Introduction to “Maintaining Refuge”

This introduction is part of the Maintaining Refuge series.

The last few years have witnessed a rising tide of concern about a rising tide of refugees and migrants. As some countries have responded positively, others have moved definitively toward rejection. For refugees and migrants, the navigation of being human and becoming human overlays the navigation of remaining human—of surviving both physical danger and the loss of hope for any meaningful future life. This issue of maintaining refuge invokes the heart of anthropological concern about life in both its physical and meaning-laden senses. An anthropological quest to understand human life is, in this case, directly coupled with a practical imperative: to maintain refuge as a place of physical safety and a zone of existential meaning. To this very practical task of maintaining refuge, anthropologists can bring a stance that is inclusive of academic, applied, practitioner, and activist perspectives. As anthropologists aim to maintain refuge, they are themselves also on a quest to remain human in often inhuman circumstances and inhumane political currents.

The five articles in this series address the issue of maintaining refuge in different ways. Both Anna Jaysane-Darr and Chris Partridge discuss the problems faced by refugees already in the United States. For Jaysane-Darr, there is much that remains unsettled in refugee resettlement. Her piece shows how the Trump administration’s curtailment of resettlement processes for new arrivals in the US has serious and negative consequences for those already resettled, while members of refugee communities strive to support and assist each other. Partridge explores how those same refugee program constrictions can have a perverse double-consequence: fewer new refugees to sustain emerging refugee communities but also reduced voluntary agency presence to fill in when refugee communities are too small and too attenuated. Maintaining refuge thus has clear dimensions: as a possibility for new arrivals and as a zone of economic survival and existential meaning for those already resettled. Denise Brennan takes that concern a step further to include the many different people needing refuge—whether technically refugees, asylum seekers, or unauthorized migrants. All of these people now face increasingly insecure and unpredictable lives across borders and within the US. It falls to them to somehow build and maintain their own refuge.

As anthropologists aim to maintain refuge, they are themselves also on a quest to remain human in often inhuman circumstances and inhumane political currents.

Stacey Pickering and Catherine Nolin address the situation in Canada, where government and private interests come together to forge an impressive positive response to Syrian refugees.

Finally, Linda Rabben’s photo essay reminds us how durable the notion of sanctuary has been and continues to be for refugees and those who work with them.

Collectively, these articles provide useful insights—conceptual and practical—into the challenges and possibilities of maintaining refuge in North America despite increasingly restrictive and precarious circumstances. Each author highlights the formal structures of refuge and the many people involved more informally in creating, supporting, and maintaining refuge. Those people include refugees and migrants themselves, as well as the many others who see their claims for refuge as just. Together, the pieces show how this core challenge of refuge helps activate and integrate the interrelated roles of anthropologists as teachers, researchers, advocates, practitioners, and human beings.

The Committee on Refugees & Immigrants (CORI) focuses on the global problems of forced dislocation, the provision of asylum and resettlement to refugees, and the adjustment of immigrants. A second set of articles later in the year will focus on global considerations in maintaining refuge.

Read all the articles in our Maintaining Refuge series here.

Cite as:  Howell, Jayne, David Haines, and Fethi Keles. 2017. “Introduction to ‘Maintaining Refuge.'” Anthropology News website, June 16, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.484

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