Global Governance, Human rights, Migration, The Global Cable

Refugee Rights with Lama Mourad

February 21, 2020
By Perry World House | The Global Cable

This week's episode of The Global Cable features Lama Mourad, a Postdoctoral Fellow here at Perry World House. Lama's research focuses on refugees and human rights. She recently co-authored a piece for The Atlantic, examining the limitations of the UN Global Compact on Refugees, that prompted an official response from UNHCR.

Lama talks to us about how she would change UN policy on refugees; balancing the need for activism with the demands of research on refugee issues; and countering dangerous narratives about migration. 

Listen now.


John Gans [00:01:24] Welcome to The Global Cable, a podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where discuss the world's most pressing issues with the people who work on them. I'm John Gans, the director of communications and research here at Perry World House.

John Gans [00:01:37] On today's episode, we speak to Lama Mourad, one of our postdoctoral fellows here at Perry World House. She's researched and written extensively on issues surrounding migration and human rights, most recently in a piece for The Atlantic on the UN's Global Compact on Refugees - a piece that triggered reactions all around the world, including at UNHCR headquarters. Lama talks to us about what she would change on UN policy on refugees, how her personal views and personal narrative drove her interest in both research and activism, and countering dangerous narratives about migration.

John Gans [00:02:15] Lama Mourad, welcome to The Global Cable. Your research is so timely. So the question is, why did you get interested in refugees? Was this a lifelong interest? Was this something that piqued your interest early on? Obviously you've been studying it for longer than this peak refugee moment has been happening. Why did you get into it?

Lama Mourad [00:02:40] Yeah, I guess there's both research reasons and methodological reasons that this particular research project that I focused my dissertation on, and now my book project, became such an important part of my life.

 [00:02:56] But then when I think about it more profoundly, I realize that, I mean, not just refugees, but migration in general has been a topic of interest for me really from a very young age. And that probably has to do with my own personal migration story. My parents came to Canada as refugees in the early '90s, and even prior to their arrival, as refugees. And I was five years old and came with my - I'm the youngest of seven children - and so I came with my parents to Canada as a young child. But, you know, when I heard back the stories of my parents and my siblings, my elder siblings, all kinds of migration stories were a part of their lives. So, you know, my parents had lived in in Saudi Arabia for in the early '80s. So the kind of complex migration stories of their own personal trajectories, but also of my extended family and my siblings, always animated my life. And for most of my upbringing, my siblings were all over the world. You know, my brother lived in Lebanon, he stayed there while my family came here. My other sister moved to Saudi Arabia. So we had this - my life was never situated in one place. And migration has always been a major part of it. Now, for refugees specifically -  and my focus on Syrian refugees - that really came during grad school. And part of the motivation to study the Syrian refugee influx in Lebanon was really driven by growing up in a place like Canada - and I think there's a similar parallel in the U.S. - and thinking about how quote unquote, "welcoming" Canada is, and how at least historically, the U.S. Has been very welcoming towards refugees. And yet the numbers pale in comparison to the realities of countries in the global south. Like Lebanon, who now hosts - a quarter of its population are refugees. So thinking about the contrast between how we think about the global north as very welcoming, very open to refugees, particularly historically, less so now.

[00:05:04] But actually the reality of most of the world's refugees being actually housed and hosted in the global south led me to think about those questions there.

John Gans [00:05:16] So for our listeners who might not know, what is the difference between a migrant and a refugee, in international law and in national law?

Lama Mourad [00:05:26] So in terms of - we'll start with the international, because I think there that's where the more established and standard definitions are. So first of all, it should be said that refugees are a subset of migrants. Right? So a migrant is just someone who has left one - actually, you can even have internal migrants, right - so one location to settle in another. And that can be for all kinds of reasons. So the literature generally distinguishes between voluntary migration and forced migration.

 [00:05:55] So voluntary migration is when you leave a place to go to another place of your free will, broadly speaking, and that can be for economic reasons, it can be for family reasons. It could be for all kinds of categories. So that's based on a distinction of the motivation to leave. And then forced migrants include refugees. So refugees are a legally defined category as per the U.N. 1951 convention that is more narrow than forced migrants.

