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Chatting with Moira Dustin


Welcome to the latest interview of the Völkerrechtsblog’s symposium ‘The Person behind the Academic’! With us we have Dr. Moira Dustin, and through the following questions, we will try to get a glimpse of his interests, sources of inspiration and habits.

Welcome Dr. Dustin and thank you very much for accepting our invitation!

It’s a pleasure. I’m so happy to have been asked. This is a pleasant distraction from way more tedious tasks.

We have met each other through the ‘Women in International Refugee Law’ Network, which you and Dr Christel Querton set up in 2021. May I ask, how the idea of setting up this network arose and what your visions for this network are?

Christel and I know each other from way back when we met as members of the Asylum Aid Women’s Project Advisory Group in 2009. Asylum Aid was an NGO providing legal support to asylum seekers in the UK and the Women’s Project was a brilliant arm of it. The Project secured valuable gains for refugee women, such as provision of childcare during asylum interviews and the right to ask for a female interviewer. It was also inspirational in prioritizing the experiences of refugee women and producing the Charter of rights of women seeking asylum affirming that women seeking protection should have the same rights as any woman. The Advisory Group had a diverse membership and we had some wonderful, warm and productive meetings. Sadly, in the spate of cuts to civil society organisations in the UK in recent years, the Asylum Aid Women’s Project closed.

Skip forward a decade and Christel and I were both working as academics with an interest in asylum and gender – Christel at the University of the West of England and me at the University of Sussex. We were both also teaching on the University of London MA on Refugee Protection and Forced Migration Studies. Christel contacted me to talk about the decline in momentum around women’s asylum issues – a decline we observed both in civil society with the closure of the Women’s Project, and in academia with less research on issues affecting women seeking international protection. It felt as if this was no longer a ‘hot’ topic for publishers and funders. We held a roundtable in May 2021 to discuss whether other people also felt there was a gap. Academics and activists and ‘experts by experience’ from different countries attended and were enthusiastic about the value of creating a space to talk about and collaborate on topics of concern to refugee women. On the back of that meeting we set up Women in Refugee Law (WiRL), a network to centre refugee women in international law, policy and practice. We now have 120 members and meet quarterly as well as collaborating in-between meetings, for example, on a special issue of Refugee Survey Quarterly () and more recently on the Völkerrechtsblog Symposium for International Women’s Day 2023. I’d say the vision of WiRL’s members is of inclusivity and diversity, a network that brings together academics, lawyers, activists and refugee women – categories that are not mutually exclusive of course – from around the world, not just the usual Global-North suspects, recognizing and attempting to address the disparities and inequalities in refugee scholarship and policy. Personally, I hope it will also be an online – online for the time being at least – space where people with shared interests enjoy meeting and chatting.

What was it that brought you to academia and what made you stay?

I finished my PhD in 2007 while I was working for an equality and human rights network in the UK and I stayed in the third sector (as the charity or NGO sector is sometimes called in the UK) for another ten years. I always wanted to be a researcher and continue to develop the ideas in my PhD, and I had the incredible good fortune of applying for and getting a job at Sussex University Law School in 2016. Lucky because I had minimal academic experience and was a 50-year-old woman starting her academic career! The project – about LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in Europe – was enormously rewarding, not least because of the fantastic colleagues I was working with. I learnt so much from them and was eventually able to secure a permanent post at Sussex where I do the usual (usual in the UK anyway) mixture of teaching and research. I love it and I’m very aware that I’ve fallen on my feet at a time when some of my friends are starting to think about retiring.

If you were not an academic, what would you be?

If I were a different person, and had a creative bone in my body, I’d love to have been a potter and make creative and also useful objects like coffee mugs!

Could you share with us three authors that have had a major impact on your perception of justice?

  • Anne Phillips
  • Uma Narayan
  • Sherene Razack

Which are three texts that you would wish all academics working on international law would read?

