Questions of Refugee Deservedness

The Anthropologist as an Ally

As anthropologists of forced migration, we are used to being kept on our toes as the nature, causes, consequences, and policies that enshroud forced migration are constantly fluctuating. When I returned to Cameroon for ethnographic fieldwork after over a decade living in the region as a humanitarian professional, I came with the intention of working with a large and growing population of Central African refugees. When I had last left Cameroon a year earlier in 2015, this population was growing rapidly, and garnering the attention of the world, or at least those of us who pay attention to forced migration in Africa. However, in the midst of my research over the summer of 2016, I found a Rwandan community silently struggling with the invocation of a Cessation Clause, built into the 1951 Geneva Convention, for all Rwandan refugees who arrived in asylum countries prior to 1998 and who had not been resettled. They feared this clause would cause the majority to lose their refugee status at the end of 2017. As many had hedged their bets on resettlement, they were at a loss of what to do next, after decades of waiting, and what now felt like rejection of the very foundation of their fears of returning home. Intrigued, I shifted my focus.

 The fear and the violence that they are fleeing is somehow thrust back onto them in an attempt to make them look like perpetrators, rather than survivors, of human rights abuses.
When I first met Francois (pseudonym), a Rwandan refugee in his early 40s, he was dressed in a pressed, dark gray, suit.  He stood out in the middle of the informal boutiques made out of plywood and vegetable stands set-up in the open air market. He told me that he was on his way to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) office. However, looking at the crushing traffic, he decided to delay his travel to the next day for fear of arriving late and wasting fuel along the way. He was going to follow-up on his request for resettlement in the United States. A dossier ten years in waiting still provided him with an inkling of hope. When I introduced myself as an anthropologist who wanted to better understand the Rwandan urban refugee community, he asked if I had time to visit his house, which was down the street.

As we pulled up to a dusty neighborhood store, he introduced me to his wife Antoinette (pseudonym), a nurse. Antoinette brought me to a back room attached to the store where they lived with their two young children. Francois immediately pulled out stacks of papers and handed them to me. They were piles of balances owed to different vendors, which demonstrated to me that all he owned had been purchased on credit. This family was surviving month to month, but only by borrowing money. Business was slow as the shop was tucked inside of a semi-informal settlement where the population had limited purchasing power. He shook his head quietly, noting that with the Cessation Clause, he wasn’t really sure about their future. Antoinette added that she had tried supplementing their income by working at a local hospital.  However, she stopped working because her wages did not cover costs of transportation to the hospital. Antoinette felt that her employer believed that because she was a refugee, who was “treated better” than Cameroon citizens who also needed support, she did not need a higher salary.

This narrative exemplifies that for outsiders, the combination of Rwanda’s current perceived stability and evidence of the Rwandan stores that had cropped up signaled that refugees had successfully integrated. This, coupled with the global migration crisis and increasing pressures on humanitarian agencies, may have culminated in the UNHCR and the Rwandan government’s agreement to instill the Cessation Clause. To many Rwandan refugees, this means that at the end of 2017, they may find themselves without the legal protection that the UNHCR offers them, losing the right to their status as refugees in exile.  These individuals need and are actively seeking allies.

I draw attention to these Rwandan refugees because they represent several issues which we are still grappling to understand in the area of forced migration. In today’s climate of xenophobia towards refugees, the refugee label has become increasingly politically and emotionally charged. In some rhetoric refugees are imagined as moochers, taking resources away from others in society who need it more.  The false binary between services for refugees and Veterans, for example, often comes up without much justifiable reason as the two budgets are not and never have been in opposition to each other, or even under the same agency. Other times refugees are feared. The fear and the violence that they are fleeing is somehow thrust back onto them in an attempt to make them look like perpetrators, rather than survivors, of human rights abuses. Even as scholars and advocates write articles, op-ed pieces, and conduct interviews, it seems that too often our words and well-researched pieces either preach to the choir or fall on deaf ears of those who have already made up their minds about how dangerous refugees are. Sadly, the latter often occurs without them having ever met a refugee.

As anthropologists, we want our efforts to reach a broader audience. This raises the question: How can we better unite to make sure that our research is disseminated in ways that can influence policies, and public opinion on refugees? Over my humanitarian and research career, I have seen refugees, countless times, feel the need to repeat their stories, to package them in a way that make them “deserving” of the refugee papers and the protection and hope they provide. They need allies to help in their push against these enormous bureaucratic obstacles both in the United States and the many other countries of the world where refugees we are working with are facing similar, often chronic, issues related to rejection of their asylum or refugee status. We should figure out how to be among these allies.

SUNTA is pleased to share our Anthropology News column with the Committee on Refugees & Immigrants (CORI). CORI focuses on the global problems of forced dislocation, the provision of asylum and resettlement to refugees, and the adjustment of immigrants. CORI is part of the American Anthropological Association’s Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology (SUNTA).

Kelly Yotebieng is a doctoral student in anthropology at Ohio State University. She can be contacted at Yotebieng.3@osu.edu.

Andrew Newman is assistant professor of anthropology at Wayne State University and secretary of SUNTA.

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