 [00:06:25] So forced migrants includes anyone who'd be fleeing. And that's more of an academic definition, but one I think that has more intuitive meaning to people. So that would be, you know, someone who's fleeing or leaving their home or the place where they live for reasons beyond their own will. So that could be because of a natural disaster, it could be a hurricane. But it also could be because of war or persecution.

 [00:06:55] Now, the refugee definition, as per the 1951 convention, and that remains the case today, is a person who is leaving their home owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, and is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable to, or owing to such fear, unwilling to, avail himself or herself of the protection of that country. So it really means it's really focused on a particular kind of fear and a particular kind of driver, and that is one that is political.

[00:07:37] And so, for instance, generalized violence is not subject to the refugee convention. So if you're  leaving a place because it just has a lot of crime, for instance, and you may feel that you might not be able to live there, or that your children may not survive, because the crime rates are very, very high. That doesn't - you may be a forced migrant in that sense, who may be fleeing because of fear for your life, but because that fear is not driven by these political targeted reasons, you would not fall into the refugee definition. Now, at a national level, different states may broaden that in different ways. So some states have more or less narrow definitions of that. But that's the international law.

John Gans [00:08:29] You grew up mostly in Canada.

Lama Mourad [00:08:30] Mostly in Canada.

John Gans [00:08:32] And so Canada, as  I know friends who have similar situations.- you've gone to Canada as refugees, and Canada was one of those countries that was like, "make us better." Like I remember one story of a young person who moved to Canada, and they stamped his passport, and the remark was "welcome to Canada, make us better.".

Lama Mourad [00:08:50] Yeah.

John Gans [00:08:51] And it's an interesting model. And I think Canada has probably been even more welcoming than the United States. But as you say, it's relatively stingy. So how when you have a personal connection to a research story, how do you delve into it? How do you leverage those personal motivations and personal insights, while also trying to pursue a rigorous academic study?

Lama Mourad [00:09:17] Yeah, I think that's something that, you know, you can apply methods in a rigorous way. You can be thoughtful in the way that you design a project, and think about its utility in terms of research motivations and the broader kind of relationship to the literature. And I think Lebanon really has all of that. But I think where the kind of personal connection and the personal motivations become really important is in keeping you grounded in what you know, why these questions matter.

[00:09:56] So, you know, these questions are important for literature and for research, but they're also really important in people's lives. And that's one thing that's been really important for me in designing any research project, has been to think about the utility of the question for people and for, you know, our understanding of rights and for our understanding of what it means to be a welcoming place for migrants and refugees. So the way that I balance those two things is to really think about - to always place my research questions and my research agenda more broadly in the countries. Like would refugees think that this is even important? Does it affect their lives? Does this even advance anything in terms of global thinking around these issues? That's the way that I bring those two together.

John Gans [00:10:52] Yeah, it's surprising. I mean, I think, a lot of academics or scholars today strive for policy impact, which is like "I want to actually change how governments do things." But it's so fascinating because the refugee issue - and I think how you're describing it is so fascinating - because there's a human impact. Making people's lives better, right - whether they're refugees in Canada, United States, Lebanon or anywhere else - is a more ambitious task in some ways, a harder one.

[00:11:26] So I guess my question is, how do you balance the demands of research with the urge for activism? So like, going out there and actually go and try to make those lives better, as you are focusing on, as you're certainly learning about them and to a degree writing about them, and things along those lines.

Lama Mourad [00:11:45] Yeah. I mean, I think it's difficult. I do. I definitely think it's really difficult for us to say we're necessarily making the lives of migrants better. But I think keeping the lives of migrants, and the real experience of migration and refugees, in our minds while we do research is really important. Because I think it's very easy to stray away from, what is my research affecting, and how are  the ways in which I think about migrants, refugees affecting broader issues that relate to migrants?  But in terms of actual activism - so for me, it's been a very, very difficult balancing act. You know, I've had different moments of my life being more or less an activist, and not just migrant issues, but kind of more broadly. And one of the ways in which I've brought it into my research is to also - you know, not necessarily thinking of it in direct policy impact, in the way that you're phrasing it. I think a lot of people want to affect policy, but also to make sure that I'm using my, you know, the leverage that I have, the spaces that I have, the opportunities that I have to publish in certain places, or to actually bring forward viewpoints that may run counter to established conceptions, but that are driven by a desire to guarantee and to ensure the rights of migrants and refugees. So, you know, using my spaces, however they come, to always advocate for these core rights.

