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In August, Daniel Ghezelbash will take on the role of Director of the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of NSW (UNSW). It is the world's first centre dedicated to the study of international refugee law, and Ghezelbash will be only the second Director since it was founded.

Founding Director, Professor Jane McAdam, built a centre dedicated to the study and promotion of refugee law, policy and discussion around forced migrants and refugees in Australia and internationally. She will remain at the Kaldor Centre, leading a new research program called the Evacuations Research Hub.

Ghezelbash is uniquely well-placed to take on the Director role. He has been Deputy Director of the Kaldor Centre since June 2022, and he both founded and directed the Macquarie University Social Justice Clinic. He is recognised internationally for his expertise in comparative refugee and migration law.

In 2018, he examined the spread and impact of restrictive asylum policies in his book Refuge Lost: Asylum Law in an Interdependent World, and his interest in justice in an increasingly automated world has led him to study how technology, computing, data science and psychology intersect with refugee law.

For more than eight years, he has been Special Counsel with the National Justice Project, a Board Member of the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) for five years, and on the Board of Wallumatta Legal for three years.

Ghezelbash tells LSJ, “The Kaldor Centre …has been focused on excellence, independence and real-world relevance from the start – it’s been a decade of tremendous strength and growth, building something unprecedented and pioneering new ways for academics to ensure that evidence feeds into policy and solutions.”

As the Centre’s tenth anniversary approaches, he says, “That decade of achievement will underpin the next phase of impact at the Kaldor Centre.”

“For us, this is about meeting the evolving challenges of today: in Australia, the region and internationally. This means building stronger partnerships with legal practitioners and with people who themselves have experienced displacement, not shying away from the tech transformation, tackling the displacement challenges of not only conflict but also disasters, evacuations, impacts of climate change, the policy contagion that goes hand-in-hand with rising nationalism, populism and authoritarianism.”

When it comes to technology, he is aware of how it can be used to help and hinder justice.

“Rightfully, the research focus has been on the very real risks of technology in terms of refugee protection, and some technology has been aimed at controlling and excluding refugees,” he says.

“Our focus is on mitigating those risks. We’re aware of the immense potential to leverage technologies to enhance the agency of refugees, and a lot of my recent work has been on data-driven approaches to understand the asylum processes in Australia compared to other places in the world.”

Personal and professional incentives

Ghezelbash’s upbringing is instrumental in understanding his passion for his new role.

“My parents came to Australia as refugees from Iran shortly before I was born. From a young age, I was aware of how lucky I was to be here and to enjoy the safety and opportunities available to me, compared to our friends and family back home. I always felt with that privilege came a responsibility to assist others,” he says.

“My parents were lucky to be able to get to Australia at a time when it was still reasonably easy to obtain a visa to travel here. Over the years, I saw my family members resorting to increasingly dangerous journeys to get out of Iran and travel to Australia.

“In my final years of high school, my cousin attempted to make the journey by boat from Indonesia. He had kept his plans from my family here, and the first we heard of it was when one of his friends contacted us after media reports that two boats carrying asylum seekers had been lost at sea. We all feared the worst, but after a week, thankfully, received news that he had made it safely to Australia. He then spent a number of agonising years being shuffled around various remote immigration detention facilities across Australia.

“The trauma of both his journey here and his time in detention confirmed my decision to pursue a career in this area, and advocate for more humane refugee and asylum policies, both here in Australia and around the globe.”

In 2010, his work as a refugee lawyer exposed him to a tragedy that made international headlines.

“The most difficult case I worked on was assisting some of the survivors of the Christmas Island boat tragedy in 2010. I worked with two orphans who’d lost their parents, and people who’d lost their entire families and were the lone survivors. Their trauma emphasised the need to provide asylum seekers with safe pathways to access protection,” he says.

To that end, he explains, “My central focus is combining these different perspectives and approaches to influence law and policy and real-world outcomes for those in need of protection.”

Data, statistics and quantitative analysis is the foundation for building an empirical foundation to inform effective reform advocacy in the refugee space, according to Ghezelbash. That includes harnessing artificial intelligence (AI).

