With the climate emergency displacing more and more people around the globe, Professor Jane McAdam’s research at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law grows increasingly urgent. By Miriam Cosic.

The Kaldor Centre’s Jane McAdam

Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
Professor Jane McAdam, director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
Credit: Louise Reily

Jane McAdam was a natural fit with Andrew and Renata Kaldor. The couple, well-known philanthropists whose parents were refugees from Nazi Germany, were looking for ways to counter the misinformation about refugees that was gaining ground in Australian politics. It was 2013, when the Abbott government was campaigning for election with thunderous “stop the boats” rhetoric.

Someone mentioned McAdam’s work on international refugee law at the University of New South Wales and a lunch was quickly set up. She, the Kaldors and the dean of the UNSW Law Faculty, David Dixon, had an intense discussion. The academics had been considering setting up a specialist research centre. “During the course of this lunch, which was really to talk about what the centre might do, they said they wanted to fund us,” says McAdam.

She still seems surprised by the speed with which it all came together. The lunch was in July. The federal election was in September. The Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, the only one of its kind in the world, opened in October with McAdam as director. It was a scant few months before Scott Morrison, then immigration minister, was howled down by small-l liberals in cabinet for proposing a $9 billion mass detention centre for asylum seekers living in the Australian community on bridging visas.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 70.8 million people are displaced in the world today: 25.9 million are formally classed as refugees, more than half of whom are minors. Many are internally displaced and in war zones, suffering everything from starvation to disabling injury to a lack of schools.

Australia congratulates itself for accepting fewer than 20,000 a year, but it is neighbouring countries that weather the influx. Of the 5.68 million people who had fled Syria by January 31, 3.64 million went to Turkey, nearly one million to Lebanon and 671,551 to Jordan, where two-thirds of the population is already made up of Palestinian refugees.

“People are shocked when I point out that what Australia’s taking in a year is what Greece was getting in a day,” says McAdam.

Now, we’re slowly waking up to a new push factor in the refugee crisis: climate change. Increasingly, McAdam finds herself preoccupied with the problem, which is already being felt by African countries suffering drought and those facing rising sea levels in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

“I think if you look again at the figures, more people are being displaced now within their own country by the impacts of disasters than by conflict,” says McAdam. “The scientists will say it’s impossible to link a particular event – this flood, or that drought – to climate change. And earthquakes have nothing to do with climate change.

“But what we do know is that we’re seeing more frequent disasters and more intense disasters and those things are consistent with climate change. We are going to see disaster on steroids. There’s an assumption that ‘one day’ people will be fleeing climate change, but it’s already happening. It’s happening right now.”

In 2017, she and Guy Goodwin-Gill, her colleague at the Kaldor Centre, were appointed by the UNHCR to prepare short-, medium- and long-term strategies for dealing with displacement generated by disasters and climate change.

Last year, they were key participants in drafting the Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the Context of Sea Level Rise. “Someone said to me, ‘You didn’t think you were unpopular enough, that you decided to add climate to the issue as well?’” says McAdam, wryly.


As a promising undergraduate in law, McAdam was finding the coursework dry. “What I’d been interested in all along were issues of international law and social justice: human rights,” she says. “This was around the time that Philip Ruddock had just become immigration minister, so there was a lot of attention on the refugee issue all of a sudden. To me, that raised serious human rights concerns in Australia.”

At the elective stage of her degree, she took a course in migration law, and the lecturer had a particular passion for refugee law. On graduating, she did her associateship with a Federal Court judge whose cases were mostly failed asylum claims.

“Courts can’t review the merits of the claim. All they can do is see if the previous decision complied with the law. But the judge would always allow people to tell their story. There was one particular man I recall. He lifted his shirt and he said, ‘Here are the bullet wounds. It’s not safe for me to go home.’”

The following year, McAdam began her doctorate in international refugee law in Oxford with Goodwin-Gill, who was pre-eminent in the field. At the end of her PhD, the two of them co-authored a book on their specialty – a reference still used around the world by courts and lawyers.

McAdam’s doctorate was about “complementary protection”. She says it is “a bit like that man who was in the courtroom. Even if you don’t meet the refugee definition of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race or religion or political opinions, complementary protection describes the obligations countries have under human rights law not to send someone back to a real risk of torture or inhumane or degrading treatment or arbitrary deprivation of life.”

When the Kaldor Centre opened, McAdam was a full professor at UNSW. She has headhunted her mentor, Goodwin-Gill, to work with her, and the two have adjacent offices now, alongside three research associates, in a cramped and rather unglamorous corner of the law building on the Kensington campus. It is a strikingly lean team for what they are achieving and the office is pervaded by the intense quiet of concentration.

Since the centre opened, McAdam has been in constant motion – travelling to meetings with the UN, foreign governments and refugee stakeholders; presenting at international conferences; and more. This month, she leaves for a semester-long visiting professorship at Harvard Law School. The starting point for discussion overseas, she says, is usually that refugees deserve protection and the law is something important. It is “more so in Australia” that the core ethics of international refugee law have been deeply politicised. Her latest book, Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs, co-authored with Fiona Chong, aims to reintroduce key legal facts into the debate.

McAdam began her work on the effect of climate change on human displacement and mobility in 2008, long before the topic became of global concern. She received an Australian Research Council grant for fieldwork in Kiribati and Tuvalu, Bangladesh and India, and undertook a systematic analysis of refugee law, human rights law and the law on statelessness in the context.

“What was very apparent just from looking and talking to people was that long before land disappears, people won’t have fresh drinking water, they won’t be able to grow crops, the living conditions will become so poor and the situation so precarious that people will need to move in advance.

“It’s very clear that this isn’t a problem that lawyers alone can solve. The law will take you so far, but you need policy approaches that cut across different disciplines when it comes to government.

“And what will be needed is not just reactive humanitarianism. We need to be looking forward and asking, how do we facilitate people to remain at home, as most want to do? But then, how do we look at migration as a form of adaptation? And so how can we enhance labour mobility, for instance, in the region?

“[New Zealand prime minister] Jacinda Ardern’s government has talked about creating a new visa category for climate change,” she says, by way of example. It includes what Anote Tong, the former president of Kiribati, called “migration with dignity”.

A decade ago, some Australians were saying we could simply relocate the residents of Tuvalu holus-bolus to Australia: there were only about 10,000 of them then, a few more now. “It’s not quite that simple,” McAdam points out. “Numerically, sure, we could accommodate that number, but that’s treating people as though they’re just objects that can be moved around. It doesn’t go to questions of land ownership, self-determination, community cohesion, identity, all that stuff.”

Last October, McAdam’s centre celebrated its fifth anniversary as the worldwide authority in its field. A recent report, commissioned by the UN, was on special humanitarian intakes, such as the Syrian–Iraqi cohort of 12,000 that Australia created extra places for.

“We thought there were lessons that could be learnt,” says McAdam, “both positive and negative, from it: in terms of how can Australia move from ad-hoc intakes like this to having a more clearly thought-through process for future cases where we know there will be a mass influx of people, a big international response, and Australia will need to be part of international co-operation efforts.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Clarion Kaldor".

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Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist, critic and author.

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