Report from the Nordic Asylum Law Seminar

In summer bloom, Uppsala welcomed 125 participants from all over the globe to the Nordic Asylum Law Seminar, held on 7–8 May 2015 in Uppsala University’s Campus Blåsenhus. The overall theme for this year’s conference was ‘Unequal Treatment: The Root of All Claims for Protection?’ The purpose was to foster exchange and dialogue among scholars, lawyers, governments and civil society on issues related to domestic, European and international refugee and asylum law.

Professor Anders Malmberg, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University, and the seminar organisers Professor Gregor Noll (Lund University) and Associate Professor Rebecca Thorburn Stern (Uppsala University), greeted the participants and opened the first plenary session.


Mr Morten Kjærum, Director of the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Lund University, held the first keynote speech, on the theme of ‘Stocktaking’. He addressed migration from a European perspective, painting a comprehensive picture of some migration-related challenges and opportunities in Europe today. Kjærum proceeded to draw attention to the situation for refugees and migrants in EU member states, addressing the problem of racism and the high level of hate crimes with a racist element. He concluded by identifying global humanitarian needs, human-based visa and border management and the requirements of the European labour market as elements for a European migration narrative.

Discussant Dr Alice Edwards of UNHCR, in contrast, brought a global perspective into the discussion. Using graphic statistics, Edwards showed worldwide migration patterns and underlined the fact that, of the 50 million displaced people in the world, the majority remain in countries of conflict. She stressed the importance of not forgetting the gender dimension in any discussion of refugees’ situation, since women are in many ways a particularly disadvantaged group.

‘Socioeconomic harms are not just unfortunate events’

In the second keynote speech of the conference, Professor Michelle Foster of the University of Melbourne addressed socioeconomic rights as grounds for protection. Foster presented a comparative outlook on common law and civil law jurisdictions, discussing how socioeconomic harm can amount to persecution.

“Socioeconomic deprivation is not just something unfortunate that happens to a person. It represents a deprivation of human rights”, Foster told the audience.

But socioeconomic rights have been misunderstood, and Professor Foster described this misunderstanding in her speech. Socioeconomic rights are often misconstrued, with reference to the hierarchies of norms and obligations laid down by various international agreements. Such misunderstanding may potentially hamper progressive implementation of socioeconomic rights on the legal agenda.

She ended her keynote speech by addressing the challenges facing socioeconomic rights. This area of law is still evolving, partly because of courts’ reluctance to base arguments and decisions on socioeconomic grounds.

“But how do we come to a decision? How bad is bad enough? How do we decide whether the harm done to a person amounts to persecution?” Foster asked as she opened the floor to the participants for a discussion on the topic.

Paper discussant Professor Elina Pirjatanniemi commented on Foster’s arguments by illustrating how migration has become a highly political issue. According to her, there are two alternative approaches in an atmosphere that is becoming more hostile to asylum: one can either argue that diversity is always a good thing or base arguments purely on the legal sphere.

“Professor Foster’s study illustrates the enormous potential of legal norms if they are used in a dynamic manner, and she provides good arguments for avoiding the traditional dichotomy between political and economic migrants. She speaks of a political context but her analysis is legal, and that is the elegance of her work”, said Pirjatanniemi.

The notion of sexual nationalism

Professor Thomas Spijkeboer, VU University Amsterdam, held the third keynote speech of the conference, on European Sexual Nationalism — Refugee law after the Gender and Sexual Critiques.

“What have these critiques actually achieved?” asked Professor Spijkerboer as he began addressing some statistical features of, and folklore beliefs about, underrepresentation of women among successful asylum applicants. He concluded that statistics do not indicate discrimination against women applying for asylum, but that bisexual people seem to be granted asylum much less often than gays and lesbians, since they can protect themselves by presenting themselves as straight. However, according to Spijkerboer, statistics show no overall discrimination against LGBT people in relation to straight men and women with asylum claims.

After discussing feminist critique of refugee law, Spijkerboer proposed the notion of sexual nationalism to understand the new situation of refugee law as addressed by feminist theory. As a concept, sexual nationalism can be defined as referring to the autonomy of cultural otherness.

According to another paper discussant, Professor Gregor Noll, the paper shows how society in general values certain types of behaviour and rewards them with asylum, but also that refugee law seems to be somehow dependent on historical social morality of this kind. Professor Noll asked whether the asylum system is changed by a reiteration of such critiques, and highlighted how the paper may take new turns by means of a neoliberal reading.

“Are autonomy and vulnerability as you describe them actually opposed, or may these factors be connected to each other? Neoliberalism is characterised by a state that is capable of exerting force on people. This ability to exert force is linked to conceptualisation of weaknesses. I would be interested in exploring this neoliberal line further.”

See you in Reykjavik!

In total, seven smaller workshops were held during the conference: ‘Discrimination in asylum procedure’, ‘Applicants with special needs’, ‘Intolerable differences? Dublin and beyond’, ‘Discrimination and grounds for protection’, ‘Violent conflict and grounds for protection’, ‘Normative conflict between IL, EU law and domestic law’ and ‘Methods of decision-making in domestic procedures’.

A dinner was arranged on 7 May at the Botanical Gardens Orangery in town, which opened its gates for the season to the conference guests.

Lastly, at the end of the conference, the L/UMIN organisers had a smallannouncement to make:

“The University of Iceland in Reykjavik has taken up the baton to arrange the next Nordic Asylum Law Seminar in 2016.”