 [00:13:26] So that may manifest itself in writing, but it also may manifest in speaking to public audiences. So, for instance, here in Philadelphia now, I was speaking to a high school last term. I think it's really important that we not see policy relevance not only in speaking to political policymakers, but also in shaping public discourse at a local level around refugees. So that's the way that I've tried to do that.

 [00:13:57] Then when I'm in Lebanon, of course, I work with, and collaborate with, NGOs, and Syrian NGOs in particular. I've tried to center their voices. When trying to understand the policy of Lebanon with regard to Syrian refugees, I make sure that I'm also connecting with organizations on the ground there. But here I think, whether it's the United States or Canada, I really try to make sure that I'm not only talking to policymakers, but also to local groups.

John Gans [00:14:33] Speaking of policymakers, you created a bit of a splash when you and one of your coauthors wrote a piece for The Atlantic. In January, right?

Lama Mourad [00:14:43] It was in December, late December.

John Gans [00:14:47] And it was called 'The World is Turning its Back on Refugees', in which you explore if one policy effort from the U.N., from the global community, this U.N. Global Compact on Refugees, actually  had the potential to make the world a more dangerous place for refugees or migrants. And to a degree, could actually reinforce this dangerous narrative of countries basically only saving refugees if it was in their national interest and in their own bottom line interests.

[00:15:21] And so how did you decide tho come about making that argument, and how is that driven by these two sides of you, which is this academic, but also this activist approach? And I guess your personal story as well?

Lama Mourad [00:15:35] Yeah, well, the the piece itself was driven in part by this research project that Kelsey Norman and I had started a couple of years ago now, and it was published in the European Journal of International Relations. And that looked to document the ways in which states have themselves blurred the distinction between refugees and migrants.

[00:15:59] So we've heard a lot in the news and in the policy world about the categories, how those migrants arriving on European shores, for instance, some of them are refugees and some of them are migrants. We see that here, this kind of sensationalization around this distinction, how migrants are using refugee paths, for instance, to circumvent obstacles to entering Western countries.

[00:16:28] And what we wanted to say is that, notwithstanding the ways in which these categories themselves are problematic and kind of draw arbitrary lines in particular ways that distinguish, for instance, between those who are fleeing natural disasters, who would not qualify for the category of refugees, but who are forcibly displaced in real ways, and those who are fleeing persecution, who would fall under the 1951 convention. So notwithstanding those debates, which I think are very valid, states have themselves - states and international organizations like UNHCR - have put in place policies and practices that have made refugees actually much more like migrants, and have used refugee tracks and categories of policy that are meant to protect the rights of those forcibly displaced from persecution, towards ends that meet their economic needs.

[00:17:29] So, for instance, one of the main things we look at is the ways in which refugee resettlement criteria - so these are the criteria that states use to decide which refugees they'll take in from a pool of refugees that are eligible, based on the UNHCR and the convention definition. They'll use things like language ability, or ability to work in a particular sector, or things like that, that essentially transform what is a policy track or a policy category that is meant to protect those most vulnerable and those that don't have access to those other means of getting to places of protection. Using those tools to actually bring in people that are useful for their economies. And what we argue in the Atlantic piece is that the Compact only strengthens that type of logic, and it reinforces that really insidious transformation of the refugee regime into yet another migration and immigration category. And so the way in which, you know, the Atlantic piece came out was really driven by these three years of research that Kelsey and I have done, both on the ground and based on data from UNHCR, and then trying to bring that research to speak to a contemporary really important issue. So the anniversary of the Global Compact, of the signing of the Global Compact was this December. And we thought it was a really good opportunity because many people have been talking about the Compact  as a milestone for refugee rights and as an important moment for advancing the plight of refugees, and also as potentially transformative, when really we're saying it's the old game. You're just reproducing and actually legitimizing practices that states have been doing for decades now. And you're giving it the global UNHCR stamp of approval.

[00:20:01] And so even though actually we don't talk about the Compact at all in our academic article, the implications of that research for this policy question were, for us, really important. And so we decided that a venue like The Atlantic is the right place to do that.

