Pursuing an LL.M. in Migration and Refugee Law

As refugee crises flare up around the world, LL.M. students are learning how they can help

When Florina Pop graduated from university in Romania, she was prepared to embark on a career as a business lawyer. 

But she soon realized she was on the wrong path.

“Business law is not what drives me,” Pop says. “It’s not what I’m passionate about.”

Then Pop moved to the Netherlands to volunteer at a refugee center and began helping refugees navigate Europe’s complex migrant legal system. She worked with refugees who had been driven out of Syria by war. She helped young people from Eritrea, others from Uganda and Iraq. She provided moral support and legal advice through the interview and permit application process. And she found her calling.

That’s why she enrolled in the Human Rights and Migration track in the LL.M. program at Radboud University, located in Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

“I wanted to learn more about European legislation,” Pop says. “I want a chance to work in human rights.”

Radboud University’s program is one of several around the world that offer students like Pop the chance to study the legal issues surrounding migration and refugees—issues that are only growing more relevant as refugee crises flare up across the globe, fueled by the war in Syria, crises in Africa and other issues. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, by the end of 2013 more than 51.2 million people around the world had been displaced due to war, human rights violations or persecution—the highest level since the agency started collecting comprehensive statistics in 1989.

Europe’s refugee population is currently holding steady at about 1.8 million, according to the UN statistics. But the migrant population in the European Union often leads to thorny legal questions regarding which countries bear responsibility for accepting people displaced by the Syrian war or fleeing from North Africa—creating a demand for lawyers who understand these issues.

At the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, candidates for the LL.M. in International Law must take a course in human rights law, and can then choose to take electives including an International Migration Law Research seminar and a class on International Law and Forced Migration.  

“Each of those really takes a very detailed look at the legal architecture surrounding migration and refugee law, and at the principal legal instruments at the international level,” says Jason Rudall, Program Manager for the LL.M. in International Law at the Graduate Institute.

Rudall says that the rising number of refugees around the world and the complicated legal situation in Europe have led to a high level of interest in those electives compared with other courses. 

“Thirty percent of the class took [the migration] course, which seemed quite high compared to other courses,” Rudall says. “I think that does say something about the interest in the issue. It probably has something to do with current events.”

At Radboud, where Pop is pursuing her degree, students can enroll in a program that specializes in a combination of human rights and migration law, which officials say is essential to understanding the issues that refugees face when they arrive in Europe.

“You’ll be a better migration lawyer if you understand human rights,” says Janneke Gerards, a professor of European Law and head of the Department of European and International Law at Radboud, adding that about 20 or 30 students choose this program every year.

Gerards says one question that her students might tackle upon graduation is the issue of how the European Union should distribute responsibility for refugees. Many asylum seekers currently enter Europe through Italy or Greece, then push north to more economically prosperous countries like Germany. But since Italy and Greece were the refugees’ first point of contact with Europe, the northern countries can send them back south—where some say conditions have fallen below the basic standards of human rights.

“People have to live on the street in Italy and Greece. They have to beg for food and drink,” Gerards says. “Some say that other countries should have to help people instead of sending them back [to Italy and Greece]. And this is an example of the intersection between human rights law and migration law.”

The University of California Los Angeles’ LL.M. program also offers a degree specializing in International and Comparative Law, with electives such as International Human Rights Law and International Migration. But Graduate Studies Coordinator Tiffany Parnell says that although a small group of students pursues that specialization every year, other specializations such as business or entertainment law remain more popular.

Students who do graduate from LL.M. programs with a specialization in migration or refugee law often go on to work at NGOs, think tanks, or human rights nonprofits, say Rudall and Gerards. Rudall adds that many students from his program intern at the United Nations in Geneva, which also employs some students after graduation.

Pop hasn’t received her diploma yet, but she’s currently interning with a refugee project at the European Commission in Brussels—and she’s hoping to continue that work after she graduates.

“My main focus is refugees, and I hope my next step is in this area too,” Pop says.

And Rudall says if current events are any indication, lawyers who understand these issues will only become more important.

“It’s clear that research is required and good minds are needed to develop a legal framework that works for everybody, that works both for the recipient countries and their populations but also that guarantees the universal rights of the refugees themselves,” Rudall says. “Our role is to train those that have an interest and a passion in those issues to be the best experts in that area.”

Image: By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - (cropped) Syrian refugees strike at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015. (3).jpg

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