International Refugee Law

International Refugee Law

Jane McAdam

Jane McAdam
The World Economic Forum Young Global Leader is finding solutions to one of our most complex humanitarian crises.

As the director of the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Scientia Professor Jane McAdam is leading a series of projects investigating the legal issues that affect the fate of the world’s 51.4 million displaced people – the highest number since the end of World War II.

At the same time, she is looking ahead to more frequent and severe natural disasters, and extreme weather events caused by climate change, which could see unprecedented numbers of people on the move.  As an ARC Future Fellow she is examining potential legal responses to this climate-related displacement, including the feasibility of the relocation of entire communities.

More than anything else, McAdam, who was named by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader, wants to dispel the notion that the asylum seeker debate is about being “for” or “against” refugees.

Instead, McAdam is working to promote the respectful and objective consideration of how Australia and other nations treat asylum seekers, both in terms of their national laws and their obligations under international law.

For McAdam, what is particularly frustrating about the forced migration debate is the common assumption that public opinion, rather than the responsibilities enshrined in national and international law, should dictate the way governments respond to the growing number of vulnerable people seeking protection.

“This means debate over forced migration is persistently reduced to slogans and ill-informed value judgments that seek to sort asylum seekers into the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the ‘lawful’ and the ‘illegal’, when the issue is as complex as humanity itself,” she says.

McAdam was confronted by this humbling humanity while working for a Federal Court judge as a recent university graduate. “I watched asylum seekers struggling to represent themselves in court.

“One day, a distraught Indonesian man pulled up his shirt to show the judge his scars from bullet wounds, and described how he would be killed if he was sent back home. He did not meet the refugee definition, but he was at risk of harm. Yet, Australian law at that time did not require decision-makers to consider whether returning someone would expose them to things like torture or cruel treatment.”

This led her to a doctorate at the University of Oxford on complementary protection – the obligations under international law that prohibit countries from sending asylum seekers back to places where they are at risk of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Her work was influential in changing Australian law to reflect these obligations.

In all her work, McAdam seeks to show why international law provides a principled, accepted framework for addressing the challenges presented by the growing number of people seeking protection. To do that, rigorous, evidence-based research is needed, she says, which is why the Kaldor Centre fulfils such an important function.

As director, McAdam’s influence is further enhanced by her various international roles, including as non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in the US, an expert adviser to international agencies, including United Nations Refugee Agency and the World Bank, and Co-Rapporteur of the International Law Association’s Committee on International Law and Sea-Level Rise.

She is also a member of the Consultative Committee of the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross-Border Displacement, an intergovernmental initiative spearheaded by Norway and Switzerland.  

The debate is often reduced to slogans and value judgements that characterise asylum seekers as good or bad, lawful or illegal, but this is far too simple when the issue is as complex as humanity itself.