Rasika Jayasuriya

Rasika Jayasuriya

Promoting the discourse: “Children’s rights are for all children”

In Conversation with Rasika Jayasuriya (PhD 2019)

Working in Sri Lanka prompted Melbourne Law School Alumna and UNICEF Policy Specialist, Rasika Jayasuriya, to advocate for the rights of children impacted by labour migration.

Bringing children’s rights into migration discourse and policy has been a key passion for 2019 PhD recipient Rasika Jayasuriya. While her family’s history and experience in apartheid South Africa inspired her passion for human rights and activism, it was through her involvement in youth activism that Rasika realised the importance of understanding the law to make a difference. Rasika became fascinated by how the law can be used to both “liberate and oppress people.”

Rasika completed her PhD at Melbourne Law School in 2019, focusing on children’s rights in labour migration. Her interest in this topic primarily emerged from her field experience in Sri Lanka, where she worked in the IOM’s labour migration program.

“I really saw the impact of family separation for prolonged periods, particularly working with a lot of women who were mothers returning from long periods working in the Middle East as migrant domestic workers.”

With this experience, Rasika then noticed the knowledge gap when it came to labour migration and the separation of children from their parents globally. She saw a persistent theme: “labour migration policies were separating dependent children and parents and deliberately undermining the child-parent relationship.” Rasika explains that seeing the impacts of policies that undermine the child-parent relationship for certain sections of society was a motivating factor to pursue the issue in further depth through her PhD.

Reflecting on her role as a specialist in migration and displacement at UNICEF, Rasika comments on how her PhD and previous experience working in government were foundational to the position. Based in Geneva, Rasika represents UNICEF globally on the UN Migration Network’s Executive Committee and brings human rights principles, norms, and frameworks into policy recommendations to governments. Effectively, Rasika seeks to “bring children’s rights into migration discourse, migration policy, and advice for government programming.”

Rasika believes governments have a critical role to play in preventing the damage done to children through harmful migration policies. She comments that harmful migration policies are “simply unnecessary,” as there are “child-sensitive migration policies that can be put in place that still allow governments to effectively manage borders and achieve immigration outcomes without damaging children for life.” Rasika works to ensure that child-sensitive practices are standard practices that governments default to and that the rights children have as a result of their inherent vulnerabilities as children are translated into understandable knowledge. She believes that investing in policies that work for children is integral to reducing the detrimental impacts of labour migration.

“Children have particular rights that need to be respected and protected no matter what their or their parent’s migration status is — rights that they hold as children.”

Fundamentally, Rasika wants to see effective change in the way children’s rights are perceived in the context of migration. She expresses the need to see “children being treated as children first.”  Specific to labour migration, she expresses a desire to see “equal attention being given to the social impacts of labour migration on children and families as is given to the discourse surrounding remittances.” She explains that as labour migration will not cease, governments need to recognise and address those aspects of existing labour migration programs that systematically separate children from their parents and families.

Rasika describes her experience at UNICEF as “extremely interesting and also very challenging.” She feels fortunate to be working with UNICEF, an organisation with a “strong and clear mandate” that is heavily focused on policy and program implementation. However, she also speaks about how working at the global level requires a “conscious effort to keep grounding yourself in the realities of policy and program implementation at the local and country level, achieved in part through constant communication with colleagues in the field.” In the context of her interagency work, Rasika highlights that a key challenge of working across international agencies is their competing mandates. Yet, the rewarding experience is being able to “find common ground and shared agreement,” which “leads to improved outcomes and more coordinated approaches that are better for all, including children.”

When discussing her reasons for pursuing a career at the UN, Rasika claims to have “never planned to work for the UN, it just happened.” It was fortunate that the role available was about bringing children’s rights into migration policy — a perfect fit for her. This unplanned career has led Rasika to represent UNICEF at the International Migration Review Forum at the General Assembly in New York, a surprising moment in her career trajectory.

“I did stop at that moment and think, “Wow, how did I get here?”

Rasika advises that an important characteristic for human rights advocates is being able to translate human rights frameworks into practical policy advice. The role of a human rights advocate is not confined to simply understanding human rights principles. It’s about “helping government and decision-makers understand how and why human rights are important and where and how rights-based approaches can be implemented.” She emphasises that this is not one-dimensional and based only on a body of law. “It’s also about engaging with stakeholders across the spectrum of relevant actors,” including in the community, government, legal, and multilateral sectors. She believes that stakeholder engagement and consultation are the keys to providing sound and practical policy advice. Rasika also expresses that critical to improving the responsiveness of policies to human rights is understanding that “change is incremental and slow”— you have to “work towards it and be willing to accept that you won’t achieve it overnight.”

Reflecting on her personal experience, Rasika highly recommends obtaining ‘field experience’ to inform work at the international level, including in the UN system. Field experience is important as “it keeps you grounded and allows you to understand when you’re having conversations at the global level or theoretical level, what that means on the ground and how it is relevant.”  More generally, Rasika suggests maximising opportunities that enable one to further educate themselves because “as they say, knowledge is power.” She realises that it is one thing to have the privilege to study law, but “also sharing that knowledge is a critical role that we can all play.”

Throughout her working life, Rasika has maintained a deep connection to her “roots.” She emphasises that recalling her roots keeps her “very grounded and very focused” and continually grateful for the opportunities that come into her life. She is also influenced by the principle of “think global, act local,” which serves as a strong pullback to the local level and will most likely lead Rasika to return to Australia and potentially head back into government. She believes that it is “invaluable to have global guidance and the sharing of knowledge at the global level,” but she has always “enjoyed working at a national level where you can impact policy and see change.” It is in this area where Rasika feels she “can affect the most change,” make an impact, and “set more precedents that can help raise the bar for promoting children’s rights.”

With her commitment to finding viable ways to reduce injustices to children affected by labour migration, there is no doubt that Rasika can contribute to change in migration policy and discourse.

Prepared by: Jasmine Azemi
JD Student MLS
September 2022