By Suzanne Bowness
Photos by Luther Caverly
Ask the average person what it means to be a refugee, and they’ll probably think back to the latest news coverage, for example the recent influx of thousands from Africa and the Middle East moving from France to the UK through the Channel Tunnel. Given how quickly these crises fall from the headlines, they can also commonly misconstrue refugee situations as temporary, and imagine them largely alleviated by response from aid organizations.
But ask those who study refugee situations and they’ll paint a more complex picture: that the average time a refugee spends in a camp is now approaching 20 years. That 80 percent of refugees live in developing countries. That unlike typical depictions many refugees increasingly live in cities rather than camps. That even developing countries previously welcoming of refugees are becoming more restrictive.
But even those who study the subject admit they also struggle to understand the actual impact of global policy designed to help refugees and the challenges they face. At Carleton, political science professor James Milner feels that it’s time to assess that impact, and is working to bring together top scholars, including those from the world’s foremost refugee studies centres at Oxford, York, and Georgetown universities, as well as representatives from leading international humanitarian organizations such as CARE, OXFAM and the United Nations Refugee Agency. On September 23-25, 2015, these players will gather for “Power and Influence in the Global Refugee Regime,” a workshop that will examine the global refugee regime, its influencers and policies.
Milner, who is a member of the Steering Committee for the Migration and Diaspora Studies initiative at Carleton University, is also hopeful that the conference will lead to a new Global Refugee Policy network that will allow for further long-term dialogue amongst scholars and practitioners. “The final session of the workshop is devoted to really brainstorming on what a multi-year project would look like. What I’m proposing—and partners will be able to say whether this is what they want to see—is to have a multi-year project where we look at different case studies where policy is implemented or not implemented, to explain these outcomes, and to be able to do comparative work over the next three or four years,” says Milner.
The average time a refugee spends in a camp is now approaching 20 years, and developing countries previously welcoming of refugees are becoming more restrictive.
The need for such conversations was sparked by a realization in 2011 that amidst a flurry of policy directives by the United Nations Refugee Agency, pause was needed to take stock of the actual effects of these efforts. “There was this furious pace in 2009, 2010, and 2011, where all these new policies were being adopted, and the champagne corks would pop and everyone would congratulate each other on having this new policy in place. Then we realized there was almost this sense of false hope that new policy adopted in Geneva was making very little difference in the lives of refugees,” says Milner. Refugees themselves reside predominantly in developing countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Jordan, Lebanon, Chad, Pakistan, Thailand, Tunisia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Thailand.
That led to an interest in greater scrutiny on the global policies themselves. “There was a realization that we spend all this time making policy, invested in this process, but we really don’t understand who is calling the shots. This makes very implicit claims that by virtue of having a policy we’re going to improve the lives of refugees. The question is, has it really made a difference?” says Milner. Those questions led in the short term to an initial workshop discussion at Oxford in 2012, then a special issue on the subject in the Journal of Refugee Studies (the academic journal of record in this field) and ultimately to the upcoming conference.
“This is the real hope for the workshop at Carleton,” says Milner. “If we’re really going to be serious in understanding how this policy gets made, and whether or not these policies can predictably make a difference in the lives of refugees, what we need to do is start figuring out what kind of questions we need to ask and how we go about doing it. We need to understand who are the actors involved and where and how are they able to influence this process of making policy or seeing policy implemented or not implemented.” Some of the major directives under discussion in this field include policies on alternatives to refugee camps, resolving protracted refugee situations, policies on age, gender diversity mainstreaming, and policies on refugees in urban areas.
Another important prerogative of the conference, and one very much in keeping with the collaborative mandate, is to use technology to extend its reach. Video links will be established with the Centre of Refugee Studies at York University, the Refugee Studies Center in Oxford University, and the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In turn, these locations are hoping to attract satellite attendance by policy makers from Washington, Brussels and Geneva (the last two because of their proximity to the participating Oxford University). Milner also hopes to raise the profile of these important talks through social media, namely a Facebook page and Twitter account @GRPNetwork. “We’ll be using these social media tools to very actively generate a broader interest in these issues,” says Milner.
We need to understand who the actors are, and where and how they’re able to influence this process of making policy — or seeing policy implemented or not implemented
Milner has even enlisted a graduate student, Krystyna Wojnarowicz, to handle the workshop’s social media profile by live tweeting and managing other outreach. Wojnarowicz is a second-year master’s student in political science who is finishing up her thesis and working with the UN Refugee Agency as a resettlement intern. She recently returned from a field placement in Gioiosa-Ionica in Italy where she did field work examining the town’s role in hosting refugees coming from places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Eritrea. She thinks the conference is a great opportunity for graduate students. “It will be a valuable experience for graduate students to discuss their work with leading academics and representatives from humanitarian organizations who are working directly with refugees,” says Wojnarowicz.
Speaking of graduate students, another central goal for the network moving forward is to bolster its ability to attract new researchers and help them contribute even more meaningfully within this field through more systematic and connected fieldwork opportunities. “The idea is that if we’re able to recruit and train graduate students who want to do their own research for their thesis, we do it in a coordinated way where they’re going to look at similar questions but in different countries. Their individual research will contribute to this more collaborative effort,” says Milner. “If all of these graduate students are doing their work according to a similar methodology, then we can more easily compare the results of what they’re finding. Then with the support of additional funding we can also bring this global community of graduate students together from time to time so they can share their results,” he adds.
A first step in this effort with regards to graduate students came in the form of a November 2014 announcement of an agreement between CARE Canada, Carleton University and York University to partner in their research efforts, specifically with regards to forced migration. In concrete terms, the partnership will help identify graduate students from Carleton and York to take on newly developed CARE Research Associate positions that will assist them to conduct fieldwork in areas where CARE helps displaced populations. Milner hopes that this network of graduate students can eventually expand to include other universities and even other host organizations.
That such a workshop will be hosted at Carleton, which has more than 30 faculty members working on issues of migration, immigration, and diaspora communities, is also significant for solidifying the university’s status as an important contributor to this field. As a scholarly field, refugee studies is highly interdisciplinary, involving researchers from departments as diverse as anthropology, sociology, law, history, political science and geography. Milner, who began his own career as a practitioner working with the UN’s refugee agency in India, Cameroon, Guinea, and at headquarters in Geneva, is enthusiastic about Carleton’s new Bachelor’s in Global and International Studies, which is Canada’s first undergraduate program to focus specifically on issues of migration.
Since Milner’s own work is informed by practical realities, he’s keen to be part of a network with that same real-world potential. “My hope is that this stimulates new research within the field of refugee studies and makes it a positive contribution to the needs, security and protection of refugees, and finding a solution to their plight,” he says.
To read more about our Graduate students’ experiences in this field, click here.
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