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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2001, Vol. 4 No. 2 .


Arguing and Justifying: Assessing the Convention refugees' choice of moment, motive and host country
Robert F. Barsky

Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000
400pp. Biblio. Index. Hb.: £49.95; ISBN 0-7546-1481-6.



For those who might gulp uncomfortably at the concept of 'open borders', please do not be dissuaded by Professor Barsky's challenging statement in the introduction to this fascinating book that:

'the very idea that persecuted peoples should have to "argue and justify" before our legal or administrative systems is, quite simply, wrong' (p.15).

Barsky himself acknowledges that the concept of open borders is radical (p.13), but is refreshingly forthright and honest in this endorsement of what he sees as an 'inalienable right' of all persons to enjoy full freedom of movement.

Even if one may not be converted to the notion that open borders ought to be a reality, the powerfully articulated and well-written critique that Barsky makes on the failings of asylum determination procedures to adequately assess an asylum applicant's claim of persecution well deserve reading, particularly by lawyers and policy makers.

At the heart of Barsky's critique is a challenge of the 'safe third country principle', something that, with the proper safeguards, lawyers (like myself) might ordinarily see as a mechanism compatible with the international refugee law regime. Such mechanisms often arise in the face of host countries' current reluctance to pursue once liberal policies and to introduce restrictive mechanisms in a (largely unsuccessful) effort to deter 'bogus applicants' and address perceived increases in asylum flows. However, as Barsky convincingly argues, it is well worth questioning whether safeguards are enough and whether the concept itself may be fundamentally flawed.

Based on a study of a limited, but carefully selected number of participants from four countries of origin (representing four of the most important groups of asylum applicants in Canada) in a research project at the Institut national de la recherche scientifique in Montréal, Canada, the book appears well grounded in solid, social-science research. Chapter one is the most complex, discussing the theoretical basis upon which refugee discourse is, or ought to be, interpreted (in 'laymen terms', the conditions under which refugees argue and justify their claims), but it is of course essential reading in order to appreciate the arguments raised in the rest of the book.

What follows are vividly illustrated examples, drawn from the study, of how applicants' stories get 'lost', whether in their interpretation (linguistic or otherwise) or through a multitude of bureaucratic barriers that any refugee lawyer or advocate will tell you are rapidly increasing in number, creating a veritable labyrinth through which one must travel in an effort to justify one's claim. The book concludes with an important critique of the obstacles that women applicants face in establishing their claims and usefully adds to the growing, important discourse on gender-based persecution.

Many of the concepts that Barsky raises will no doubt be difficult for non-social scientists to digest, but it is well worth the effort, since we often forget what refugee protection truly represents to one who has suffered persecution, and rarely appreciate how and why an applicant got to where he is.

Indeed, while I expect others like myself will be uncomfortable with some of Barsky's more radical statements, his thesis and its implications are clear. This book is both useful and relevant for social and political scientists, lawyers and policy makers, both as a formidable work in itself and presenting an important reminder that, whatever our role, we ought to be prepared to challenge the underlying assumptions we make and remind ourselves of our purpose, even if we may not be converted.


Jeff Handmaker
Freelance Consultant




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