Refugees In Anthropology Research Paper

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People being forced to leave their homes to settle in new environments is nothing new. However, ‘refugees’ as a legal category and as the object of academic research are more recent phenomena. This research paper will outline the development of refugee studies, in response to global refugee crises of the twentieth century. It will also present some key concepts and theoretical influences and discuss some of the challenges to anthropology of refugee studies.

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1. The Emergence Of ‘Refugees’

The historical context in which refugees emerged as an internationally recognized category was provided by the massive displacements in Europe following two world wars. The Geneva Convention of 1951 is the critical landmark of the establishment of institutions and legal instruments to protect and assist such populations. A convention refugee is an individual who has crossed a national boundary and has a well-founded fear of persecution in the country of origin for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. Subsequently, other, regionally based legal conventions, notably in Africa and Latin America, have adopted more inclusive definitions of refugees which better correspond to the manifold types of mass displacements that often follow war and social disruptions in their regions today. Categories outside of legal provisions but equally of concern to agencies of protection are internally displaced people, people who flee within their own countries. Others are humanitarian refugees—like those offered temporary protection, these are persons who are not personally persecuted but are victims of war or war-related conditions. Another category of displaced people with important parallels to the experience of refugees, but without a global agency to protect their interests, are those forcibly relocated by their governments for the purpose of development. Such development-induced displacement may result, for instance, from the acquisition of land to make way for commercial forestry or the construction of a dam.

Refugee studies developed in response to the changing realities of the global refugee crisis in the early 1980s. The escalation of violent conflicts and mass disruptions in many areas of the world had then, within three years, dramatically doubled the global refugee population. New increases followed the political changes at the ending of the Cold War. At the end of the twentieth century, large numbers of refugees from national conflicts and upheavals in postcolonial states and from crumbling multiethnic federations in Europe still dominated the asylum claims. According to estimates of the United Nations Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were 12 million recognized refugees in the world in 1999. Adding the millions of internally displaced people and asylum seekers (persons whose petitions for asylum are still pending), the figure was 19 million. The majority of refugees are found in the regions of the southern hemisphere, in particular in Africa and Asia, where many seek refuge in neighboring states. Only a trickle of displaced people make their way to the more affluent but more restrictive host countries of the north, in Europe or in North America. Even fewer are allowed to settle there.

Until the early 1980s, when refugee studies emerged as an academic field of study, with academic degrees and international journals, ‘international migration’ had been the main academic context in which research in the social sciences on refugees was usually found. The field is largely interdisciplinary, drawing together a range of research from the behavioral and social sciences, but with a strong presence since its inception of international law and anthropology. The interdisciplinary nature of the field has also meant the fruitful confrontation of anthropology with other theoretical and methodological approaches and the need to clarify the nature of its specific contribution. Furthermore, with its clear relevance for the acute issues of many refugee situations, much anthropological research in the field has a strong focus on practical application and advocacy. However, depicting the severing of a community and culture from their place, refugees have also implied a challenge to some basic theoretical assumptions in anthropology.

1.1 Who Is A Refugee? Moving Beyond Legal Definitions

The answer to the question ‘Who is a refugee?’ is a crucial one in today’s world. For those being classified, it may be a matter of life or death, because of the exclusive rights and entitlements of humanitarian concern and international protection that come with the status. In the academic field, the question is a continuing concern as a matter of theoretical and conceptual delineation of its object of study. The definition of ‘refugees’ as given in the Geneva Convention is too narrow, both as a protection instrument (many would argue), and as a theoretical concept. There is an agreement that, as a useful academic tool, the concept needs to take account of the many different situations which force people to leave their homes, and the proliferation of other legal statuses that have developed in different countries for people moving in ‘refugee-like circumstances’ (Escalona and Black 1995). Another basis of definition on more theoretical grounds has to do with the cause of flight. Today, causes are often complex, involving multiple factors and the blurring of distinctions, such as that between economic and political motives (for instance, economic collapse may often follow from political change). It is clear that, given the complexity, monocausal explanations are not very useful, because one status may blend into another. For instance, the Palestinian guest workers in Kuwait, once ousted from their homeland, were again displaced during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Such explanations tend to be simplistic and obscure important similarities in the experiences of the victims of these forces (Shami 1994). A broader definition, well accepted in the field today and better attuned to current realities of displacement in the world, is to consider as refugees those people who are forced to abandon their countries of origin due to violent conflict or insupportable living conditions (Zolberg et al. 1989). These new realities have also questioned the relevance of differentiating be- tween refugees and economic migrants. Rather than being seen as dichotomous, categories can be defined along a continuum, based on the degree of force involved. This would range from voluntary, such as labor migrants moving to better their situation, to involuntary, those forcibly expelled from their home areas (Hansen and Oliver-Smith 1982). While comparative approaches to kinds of migrations are increasingly emphasized by researchers in the field, so is the importance of maintaining that which is specific to refugees and other forced migrants, in terms of human rights and other humanitarian provisions made in their name (Shami 1994). From a somewhat different position, Elizabeth Colson makes a similar plea: ‘Despite their similarities with other migrants, refugees have a unique status and force themselves upon the world’s attention, because they emerge from and provoke acute crisis’ (Colson 1987, p. 4).