  • Edwards, A. (2010) Violence against Women under International Human Rights Law. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sunder, M. (2003) ‘Piercing the Veil’, The Yale Law Journal, 112(6), pp. 1399–1472.
  • Macklin, A. (1995) ‘Refugee Women and the Imperative of Categories’, Human Rights Quarterly, 17(2), pp. 213–277.

What is your greatest disappointment with international refugee law?

The lack of will or interest in most countries, but particularly the UK right here and now, in living up to the spirit of the Refugee Convention. And the lack of enforcement mechanisms to counter that.

What is your favourite place to read and write? What is always near you when you read and write?

My attic study where the roof is so low that few people ever come up here (I’m pretty short but I still bump my head occasionally). I’d like to say my cat is always near me but she isn’t – she’s a tortoiseshell rescue and a bit too independent for my liking.

What is an energy and inspiration booster, at times when you have none?

Particular people: having a chat with some of my friends and colleagues always leaves me feeling upbeat. I have a lot of respect for people who are able to remain positive in the face of dispiriting news (again, I’m thinking of recent UK asylum developments) and pass on that positivity to other people. I’m thinking here of Loraine (Mponela) – co-convenor of WiRL – it’s always a boost to see her face and hear what she has to say. She’s also inspired me to dig into poetry – her poetry specifically – which isn’t a medium I’ve engaged with before.

Have you ever drawn influence from any form of art in your work? Is there anything artistic about writing academic texts on international law?

Literature would be the main form. For example, at the moment, I’m working on a research project about queer Iranian forced migrants  and I’ve just read The Whisper Tapes, about US feminist Kate Millett’s visit to Iran at the time of the 1979 Revolution . I’m finding it helpful in thinking about how feminism as a global movement or project has changed since then, particularly in the context of current women-led protests in Iran. Less directly, fiction that provides an insight into other lives and experiences as a corrective to the idea that there is just one way to live a ‘good’ life.

If you could, which unspoken rule of academia would you instantly erase?

People in academia seem to find it particularly difficult to say ‘no’ if asked to take on another project when their plate is already full. That’s probably because the projects are often so interesting, but it does encourage a pretty unhealthy work-life balance.

Have you experienced or witnessed discrimination in academic circles? What do you think would help lessen discriminatory instances in academic circles?

Not personally but yes, from colleagues. It needs to be addressed at institutional level, as well as on a case-by-case basis, but the increasing focus on income generation within UK research is not helping in addressing inequality and bringing in marginalized voices.

Would you like to share with us a ‘sacrifice’ that you have made for your work? Do you regret it?

Like many of my colleagues, I’m currently on strike over pay, pension and working conditions. We’re all sacrificing quite a lot of pay for the time we’re out, but we also haven’t been able to provide the teaching our students are entitled to which is distressing for them and us. Most of them are wonderfully supportive and recognize that the strike is about the future of UK higher education, but it is still a very difficult time.

Ideally, whom would you want to find waiting for a meeting with you outside your office next Monday?

Kate Malleson, Queen Mary University of London.

What are you working on currently? What may we anticipate in the near future?

A joint article on segregation in schools with Kate Malleson – the starting point for which is the question: Why, if race segregation is widely and rightly recognized as unacceptable, is sex/gender segregation in the form of separate schooling for girls and boys not seen as a problem.

Thank you very much, Dr. Dustin, for participating in our symposium and for having taken the time to respond to our questions!

It’s been an absolute pleasure and all the best to Völkerrechtsblog and everyone involved in it. I’m looking forward to continuing to be an avid reader.

Moira Dustin

Moira Dustin is a lecturer in the School of Law, Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex and co-convenor of Women in Refugee Law (WiRL), a network established to centre refugee women in international law, policy and practice.

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Spyridoula (Sissy) Katsoni

Spyridoula Katsoni is Research Associate and PhD Candidate at Ruhr University Bochum’s Institute for International Law of Peace and Armed Conflict (IFHV).

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