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A young man, now safely settled in Canada, once told me that he didn't mind being called a refugee because it described a situation that was forced on him; it didn't define who he was. Yet so often, the public and governments do define refugees as "others," to be feared and kept out or contained. With the latest upheaval in the Arab world, the world can brace for another round of asylum-seekers and debates over what rights they have and what Western states owe the stateless. Andy Lamey tackles this timely and critical debate with an intellect and a passion that are formidable. Frontier Justice could, quite possibly, have a lasting effect on policy in Canada and elsewhere.

It's clear from his writing that Lamey has real chops as a journalist, historian and political philosopher. That he doesn't always draw those approaches together in a way that pulls readers along, and sometimes drops his story by going into extraneous detail, weakens the book but does not diminish its merits.

The first half of Frontier Justice will appeal to readers seeking a deeper understanding of the emotional stories they see in the news. Lamey artfully meshes history and journalism into a damning record of the injustices that those trying to enter safe countries have faced in the past century. He begins with the story of political theorist Hannah Arendt, who turned her harrowing experiences of seeking asylum from Nazi Germany into writing that has become a touchstone for philosophers and theorists ever since. Arendt's pessimistic view of human rights in a world divided into sovereign nations becomes a framework for Lamey's writing and a source for his own more optimistic theory, developed later in the book.

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Lamey distinguishes between the treatment of refugees in so-called countries of descent, such as Germany, France and Japan, and countries of immigration, in particular Australia and the United States. He describes, for example, the strong asylum law that emerged in Germany after the Second World War, only to be seriously curtailed in 1993 by politicians responding to the ugly mood after an influx of Turks and others. And he convincingly shows how other European countries and Britain followed suit, becoming more exclusionist, even creating "anomalous zones" in airports where fundamental rights are suspended.

His portrait of the countries of immigration, where one might intuitively expect more empathy, is no less bleak. In his chapter on a group of lawyers and Yale law students who took on the U.S. government in the 1990s for stopping Haitian asylum-seekers at sea, and detaining them at Guantanamo Bay, he tells a story of how power and prejudice trump the most basic rights.

Lamey follows the personal journey of a refugee only once, and he describes it so powerfully that I wished he had told more stories like it. Mohammad Al Ghazzi made the dangerous trip from Iraq to Syria, then through Malaysia and Indonesia, and by sea to Australia, only to end up in the Curtin Detention Centre in one of the hottest parts of Australia, where refugees with fewer rights than criminals often killed themselves out of despair. Lamey tells us that Australia's rationale was to deter others from thinking of the country as a haven. The tragic outcome for Al Ghazzi heightens the cruelty of such tactics.

The second half of Frontier Justice is must reading for anyone in the business of refugees - policy-makers, academics and advocates - but it will be a hard slog for others. It is here where Lamey lets his intellect loose, critiquing the writings of earlier philosophers and refusing to believe that answers can't be found, citing slavery and apartheid as examples where the international community successfully intervened in situations universally condemned.

While he is critical of Canada's deportation record and Safe Third Country Agreement, he finds hope in the Supreme Court's 1985 Singh decision to apply Charter rights to refugee claimants, opening the door to oral hearings. In this "most important decision of its kind," Lamey sees the first element of an international approach he boldly envisions that would give asylum-seekers portable rights to legal representation and timely hearings, and would make arbitrary detention illegal.

It is hard to share his optimism, and even Lamey admits that he might not have the right approach. But in his confidence that sovereign states can eventually evolve to include human rights for all, he demands that his readers take the long view.

Debi Goodwin is the author of Citizens of Nowhere, which followed refugee students from camps in Africa through their first difficult year in Canada.

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