This article considers the relationship between two human rights discourses (and two specific legal regimes): refugee and asylum protection and the evolving body of international law that regulates expulsions and deportations. Legal protections for refugees and asylum seekers are, of course, venerable, well-known, and in many respects still cherished, if challenged and perhaps a bit frail. Anti-deportation discourse is much newer, multifaceted, and evolving. It is in many respects a young work in progress. It has arisen in response to a rising tide of deportations, and the worrisome development of massive, harsh deportation machinery in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Australia, and South Africa, among others. This article’s main goal is to consider how these two discourses do and might relate to each other. More specifically, it suggests that the development of procedural and substantive rights against removal — as well as rights during and after removal — aids our understanding of the current state and possible future of the refugee protection regime.
The article’s basic thesis is this: The global refugee regime, though challenged both theoretically and in practice, must be maintained and strengthened. Its historical focus on developing criteria for admission into safe states, on protections against expulsion (i.e., non-refoulement), and on regimes of temporary protection all remain critically important. However, a focus on other protections for all noncitizens facing deportation is equally important. Deportation has become a major international system that transcends the power of any single nation-state. Its methods have migrated from one regime to another; its size and scope are substantial and expanding; its costs are enormous; and its effects frequently constitute major human rights violations against millions who do not qualify as refugees. In recent years there has been increasing reliance by states on generally applicable deportation systems, led in large measure by the United States’ radical 25 year-plus experiment with large-scale deportation. Europe has also witnessed a rising tide of deportation, some of which has developed in reaction to European asylum practices. Deportation has been facilitated globally (e.g., in Australia) by well-funded, efficient (but relatively little known) intergovernmental idea sharing, training, and cooperation. This global expansion, standardization, and increasing intergovernmental cooperation on deportation has been met by powerful — if in some respects still nascent — human rights responses by activists, courts, some political actors, and scholars.
It might seem counterintuitive to think that emerging ideas about deportation protections could help refugees and asylum seekers, as those people by definition often have greater rights protections both in admission and expulsion. However, the emerging anti-deportation discourses should be systematically studied by those interested in the global refugee regime for three basic reasons.
First, what Matthew Gibney has described as “the deportation turn” has historically been deeply connected to anxiety about asylum seekers. Although we lack exact figures of the number of asylum seekers who have been subsequently expelled worldwide, there seems little doubt that it has been a significant phenomenon and will be an increasingly important challenge in the future. The two phenomena of refugee/asylum protections and deportation, in short, are now and have long been linked. What has sometimes been gained through the front door, so to speak, may be lost through the back door.
Second, current deportation human rights discourses embody creative framing models that might aid constructive critique and reform of the existing refugee protection regime. They tend to be more functionally oriented, less definitional in terms of who warrants protection, and more fluid and transnational.
Third, these discourses offer important specific rights protections that could strengthen the refugee and asylum regime, even as we continue to see weakening state support for the basic 1951/1967 protection regime. This is especially true in regard to the extraterritorial scope of the (deporting) state’s obligations post-deportation.
This article particularly examines two initiatives in this emerging field: The International Law Commission’s Draft Articles on the Expulsion of Aliens and the draft Declaration on the Rights of Expelled and Deported Persons developed through the Boston College Post-Deportation Human Rights Project (of which the author is a co-director). It compares their provisions to the existing corpus of substantive and procedural protections for refugees relating to expulsion and removal. It concludes with consideration of how these discourses may strengthen protections for refugees while also helping to develop more capacious and protective systems in the future.