislation have increased the cultural and legal legitimacy of many externalisation practices. For example, carrier sanctions, a form of migration control placed on third-party transportation providers, were initially met with shock by the refugee advocacy community. Now, however, carrier sanctions are considered common place and accepted as a part of the realities of international travel. Over time, the extensive use of carrier sanction has effectively led to the normalisation of their use as an externalisation mechanism, thereby increasing the legitimacy of the practice of employing carrier sanctions.

State accountability also featured heavily in the externalisation policy analyses of the CONREP workshop. Often in the case of externalisation policies, domestic and international accountability mechanisms for ensuring the humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers fail to mitigate harmful state action. As Dr Nikolas Tan suggests, the courts of partner states on to which refugee protection is externalised can offer an additional source of accountability. However, such accountability instruments are yet to be used to their full potential.

The future of research and externalisation policies

Given our current understanding of the causes and effects of externalisation policies as developed in the CONREP workshop, how should we respond to the challenges raised by the perpetuation of such policies? Inhumane and unfair externalisation policies should be fought through legal challenges and integrated advocacy. Civil society should also be supported in its efforts to provide services to refugees despite externalisation policies. Addressing the root causes of these policies, such as anaemic international protection laws, is central to tackling the challenges raised by harmful externalisation policies. Further research is also needed to better understand the root causes of externalisation and what constructive alternatives may be utilised to ensure the protection of refugees in the future.

Short biography

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 form the University of Edinburgh. Her PhD thesis examines responsibility in the context of Germany's response to the 2015 refugee crisis. Her research interests include German and EU asylum policies, European integration, identity, and citizenship. In 2018, she was awarded a postgraduate fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.