Ongoing and concluded PhDs

PhD researcher or student information

Natasha Yacoub

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Discipline: Law

Degrees BA: BA (Hons), LLB



PhD Research Information

Protecting refugee women and girls at sea in the Asia region
Address gaps in international law to protect the rights of refugee women and girls fleeing by sea through regional cooperation in Asia

Brief description:

Fleeing persecution by sea carries significant risks, and for women and girls there are often the additional dangers of sexual and gender based violence. During the 2015 Andaman Sea crisis, for example, many of the 5,000 individuals from Myanmar and Bangladesh trapped at sea for months were women and girls. In addition to the starvation, disease, risk of drowning and beatings by crew, they faced additional threats of sexual violence. This issue is even more urgent today, as two-thirds of the approximately 400,000 refugees who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh in September 2017 are estimated to be women and girls. The issue is not new; indeed the collective failure of States to protect refugees, including those fleeing by sea, was one of the motivations for establishing the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees following World War Two. Despite the grave consequences of sexual and gender violence, demonstrated throughout time, protection under international law remains insufficient. The thesis will address whether the gaps in international law to protect women can be addressed through enhanced regional cooperation by States.

States and non-state actors have protection obligations to refugee women and girls under international law in the context of flight by sea. As Guy Goodwin Gill points out: "Refugees or asylum seekers cannot be in a space where no laws apply, regardless of whether States purport to make such a claim individually or together. Whether they find themselves on the high seas, on a private ship or a naval vessel, in an international zone or an excised zone, in an extraterritorial processing centre, or a country deemed ‘safe’; refugees and asylum seekers are always within the ambit of the law."

The international law framework to protect women and girls fleeing by boat is a set of international refugee law obligations that co-exist with other international law norms applicable at sea. This thesis will set out the theoretical framework and gaps in its practical application, in examining both the law and how it is practiced. It will examine whether these gaps can be filled through regional cooperation among States in the Asia region, building on existing laws and practices.

The thesis will address the questions: can regional cooperation by States enhance the human rights of refugee women and girls fleeing persecution by sea in the Asia region?


The thesis will combine a normative analysis of international law with qualitative research with the subjects of this law. First, the thesis will critically examine the international law applicable to refugees at sea and the regional instruments incorporating this law. Thereafter, interviews with refugee women and girls will examine how the law applies in practice and how it can be improved. The empirical research will be used to draw conclusions on whether regional cooperation by States can improve the rights of women and girls fleeing by sea in Asia. Interviews with women and girls will demonstrate the causes and consequences of the risks faced by women and girls fleeing by sea in Asia, exploring the perspectives of individuals who have lived this experience and can describe the changes that are required to enhance their protection. Semi-structured interviews will be conducted with Rohingya women in Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia - pending ethics approval.

Keywords: women and girls, sexual violence, rohingya, Refugee, non-refoulement, law of the sea, international refugee law, international law, Convention on the Rights of the Child, cedaw, asia region, asia human rights declaration, andaman sea crisis

Language(s) of writing: English

Country: Australia

Home University:

university of new south wales


college of law

Supervisor: Jane McAdam
Start date: 15-08-2018
PhD current status: PhD Ongoing
PhD research funded by: UNSW
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Added to catalogue on: 14-10-2018

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