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Reporting period: 2020-02-01 to 2021-01-31

How can the international community maintain and advance the idea and system of international protection in today's turbulent global political context?

The international refugee protection system is under massive pressure. The UN’s 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol oblige its signatories to adopt common goals for international protection. On the other hand, the populist nativization processes that initially started in a few countries are spreading in the world, generating substantial bottom-up pressure on the international protection system. Between the globalist and nativist bearings, are the regionalist (e.g. Europeanist) and nation-statist visions of protection.

Amidst intensifying struggles between groups that advocate these four conflicting visions of world order and the models of international protection associated with them, it remains to see how the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and Global Compact on Migration (GCM), and their interactions with regional and national jurisdictions, will affect the right to international protection. Our vision is to discover ways of upholding and advancing an effective international protection system in today’s turbulent political context. The UN’s and the EU’s efforts to create new solidarity-based global and regional governance systems for migration and international protection pose important challenges and opportunities.

PROTECT comparatively assesses the consequences and implications of the GCR and GCM for international protection. Its particular focus is on their transformative effects on the (human) rights of refugees and asylum seekers, the rights attached to the refugee status, the modes of governance deployed to implement these, and their public recognition. PROTECT will identify the factors that facilitate or hinder their alignment with the right to international protection from a human rights perspective. As part of these efforts, we identify the legal norms, governance modes, and public discourses that have performed the best in upholding and advancing an effective international refugee protection system.
The first period of PROTECT has been devoted to devising the project's research tools and launching the data collection. Data on interactions between international, regional, and national legal frameworks, institutional governance architectures, and media discourses have been collected and are being coded. Surveys on civil society organizations' and citizens' contributions to international protection are underway. PROTECT's data analyses are planned for the second period. In our preparatory explorations, though, we have made the following preliminary observations:

PROTECT has conducted three expert forums in Europe, Canada and South Africa as a preparation for the project's legal studies. In South Africa, the active role played by states in the region in implementing both Compacts and the challenges posed by the pandemic were highlighted. In Canada, five main challenges were underlined: the Canada-US safe third country agreement; refugee status cessations; Canada’s participation into externalizations of asylum; the favoring of resettled over in-land refugees; the suspension of resettlements and other disruptions caused by the pandemic. While noting that the Compacts have been largely neglected, the documents could and should still be ‘domesticated’ to inform the principles and practices of legal practitioners. In the Europe, noting how the COVID-19 crisis is used to refuse access to territory and suspend resettlements, absence of political will and insufficient and inadequate systems to implement rights protection were identified as the main challenges. The Commission’s Proposed Migration and Asylum Pact was welcomed for its more positive rhetoric and solidarity-oriented substance, however concerns for the potential increase in de rule and de facto detentions and removals were noted.

PROTECT has done exploratory mapping of the refugee protection in selected fieldwork sites in Europe, Canada, and South Africa. In France, the Compacts are not reflected in the experiences of actors in the field yet. Spain has publicly expressed a commitment to the Compacts, and a notable progress in asylum seekers' access to health services has been made. While the discourse on international protection is centered around human rights and solidarity, NGOs have questioned the sincerity of commitments by cities and state actors. In Greece, prominent roles are played by UNHCR and IOM, and Lesvos is a nexus of several international schemes for the governance of refuge. Despite a very substantial legal entrenchment of the right to asylum in Italy’s Constitution, this country did not subscribe to the GCM. A 2020 decree reversing this trajectory is still to be fully implemented. In Canada, a recent change in the language pertaining to ‘special needs’ mirrors expressions found in the Compacts. In South Africa, a recent and gradual erosion of the national framework of protection is observed. The relationships between governmental and non-governmental actors in the border town of Musina have changed and evolved over time. A key role in enabling coordination has been played by the UNHCR office in the area – now closed.

The expert forums and exploratory mappings of the fieldwork sites have revealed the different problem areas that we need to focus on in the three jurisdictions regarding international responsibility sharing. Preliminary observations from Europe, Canada, and South Africa display fundamentally different approaches to the implementation of GCR and GCM - from indifference (Canada) to extensive state involvement (Southern Africa) and a combination of supranational coordination and national irresponsibility (EU). The COVID-19 pandemic has affected their implementation. A more important factor affecting implementation seems to be the states' different levels of commitment to the process. NGOs collaboration with authorities vary significantly, contingent upon states' interest in entering a global solidarity mechanism
In terms of theory development, PROTECT has made progress by extending the cleavage theory from its national orientation to a global scale in order to apply it in studies of the global politics of refugee protection. PROTECT also developed the very first cleavage-theory based research frameworks and data grids in the field. The effectiveness of these research tools and contribution of our empirical findings remain to be seen in the forthcoming periods.

International refugee protection frames, including GCR, do not specify detailed institutional arrangements for the multilevel governance of international protection. This is left to states and non-state actors' different ways of contributing based on a corporate-pluralist understanding of governance. PROTECT expects to fill this gap by identifying the institutional governance architectures that align the international protection system with existing human rights norms in the best possible ways and by detecting discursive strategies that increase public recognition of the right to international protection. At the end we will be able to recommend well-functioning, context sensitive, and feasible policies, governance mechanisms, and discursive strategies which may allow using the GCR and GCM as a new window of opportunity to re-assert the international refugee protection system.