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Finding homes for refugees in Nepal

November 7, 2012
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Refugees in Nepal waiting to be resettled. (Photo by Sailendra Kharel)

Nepal was grappling with a serious problem resettling tens of thousands of refugees when James Hathaway got the call to help the Himalayan nation.

The University of Michigan law professor is one of the world’s leading experts on refugee law, so as word spread he would be arriving, his calendar quickly filled up with meetings with refugees, judges, officials, attorneys, activists and academics eager to talk to him.

Solving the many thorny issues in the refugee crisis would be a huge challenge because the problem has been dragging on for decades. It began in the 1990s when more than 100,000 ethnic Nepalese living in nearby Bhutan were forced out of the country, an isolated Buddhist kingdom often called the “last Shangri-la.”

Many of the refugees were resettled in other countries, but 60,000 of them were still languishing in camps in Nepal. Officials couldn’t decide whether to allow them to stay. There were also disagreements about how to define a refugee and what rights they should have. A consensus seemed impossible.

During his visit to Nepal last year, Hathaway began discussions with the interested parties about legal protections for refugees. He also critiqued draft refugee statutes developed by nongovernmental organizations at the government’s request.

By the end of his trip, Hathaway helped five NGOs combine the best elements of their proposals for refugee protection into a single version.

James Hathaway visiting Nepal in 2011. (Photo by Sailendra Kharel)

The professor’s work was “extraordinary,” said Amit Sen, a protection officer with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Nepal, which hosted Hathaway.

“During the week or so he spent in Nepal, he was able to create breakthroughs on a number of key issues of policy and protection where we had been hitting a wall for years, he said.

Hathaway was also praised by Stephane Jaquemet, the representative in Nepal for the UNHCR.

“There were questions of ego, who had presented the best draft, some tension from one NGO to another,” Jaquemet said. “They would not have been able to agree on something without the presence of Professor Hathaway.”

Hathaway is the director of Michigan Law’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law – the world’s most comprehensive program for the study of international and comparative refugee law. The center offers courses, workshops, fellowships and a biennial colloquium that sets guidelines for the evolution of refugee law. It’s also home to the Refugee Caselaw Site, the world’s leading online source about precedents on refugee law issued in more than 30 asylum countries.

“I wanted to do something here that no other school was doing, to truly focus on international refugee and asylum law rather than treating refugee protection as just an aspect of domestic immigration law,” Hathaway said. “We have defined our niche very narrowly, and we have achieved preeminence in it.”

Perhaps the best gauge of the program’s success is its global reach. Hathaway speaks and trains around the world, has drafted the refugee laws for several countries and the European Union, and has been cited in more than 700 appellate court decisions worldwide. He also draws students and collaborators with a wide range of national origins.

Hathaway visiting Nepal in 2011.

One of Hathaway’s many meetings during his trip to Nepal. (Photo by Sailendra Kharel)

The history of refugee law at U-M predates Hathaway’s 1998 arrival. A symposium was held in 1981 on the Transnational Legal Problems of Refugees. Alexander Aleinikoff – a faculty member  in 1981-87 who is now the UN’s deputy high commissioner for refugees – taught asylum and refugee law.

But to many, Hathaway is the primary person associated with the program. His presence is part of the reason that alumnus Ronald Olson and his wife, Jane, decided to give a major gift to Michigan Law that supports the refugee and asylum law program.

“I feel that the law is about saving lives and preventing additional violence against people who are already victimized,” said Jane Olson, a longtime human rights activist who has chaired the board of Human Rights Watch.

Hathaway’s journey toward becoming a refugee law expert began when he was in the right place at the right time. Being fluent in the right language also helped.

He was studying at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto and doing advocacy work at a legal service clinic when a Spanish-speaking client came in. Hathaway was the only one who could speak the language, so he got the case.

The client was a young Chilean man named Leonardo who had been detained and tortured for more than a year for alleged political opposition during the repressive dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Leonardo needed the clinic’s help to secure refugee status in Canada based on the then-novel claim that, although he wasn’t a political activist, his case should be recognized on the grounds of “political opinion” because the government treated him as political.

“We won the case. Afterward Leonardo and his wife, Sandra—who both worked as dishwashers—invited me to dinner at the restaurant where they worked,” Hathaway said. “Seeing them surrounded by their obviously ecstatic colleagues and new friends, seeing the look of pure joy and gratitude on their faces, drove home to me that this was the part of law I really wanted to build a career around.”

He added, “It was so clear to me that helping people to escape persecution and live in dignity is about as good as it gets.”

A longer version of this story was published in Law Quadrangle magazine: http://www.law.umich.edu/quadrangle/spring2012/features/Pages/findingrefuge.aspx

(Katie Vloet is the editor of Law Quadrangle.)

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