As a relatively well-defined subset of global migration law, refugee law and policy present important sites for contestation, agenda setting, normative pronouncements, and symbolic action. They are also an effective test of whether formal state obligations—in this case those outlined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention—translate to protection in the weakly legalized environments in which most of the world's refugees reside. This essay asserts that they do not. Building on research and public engagement across African cities, this short contribution makes a three-part argument to that end. First, it considers categories by highlighting the narrow practical and analytical value of focusing on legal reforms and formal “refugee” policy as determinants of protection; given that legal status and documentation have only limited practical protection effects. Moreover, it points to the potential dangers and dysfunctions of a protection regime premised on people “performing” or “representing” refugeeness. Second, in considering areas for intervention in improving the protection of migrants, it calls for rescaling the legal approaches to migrant and refugee protection. Given the micro and translocal (often transnational or diasporic) processes informing refugees’ experiences, approaches need to be both more and less geographically targeted. Lastly, it calls for an intersectional approach to law and advocacy that more holistically and politically situates refugees and migrants within their social and regulatory environments. If nothing else, it asks analysts and advocates to take more seriously subnational political formations—formal and informal—as sites of policy formation and practice. In doing so it suggests that the most effective tools for addressing migrant and refugee vulnerability are often more political than legal. Moreover, within the realm of international and domestic law, jurisprudence in fields other than migration and asylum (e.g. environment, labor, or trade) may offer the most effective inroads into processes producing displacement or imperiling people on the move or on arrival. Given the confines of space, data is sparingly used for illustrative purposes.
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