CFD Interview With Jane McAdam, Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney

Dr. McAdam is one of the members of the CFD Advisory Board and the leading thinker in the field of International Refugee Law. Our team set with her for a short interview about her work, motivations, and thoughts on future developments in the field of forced displacement and refugee law.

CFD: Can you tell us more about your work and research?

I am a Scientia Professor of Law and Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. I research and write on international refugee law and forced migration, with a particular focus on displacement in the context of climate change and disasters. In 2017, I was appointed (with Guy S Goodwin-Gill) to develop UNHCR’s first institutional strategy on climate displacement, and in 2022, I had the opportunity to work with Pacific governments and communities to draft the first regional framework on climate mobility. I have also advised governments on the creation of laws and policies to protect people displaced by the impacts of climate change, including in Australia, the Pacific, the United States, and the Americas. I am joint Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Refugee Law, the leading journal in the field. In 2021, I was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) ‘for distinguished service to international refugee law, particularly to climate change and the displacement of people’.

CFD: What motivated you to pursue a career in the field of refugee law?

My parents instilled in me a strong sense of social justice. When I was at Law School in the 1990s, Australia’s draconian refugee policies were one of the most concerning human rights issues in Australia. My interest and determination to create change were cemented when I clerked for a judge after graduation and saw asylum claimants in court, often in tears as they recounted the trauma they had experienced. I then had the opportunity to undertake my doctorate at Oxford University with Professor Guy S Goodwin-Gill, and that set me on my career path in academia.

CFD: What have your experiences been like working in this field? 

Highly varied, wide-ranging and enlightening. I’ve met with communities directly affected by the impacts of disasters and climate change – such as people who’d left their homes in rural Bangladesh because incessant rain meant their rice crops were flooded all the time and they couldn’t make a living, and people in Tuvalu who had run out of drinking water because of a drought lasting three times as long as usual. I’ve interviewed elderly men, women and their descendants on the tiny islands of Rabi and Kioa in Fiji who were relocated there after the Second World War (from present-day Kiribati and Tuvalu, respectively). I’ve spoken to the President of Kiribati, who talked about the need for ‘migration with dignity’ – that is, encouraging countries like Australia and New Zealand to give people opportunities to migrate for work or education, in their own time, rather than waiting until the situation becomes so dire that they have no choice. And I’ve addressed meetings at the UN and worked closely with officials in Geneva to devise law and policy options to enhance protection and migration opportunities. I always remembered the words of a woman in Kiribati, who said to me, ‘please tell the UN what we want, because we don’t get that opportunity’. I have learned that with academia comes both privilege and responsibility. Indeed, one of the most welcome changes I have observed in recent years is the far greater inclusion of people with lived experience of displacement, both in policy spaces and academia. This is absolutely crucial if we are ever to find meaningful, durable solutions.

CFD: What is the scope for further research in this area?

Fifteen years ago, I began looking at the scope of international law to protect people displaced in the context of climate change and disasters. While things have come a long way since then – both in scholarship and policy developments – I don’t think policymakers have necessarily caught up to the immense humanitarian need that will arise if they do not proactively create robust legal frameworks for protection, assistance and support. This doesn’t necessarily mean new treaties: at the domestic level, in particular, having safe building codes in place – and ensuring they are respected in practice – is one basic but crucial means of ensuring that people are not living in dangerous situations. More multidisciplinary and linked-up research is still needed, as is – crucially – more legal research that reflects the lived experience, perspectives and knowledge of affected communities. Indeed, working directly with displaced people and others as co-creators of research is invaluable to deepening understanding and creating well-fitting solutions.

CFD: Working and researching in this field can get extremely stressful and difficult. How do you manage this aspect of your work and research? 

I am neither on the frontline of humanitarian crises nor working directly with asylum seekers whose legal status is insecure and who may be severely traumatized, so I don’t face the same pressures as many others working in this field. That said, there have definitely been some difficult moments as governments have systematically stripped away people’s rights in violation of international law and due process, yet with apparent indifference and impunity. As a lawyer, and especially an international lawyer, this is incredibly frustrating and disheartening. It makes it all the more important to carve out time away from work; spending time with family and friends is very grounding.  

CFD: Can you share some tips and pointers for people starting out in this field?

Follow your passion. Every student I have had who has wanted to work in the humanitarian sphere has got there in the end, even if the path was circuitous. To obtain an academic job these days, it’s pretty much a prerequisite to have a PhD so I would suggest treating the PhD process as a valuable apprenticeship, seeking out mentors and building your understanding, experience and networks. Academia can be a choose-your-own-adventure, and I have certainly found it to be a most enriching career that has enabled me to do a range of things across scholarship, policy, law reform and practice.