Using data, Ghezelbash says he and fellow experts at Kaldor Centre “examined individual decision-making of judges and tribunal members in refugee cases. One of the main takeaways is that we have, for the first time, documented the high degree of variation in terms of success rates across individual decisions makers. That confirms the anecdotal experience of many lawyers that your chances of success vary greatly depending on the decision-maker assigned to the case.”

On a broader scale, he says using such technology empowers interventions at an individual level that are aimed at increasing consistency, fairness and efficiency, and also informs systemic reforms.

“There’s also a lot of value in putting this sort of data in the hands of refugees and their lawyers, to better understand their chances of success in their cases and in shaping their litigation strategy,” he says.

“I have a broader interest in access to justice using the potential of new tech … to empower the public to engage with and understand legal systems.”

A decade of impact

Of the many achievements the Kaldor Centre team can celebrate, Ghezelbash points out the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) reforms that cited Kaldor Centre research in support of abolishing the AAT. In December 2023, the government announced the AAT would be abolished and replaced by a fit-for-purpose Administrative Review Tribunal (ART), and the Kaldor Centre made a recent submission to the parliamentary committee reviewing the ART Bill.

Ghezelbash says many citations to his work were made in the ALRC report on Judicial Impartiality and the Law on Bias. He says it was “a groundbreaking recommendation that the commonwealth courts develop policies on the creation, development and use of statistical analysis of judicial decision-making.”

In terms of politics, Ghezelbash is determined to work with any and all individuals and parties.

“We take our independence very seriously and we stay above the political fray. We work with all sides of government and work with anyone who will take our advice,” he says.

A key example of their leadership in this area was the High Court ruling in November 2023 that it is unlawful and unconstitutional for the Australian Government to detain people indefinitely in immigration detention.

The Kaldor Centre and the Human Rights Law Centre appeared as amici curiae to argue that detention is unlawful for any person the Government is unlikely to remove in the foreseeable future, ultimately overturning a decision made 20 years earlier.

In 2004, the High Court upheld the constitutional validity of indefinite immigration detention in the case of Al-Kateb v Godwin. Last year, a person given the pseudonym NZYQ brought a case that argued that Al-Kateb was wrongly decided, and that it is unlawful and unconstitutional for the Australian Government to continue to detain a person where there is no real prospect that they could be removed from Australia.

Next generation programs

It is a time when there are record numbers of refugees globally, and increasingly harsh policies on offshore detention and mandatory detention. In an area of law and human rights where so much is at stake, preparing the next generation of individuals in law, academia and NGOs is essential to the Kaldor Centre.

“There’s a big focus on training the next generation of academics and lawyers,” affirms Ghezelbash. “We have a rockstar PhD cohort with a wide range of skills and perspectives, and we also have the Emerging Scholars Network. Before I joined the Kaldor Centre, I was part of that network and benefitted hugely from being part of it. It’s so crucial for early career scholars.”

The Displaced Scholars Peer Network program provides emerging displaced scholars with the support of peers and mentors worldwide.

Ghezelbash says, “Jane McAdam is building on groundbreaking climate mobility work with the Evacuation Research Hub team. It tackles a crucial issue of our time: evacuations from crisis, including disaster, climate change conflict, pandemics and other humanitarian emergencies.”

He cringes at one point in our interview, lamenting that this interview is really talking a lot about him. He is quick to point out the work of colleagues including Tristan Harley, “leading consequential work to put people with lived displacement squarely in the forefront”; Madeline Gleeson, whose expertise is being sought in UK in regards to the Rwanda bill, and stopping the spread and emulation of Australia’s offshore processing policy; and Claire Higgins, whose work focuses on practical complementary pathways for refugees such as job-ready refugee programs.

In a joint statement, Andrew Kaldor and Renata Kaldor, who generously supported the foundations for the Kaldor Centre, said, “We couldn’t be more excited to welcome Daniel as the next Director, confident that under his leadership, the Kaldor Centre will continue to thrive and make a real impact on law, policy and the lives of refugees and forced migrants in Australia and worldwide.”