John Gans [00:20:21] And it had an impact, right? It got some attention and it actually triggered an official reaction from UNHCR. So what did you think of UNHCR's response? Were you surprised to get an official reaction? They wrote a response for The Atlantic and The Atlantic published it. Were you surprised that they did that? And what did you actually think of their response?

Lama Mourad [00:20:44] Yeah, we were surprised because I mean, even though we were very happy that we got UNHCR attention, we're not the only people who have made this critique. I think this is something actually among migration refugee experts has become more - there are some major and prominent refugee scholars who are supportive of the Compact. There's no question about that. But there's also other really important people who have written, I think, even harsher critiques of the Compact. So, for instance, James Hathaway wrote an academic article that called it the "global copout on refugees," you know, has been very, very critical of it.

[00:21:28] But I think the fact that it was actually published in a public venue like The Atlantic had the effect of perhaps prompting UNHCR to feel like they had to respond, in a way that publishing this work solely in academic venues does not. And so we were a little bit surprised, but maybe we shouldn't have been, because I think these things often happen. But we were pleasantly surprised. We're happy to see that UNHCR was at least engaging with this. Now, the response itself was not surprising.

[00:22:01] It was essentially restating the very high level positive view of the Compact as being, you know, a success, just in the fact that it brought together all of these people to talk about this issue. And the fact that any agreement, even if it was non-binding and actually reinforced some problematic practices, was better than nothing in this particular moment. And even more so the response had something to the effect that this was a wholly new approach or a whole of society approach.

[00:22:42] And we contend that it's not new at all. And that the non-binding - if we don't diagnose the problem, the problem isn't the lack of non-binding agreements. It's the fact that what these agreements allow for, and the fact that there is actually no guaranteed commitments or resettlement figures, or real teeth to what responsibility-sharing really means in the global system. That's the problem.

[00:23:16] And so just getting further agreements that are non-binding, and that have nice words about burden-sharing and responsibility-sharing, doesn't really get it - the problem itself.

John Gans [00:23:29] So if you had the opportunity to rewrite the Compact, where would you write?

Lama Mourad [00:23:34] Well, I would definitely not rewrite the Compact, but I think there's a number of different ways that the Compact was a missed opportunity, or that there are elements that I think should be in any global agreement. I think the first is that, again, the importance of diagnosing one of the existing problems with the regime, which is the non-binding nature. So I think not having any, you know, guaranteed or sort of committed figures on how many. For instance, one proposal is that you would have a, based on GDP, a ratio of refugees that a country has to resettle. So actually thinking of this as a systemic issue, rather than as an individual, ad hoc, every state decides for itself how many refugees it takes in. And that - we saw in the U.S. - varies from administration to administration. So there's a real uncertainty in this whole process. So that's one thing.

[00:24:48] But that's maybe too lofty of a goal, right?

John Gans [00:24:52] It's OK, we have lofty goals.

Lama Mourad [00:24:53] Yeah, exactly, so having binding commitments. The second though would be to really - and this is something that the Compact does not do and can be done even in a non-binding nature - is to center the issue of refugee rights as opposed to responsibility-sharing. Because I think the emphasis on responsibility-sharing,rather than rights, means that - and this is one of the main critiques of the Compact - means that wealthier states, and states in the global north, essentially see their role in responsibility-sharing as one of paying off countries in the global south to host refugees. But if we don't center refugee rights, what that means in effect is that refugees are being hosted in places where their rights are not guaranteed, where access to protection is very limited, and where the potential for refoulement, or return, is very high. And so when when rights are not centered in the agreement, this is the kind of thing that we have. And then the third would be to really think about alternative arrangements. So Alex Aleinikoff, who is at the Zolberg Institute, has proposed a mobility regime, and to really center mobility, rather than settlement, as potential alternatives. So I think part of the reason that both refugees and states find the current arrangements so difficult is that so a one-time decision is  binding and that refugees only have one shot, often, to get to a place of protection. And states are committed to people for the long-term and forever.

[00:26:42] Whereas if you really think about a systemic global mobility regime, it both allows migrants and refugees to have opportunities to say, go back to their home countries and see if their lives can be made - most refugees want to go back home. But the problem is that going back home, even trying it out, bears such a cost, because if they leave, their return to a place of safety may never be assured again. But if you center mobility as a possibility for refugees and to say, you know, even if you go back to Syria, for example, and you find that your life there is not possible, and that it's not safe, you can come back. That allows for a lot more flexibility in the regime. And allows for a win-win for both refugees and for states.

