Irene Khan Visits SAIS Europe to Discuss Law, Human Rights and the Migrant Crisis

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Irene Khan (left) visiting SAIS Europe (Photo Courtesy: Sharad Sharma)


A few years ago, Irene Khan was invited by Amnesty Spain to visit a cemetery in Tenerife. She was asked to visit the graves that were stacked on top of each other, a common burial practice in the region. However, what was particularly haunting about that sight was the fact that they were nameless.

Khan, the former head of Amnesty International, spoke with SAIS Bologna students last week as a part of the International Migration series for the Bologna Institute for Policy Research. She started the conversation with that anecdote, illustrating to the gathered students the gravity and anonymity facing migrants in the midst of crisis.

Irene Khan speaking at SAIS Europe (Photo Courtesy: Sharad Sharma)

Irene Khan has had a long and impressive career. She began her time with the United Nations at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), where she spent nearly two decades. She was then appointed to serve as the Secretary General of Amnesty International, where she was known for her extensive work in human rights. She currently works as the Director General for the International Development Law Organization.

Khan’s biggest worry about the state of migration today is the failure of legal institutions to protect human rights over the course of migration, particularly in the case of the current Syrian migrant crisis.

At SAIS, Khan introduced this concern by clarifying the concept of rule of law to the students. She defines it as a legal system backed by effective, transparent and accountable institutions. Rule of law, Khan added, rests on the foundation of human rights ideals.

The problem, however, lies in the fact that many countries who accept the legal system may not necessarily embrace the human rights ideals at the core of the law. A big part of this discussion examined how states react to the situation and pressure other states to factor human rights into their legal conversations.

After the event, first-year MA student Eleanor Dickens said, “I really appreciated how Ms. Khan discussed the ways we can influence states to improve their human rights policies without imposing on their sovereignty.”

“A moment that particularly stuck out to me was when she discussed migrants who die on the high seas of the Mediterranean,” she continued. “She said that whether those migrants come from Burkina Faso or Syria – are refugees or migrant workers – they could all still die in the same unsafe conditions in which they migrate. So she advocated establishing safe and legal means of migrating and highlighted the importance of legal procedure”.

In addition to the procedural issues, a common thread of concern was of the transgressions against the migrant communities during their integration into receiving societies, particularly in the context of the far-right movements in Europe. Khan believes that a culture of fear is driving politics today and this trend can endanger migrant integration. She believes that migrant rights should be complemented by fearless leadership to counter these transgressions and set a welcoming tone for migrants, especially those who contribute to receiving economies.

Second-year MAIA student Sofia Cornali commented on this topic of integration: “I thoroughly enjoyed the attention Ms. Khan gave to the issue of the vulnerability of migrants, refugees or not, in their new surroundings. Looking back on my work at the Portuguese Council of Refugees, I can now remember how asylum seekers felt especially protected when they had a legal team constantly reminding them of their rights and obligations.”

While the students reflected on their past work in migration and asked Khan related questions, the emerging theme was a lack of legal framework in the international community. Unfortunately, according to Khan, the migration crisis often fails to grab the attention it deserves when it comes to rule of law.

Ultimately, Khan’s concern is a fundamental one – how can we restore legal state protection for these migrants? Khan ended her conversation by stating that this is only possible if the international community looks at the migration issue as a crucial one, which begins with asking the right questions.

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