Safe for Sovereignty: Female Refugees and the Politics of Border Protection

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 2:30 PM
Room 603 (Colorado Convention Center)
Zain Lakhani, Harvard University
In 1996, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees held its first Symposium on Gender-Based Persecution. Attended by representatives from over eighteen receiving nations, the Symposium sought to identify types of gender-specific violence, and provide recommendations for granting refugee status on those grounds. Although only Canada and the United States had implemented formal policies on refugee women, each of the participants had grappled with gender-based forms of violence within the daily administration of asylum claims and, under certain circumstances, considered such harms as legitimate grounds for refugee status. Yet, the inclusion of sexual violence into the political lexicon of human rights was concomitant with new metrics of evaluation emerged that delimited the practical impact of gender-based claims. Precisely as the political framework of human rights expanded new norms of affect, particularity, and administration emerged that curtailed access and shifted control over migration process back into the hands of individual states. 

This paper explores the transformation of sexual violence from a category of political exclusion, to one of political contention in the final decades of the twentieth century. Specifically, it traces the transition of sexual protection from a category once considered safe for sovereignty, to one that expanded legitimate pathways to migration and wrest control from individual states. In the decades leading up to the politicization of gender-based harm, sexual protection became a compelling way to define the female refugee precisely because it was not seen as political. Defining refugee women on sexual terms allowed member states to embrace gender-specific terms without triggering legal obligations to accommodate applicants on those grounds. The politicization of sexual vulnerability thus heralded not an expansion but rather a renegotiation of existing categories; giving rise to new metrics of exclusion that rewrote the boundaries of humanitarian obligation, and defined the border in sexual terms.

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