John Gans [00:27:37] So almost three hundred years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, developed a questionnaire he used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current and global affairs. We've updated it for use today and to anchor our Global Cable podcast. These are short questions that can have short answers, or no answers, if we stump you. So the first is who would you most like to meet today and why?

Lama Mourad [00:28:06] Yeah, I think this is definitely one of the hardest ones. I think there are a number of people who I find very impressive in the world today, and so I struggle to just choose one. But I think, and I think you would probably see this as a cop out. But yeah, if I look towards people who are not with us today...

John Gans [00:28:27] OK, so we're going to history for our answer today, that's fine.

Lama Mourad [00:28:34] One person I would be very, very interested in, I think has both ties to my own past but also to my current research interests, was a jurist and also a philosopher, Charles Malik, who's of Lebanese origin and also was one of the original drafters of the UN Convention on Refugees. And this has been one of the ongoing interesting puzzles for me with regards to Lebanon, is to think about how this small country had such a role in the writing of the convention. Not a massive one, but Malik was one of the main drafters. And thinking of its role today in the refugee context, I'd be interested in learning more from him.

John Gans [00:29:33] That's a totally acceptable answer! All right, so have you read anything, recently seen or listened to anything related to world affairs that our listeners might be interested in and can actually listen or read or watch?

Lama Mourad [00:29:46] Have people proposed things that can't be read?

John Gans [00:29:47] Well, let's not go historical, things along those lines! We've got to pick something more current.

Lama Mourad [00:29:55] Yes. I've read this recently actually, I just finished it in January. I read this really great book, also on Lebanon, there's a bit of a theme here. It's called Banking on the State: The Financial Foundations of Lebanon, by Hicham Safieddine. And so. For those who are following Lebanon today,  the current set of crises that Lebanon is going through, finance and banking play central roles in those crises, which I won't go into too much right now. But this book is a historical book, and it looks at the role of finance and banking in the foundations of the Lebanese state and the role of bankers' unions with regard to the central bank. And for me, for someone who has been studying Lebanon for so long, it was incredibly illuminating, and I learned a lot. But also, I think it was written in a way that speaks to much bigger issues that we're seeing today around the role of banks and finance and governance. And I think speak to a lot of bigger issues.

John Gans [00:31:13] I love it. That's good. We'll put it on our list here. So do you have any individual in the United States or elsewhere who's done something that deserves praise or attention?

Lama Mourad [00:31:24] Yeah, I think there I'm going to also have a bit of a cop out, I guess, in that it's not necessarily one individual. But I've been these days, I've been very tuned in and very inspired by the protest movements, the uprising in Lebanon.

[00:31:42] I think the courage and the sustained innovation, I think that the uprising, revolution, whatever people want to call it. But I think both the longevity, but also the creativity, and the incredibly inspiring ways in which people have come out, day in and day out. So the Lebanon protest, or uprising, is now in its fourth month. And international news has sort of veered away from it, but I think the struggle continues on the ground. And I've been very, very inspired by seeing some people I know very well, some academics, including someone called Reema Majid, a sociologist who has been doing incredible work on the ground. To see academics really putting their work in action is politically really inspiring.

John Gans [00:32:36] Can you think of anything in which Penn or Penn students can be of service to the country or the world?

Lama Mourad [00:32:42] Yeah, I think there I really come back to the idea that - I think the way in which not just Penn Students, but just, you know, people can make the biggest change in the world is often in acting locally within their communities. I think in the United States, that may mean focusing on the next election, and thinking about how, you know, I think the biggest effect that the U.S. has in the world often is determined by the administration, and by the kind of politics globally. And so thinking about how you can affect change here in terms of electing the right person to office. And I'm a Canadian, so I'm not gonna tell you who that is. You can make those decisions yourself. But in mobilizing on that. And then also, the U.S. has a lot of migrant and refugee issues that can be worked on at a local level. And I think that's where I would urge people to think first, and then to link those with global issues, but to really operate on a local level.

John Gans [00:33:48] That sounds good. Thank you so much for joining us on The Global Cable.