The burning question of who and what a refugee is, is also a matter of ‘the politics of space and otherness’ (Gupta and Ferguson 1992). Answers are sought by examining the powerful institutional contexts and discourses, national and international, in which the category of ‘refugee’ is construed and public policy shaped, often in ways that misrepresent and exclude refugees. Further, eschewing overgeneralizations of ‘the refugee experience’ that have emerged out of such contexts (Malkki 1995a), anthropologists today would rather ask what it means to be a refugee, given the specific history of displaced groups and the circumstances in which they find themselves.

2. The Dynamics Of Displacement

As refugees, people and their communities are not only forcibly removed, they are also remade. Forced migration is an important aspect of social change, and any theoretical approach to refugees necessarily engages with process. While the study of refugees shares some common ground with international migration, it must also respond to the realities of sudden, involuntary change and the different forms of power which act on refugees’ lives. For those displaced, change is often multifaceted and compressed in time, thus also providing a theoretical challenge to anthropologists, more used in the past to study change as slow and cumulative. However, emerging theoretical frameworks can draw insights from a growing body of research in anthropology on war and violent conflicts, social collapse and reconstruction. As displacement affects most aspects of people’s lives, it addresses core issues in the anthropological study of communities, such as patterns of subsistence and livelihood, kinship and family, social and political organization, as well as the systems of cultural meaning which produce a sense of coherence and predictability in everyday life.

These issues are embedded in the wider dynamics of social and political change which form important contexts for the analysis of refugee communities. Within these contexts, anthropological case studies typically focus on uncovering the perspectives and strategies through which displaced groups deal with their predicament, renegotiating livelihoods, relations, and identities in interaction with their hosts. Anthropologists also examine the making of refugee communities, exile cultures, and identities in the places of settlement, including the dilemmas of those refugees whose attachments to the homeland and to fellow countrymen in other parts of the world remain stronger than to the society in which they reside (Fuglerud 1999). For a political movement such as the Chilean left, exiled in the 1970s, this may be manifested as a conflict between political ideology and the realities of everyday life, between ‘life as it is’ and ‘life as it should be’ (Eastmond 1997).

3. The Diversity Of Refugee Situations And Research Emphases

The great diversity of conditions, in particular the marked contrast between southern and northern host states, has meant the development of different emphases in the concerns and theoretical approaches applied to the problem of refugees in different parts of the world.

3.1 Northern Perspectives: Refugees In Resettlement

Issues of resettlement and integration are common in studies of refugees in North America or Western Europe, reflecting the legal provisions for permanent residence of most refugees into these societies. Much research on resettlement in the USA, for instance, seems to focus on sociocultural adaptation, which is a conventional framework in the study of the immigrant experience. However, the analyses also draw fruitfully on current theories of ethnicity and identity, emphasizing agency and cultural construction in the process (e.g., DeVoe 1992). These concerns reveal that many exile communities are concerned with continuity but also that, despite their claims, exile cultures typically represent dynamic forms. In these fields, American anthropologists, like other Westerners in the profession, increasingly turn to study the institutions of their own societies and their interaction with refugees. Being a refugee often means something different in Western Europe, where large influxes of newcomers are relatively recent and where integration is often preceded by a long asylum-seeking process. An emphasis in much of the current research is the vicissitudes of integration in relation to policies and processes of social exclusion. Importantly, perspectives from the inside of diasporas, groups which maintain strong ties to the home country and to members in other parts of the world, indicate that full integration into the host country may not be a primary concern (Fuglerud 1999). However, more systematic and comparative studies of the experience of different groups in different countries and circumstances of reception in northern countries are called for (Escalona and Black 1995).

