Former Dean Alex Aleinikoff Delivers Ryan Lecture

November 22, 2013 —

As dean of Georgetown Law from 2004 to 2010, T. Alexander Aleinikoff was accustomed to introducing distinguished international guests for the annual Thomas F. Ryan Lecture. So it was a noteworthy change when on November 21, Dean William M. Treanor and Associate Dean Greg Klass welcomed Aleinikoff, now the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, as the 34th Ryan lecturer.

Today, Aleinikoff said, refugees are compelled to flee their homelands in unprecedented numbers due to war, conflict, discrimination and famine. In August, UNHCR announced that one million children had fled the violence in Syria — the worst refugee crisis in a generation. To give an idea of that number, Aleinikoff said, a line of school buses filled with 60 children each would stretch from Washington, D.C., to north of Philadelphia. 

The situation in Syria comes on top of emergencies happening in Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Nigeria and other countries. “At no time in UNHCR’s 60-year history have we seen this many concurrent emergencies — it’s as if every day for the last two years more than 2,000 refugees had been created,” he said.

So Aleinikoff provided what he called a “lawyerly look” at the international refugee regime and the six original elements of its design: non-refoulement (guaranteeing that victims will not be returned to their persecutors), recognition of refugee status, protection of human rights, burden sharing among nations, seeking solutions for refugees and monitoring.

While these elements have in some ways improved since the early days of UNHCR, other developments are troubling. “The international regime has come to embody and support an economy and industry of refugee dependency,” Aleinikoff said, noting that some camps have housed refugees for 30 years or more.

Aleinikoff called for a renewed recognition of the rights guaranteed in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, including the right of free movement and the right to work. He also urged a shift away from the paradigm of dependence. “The international community must rededicate itself to the search for solutions to longstanding refugee situations,” he said. 

Aleinikoff said his time away from the Law Center has only deepened his appreciation for it. “At a time when legal education is under fire, I’m just more convinced than ever that a Georgetown education provides the tools to make the world a more just place … I have seen more injustice than justice, but at the same time, more hope than despair.”  

To view the webcast, click here.

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