Refugees: Reflections on an Anthropology-of-Policy Exploration

David Haines (George Mason University)

Posted to ASAP Forum on May 2, 2016

During March and April of 2016, the Association for the Anthropology of Policy launched its Facebook and Twitter presences with a thematic exploration of refugee issues. This will be followed by similar anthropology-of-policy explorations of corruption and then sports (particularly with the Olympics in Brazil). The purpose of these thematic explorations is to identify ways anthropology can contribute to the processes and potentialities of policy as a field of analysis and practice.

In this initial refugee-related exploration, the posts on Facebook and Twitter helped indicate the range of the issue and the different kinds of people and organizations who are concerned about refugees. These include a mix of the anthropological and the non-anthropological. It was helpful, for example, to see the range of refugee papers at the annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology (which ASAP compiled and circulated) and anthropologist-produced commentary on anthropological platforms: for example a set of papers on the American Ethnological Forum and a refugee-related column from ASAP in Anthropology News. The posts also laid out some of the key organizational data sources (especially Pew and the Migration Policy Institute).

The guest posts and comments on Facebook suggested additional points. One is the difficulty of assessing public responses to refugees because there tends to be a divergence between survey data and political statements on the one hand, and the more direct and often positive response of individual people at the local level. Another is how to maintain morale in the face of much current negativity. To do so, it becomes necessary to keep linkages alive beyond one’s own research and practice and, indeed, beyond the discipline.

The social media focus on refugees was also intertwined with planning for the AAA annual meeting in Minneapolis in November. Based in part on contacts through this social media discussion, ASAP will have four (possibly five) sessions at the meeting directly dealing with refugees. One is an executive session co-sponsored with the Society for Urban, National, and Transnational/Global Anthropology (SUNTA). Other regular ASAP sessions will explore different facets of the refugee experience. The range of the panels will provide an opportunity to reintegrate research and practice in different parts of the world and with refugees in very different and often highly insecure and uncertain circumstances. Refugee issues are also part of an ASAP panel in May at the Dubrovnik, Croatia meeting of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. The questions raised during the social media discussion provide a useful inventory of issues for these future discussions, from the practicalities of what works in particular refugee situations to the broader dilemma of crafting settled policy for unsettled situations.

One specific policy issue that emerged in the discussion is the way national political contexts impinge on refugee policy. The sharply different responses of E.U. countries to Syrian refugees, for example, heightened the crisis atmosphere and the strains on E.U. bonds. The contrast between Canadian and U.S. responses has also been sharp. In the U.S., a presidential decision in Fall 2015 to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees set off an astonishingly negative response from Republican candidates, governors, and members of Congress. The result was that by February 2016, the United States had only admitted about 1,000 Syrian refugees. In Canada, by contrast, a new prime minister called in Fall 2015 for 25,000 new Syrian arrivals and that goal was reached by the end of February 2016. Proportionately in terms of country size, Canada had thus accepted 250 times as many Syrian refugees as the United States. Here lies a glaring contrast in policy outcomes that begs for additional analysis.

David Haines is Professor Emeritus at George Mason University and Co-President Elect of the Association for the Anthropology of Policy. He can be contacted at [email protected].