Though access to justice is enshrined in international refugee and human rights law instruments, including Article 16 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, many refugees do not have access to, or do not choose to utilize, the host state justice system. Camps and settlements are often characterized by a plurality of legal institutions, operated by the host state, the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nongovernmental organizations, and refugee actors. Many of these institutions do not comply with international or host state laws, thus leaving refugees without adequate legal protection.
The UNHCR has long recognized that the lack of functioning law and order systems in refugee camps and settlements has serious consequences for violence and human rights. Yet as a senior official recently told me in an interview, UNHCR is still “a little bit at a loss about what is really needed in the field.” This is in part because the existing body of academic and practitioner literature on justice administration in refugee camps and settlements is very small and focused on procedural and legalistic questions. (As one example, see this report.) Almost no attention has been paid to the perceptions, preferences, and strategic decisions and behavior of refugees themselves with regard to justice administration.
The aim of my research was to go beyond rules-based analysis, toward a socio-legal study that engaged with justice systems as dynamic social institutions heavily influenced by popular perceptions and actions. To this end, from July to September of 2008 I conducted fieldwork among three communities in Meheba Refugee Settlement in Zambia, which hosts 14,181 refugees primarily from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. Through focus groups, individual interviews, and participant observation, I sought to understand the types of crimes and conflicts that refugees thought to be most common and of greatest concern in their communities; their opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of the various justice institutions available; how they decide whether to take a case to a justice institution and, if so, how they decide which one to go to first; and what they believe the objective(s) of pursuing justice are. Working in three different administrative areas of the settlement, I found significant variation in the way groups of refugees perceived and used various justice institutions.
I argue that four factors help to explain these variations:
- Population composition and heterogeneity, in terms of gender, age, and country of origin
- Physical location in the settlement and proximity to authorities (e.g. UNHCR, Zambian Ministries, police) and social services (e.g. schools, clinics, Mobile Court)
- Socio-cultural characteristics, namely witchcraft beliefs, employment backgrounds, and attitudes towards the rule of law
- Long-term durable solution (i.e. resettlement, repatriation, or local integration) preferences.
(This post is based on my dissertation for the Master of Philosophy in Development Studies at the University of Oxford. It is available in full here.)