Senator Edward Kennedy: A Champion for Refugees

Nansen Medal, 15 September 2009

© AP Photo/Robert Dear
Senator Edward M. Kennedy has a smile and a handshake for an unidentified young refugee in an eastern Sudan camp in 1984. Many of the refugees had walked for a week to reach the camp from Eritrea.

The late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, winner of the 2009 Nansen Refugee Award, served in the US Senate for more than 40 years. A graduate of Harvard, The Hague Academy of International Law and the University of Virginia Law School, the Democrat politician was elected to the United States Senate by the state of Massachusetts in 1962.

Kennedy, who died aged 77 on August 25, 2009, had a record of civil service that was matched by few in the United States. He advocated on behalf of the poor, minorities and disenfranchised people in the US and around the world. He worked tirelessly on behalf of refugees and greatly influenced the US's position on refugee issues as well as influencing the stances taken by other countries.

As a senator, Kennedy adopted a comprehensive approach in his fight for refugee protection. Through the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Refugees, he effectively utilized his influence in Congress to advance refugee and asylum-related legislation and to raise awareness of refugee crises.

He also met with governments at the highest levels, encouraging them to welcome refugees seeking protection in their territories. He appeared hundreds of times in the media, raising public awareness of the challenges refugees face. Kennedy also regularly met refugees in camps and settlements around the globe as well as in local US communities, demonstrating compassion and caring that was unrivalled in the US Congress.

Senator Kennedy served as the original sponsor of 70 refugee-related measures and co-sponsored 67 refugee-related bills, congressional resolutions and amendments. The legislation he sponsored ranged from codification of international refugee law into US law to specific measures to address the protection of Indochinese refugees, Afghan refugees, Somali refugees, Iraqi refugees, Haitian refugees and Central American refugees.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was the first piece of legislation that Kennedy achieved passage of as a newly-elected senator. Kennedy led the difficult political fight to eliminate national quotas that were biased toward Europeans and to replace them with a migration system grounded in principles of equality and opportunity that ultimately led to the rich diversity of cultures, races, religions and ethnic groups that now characterizes the US.

In the following decade, Kennedy led the US effort to offer refuge to hundreds of thousands of people escaping from Southeast Asia in the wake of the Indochina War. The resulting Indochina Refugee and Migration Act of 1975 granted refugees from the region a special status to enter the country and it also established a domestic resettlement programme. The bill was amended in 1977, again under Kennedy's leadership, to permit refugees to adjust to parolee status and later to become permanent residents. The Indochinese resettlement programme was one of the most successful US programmes to date and became the basis for the strong resettlement system in the United States.

The 1980 Refugee Act, introduced and championed by Senator Kennedy, laid the groundwork for the significant role that the US now plays in refugee matters. It codified the international definition of a refugee into US law, thus bringing the United States into compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. It eliminated prior geographic restrictions on refugee admissions that favoured individuals fleeing communist, communist-dominated or Middle Eastern countries, and created a legal framework for refugees to apply for admission to the United States from abroad and for asylum-seekers to apply from within the country. It also codified the principle of non-refoulement, or forced return. The Refugee Act has effectively served as the driving force behind US refugee protection for almost three decades.

Ten years later, Kennedy shepherded the Immigration Act of 1990 through the Senate, legislation which not only reformed the US immigration system to facilitate new flows of immigrants, but also established the system of Temporary Protected Status, offering a new form of protection to individuals fleeing political upheaval, armed conflict and natural disasters.