3.2 Southern Frameworks: Refugees And Development

In southern countries, particularly in Africa, displacement and refugees have frequently been studied as a problem of development. A general framework for analyzing displacement and involuntary resettlement with a focus on the responses of dislocated people and the role of the state in resettlement is provided by Hansen and Oliver-Smith (1982). This has been an important starting point for some of the comparative work in southern countries.

One theme is that of development schemes and modernization displacing large numbers of people within their countries. An early contribution from anthropology is Colson’s (1971) study of the social consequences of the relocation of the Gwembe Tonga due to the building of the Kariba Dam in 1958. More recent analyses take account of power relations and local forms of resistance by those ousted from their home areas (McDowell 1996). Another theme is the critical evaluation of humanitarian assistance and the potential of more long-term development that also benefits the host population. Harrell-Bond’s (1986) illuminating study analyzed the implications of relief operations on refugees and their hosts in Uganda. Neglecting refugees’ own concerns and resources, the interventions of relief agencies were found to create conflicts and fragmentation both within refugee collectivities and with the local host population. Other critical studies have focused on camps as organized solutions to refugee crises. Comparing the experience of camp-settled to self-settled Angolan refugees in Zambia over many years, Hansen (1992) found a preference for staying with kin even in meager and less secure circumstances, rather than submitting to the rigidly controlled but well-provisioned camps. While camp refugees remained strangers in the new country and wanted to return, most of the others did not. These studies highlight the problem of defining assistance in narrow economic terms without taking account of the perspectives and resources of refugees themselves. Malkki’s ethnography (1995b) of displaced Hutu refugees from Burundi settled in Tanzania compared identity and historical memory of refugees in camps with those who had settled in a nearby town and relied on their own creative strategies for survival. Whereas the latter were pragmatically juggling social identities, in the diversity typical of many African towns, camp refugees were passionately concerned with creating their mythico-history as members of the Hutu nation.

4. Refugees As People Out Of Place: Challenges To Anthropology

Camps, as a form of containment, also reveal something about the workings of power within the international refugee regime and the deeply cultural yet global notions of order which underpin it. In a world where nation-states are seen as the ‘natural’ basis of belonging, according to Malkki, refugees occupy an in-between or liminal position and as such challenge the dominant ‘national order of things.’ Drawing on theories of social classification and of the cultural constructions of nation-ness, such analyses of displacement have opened up new theoretical spaces of anthropological inquiry into the relationship between people and place, nationalism and history. Inquiries into the significance of place and the creative ways in which people come to see different places as ‘home’ also provide important theoretical frameworks for the study of repatriation of refugees. This applies both to international policy, in which going home is construed as the naturally desired end of ‘the refugee cycle,’ and to return as lived experience. Images of home, which are a central premise in much exile ideology and upheld in memories and claims to the homeland, cannot always be reconciled with the realities of life upon return (Black and Koser 1999).

Clearly, refugees present a challenge to nationstates, but they do so also to the social sciences and some of their cherished concepts. In anthropology, until recently, refugees and displacements were rather marginal as research themes, in interesting ways reflecting the position of displaced populations themselves. This neglect may be attributed to a theoretical bias in anthropology that has tended to downplay violence and suffering (Harrell-Bond and Voutira 1992). Other commentators, like Malkki (1995a) refer to a ‘sedentary bias’ in anthropology, meaning that communities and cultures have been assumed to be naturally located in a particular place. Studies of displacement thus require anthropologists to reexamine their concepts of culture and community as bounded and territorialized units. Also, with the growing theoretical interest in anthropology in globalization and transnational phenomena, nationalism and conflict, violence and social memory, the study of refugees and displacement is gaining new relevance and fresh theoretical insights. Taken together, these new challenges will contribute to the coming of age of the study of refugees as an academic field in anthropology with a more solid theoretical foundation. If, as it is often claimed, refugees are symptomatic of the state of the world, with global mobility, fluidity, and fragmentation, but also claims and allegiances to particular lands and cultural identities, then they may well occupy a central position in future anthropology.


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