10 July 2017

The Refugee in Anthropological Perspective

Over the past decade, we have witnessed new and ongoing crises around the world that have forced many people to uproot their lives in order to seek refuge elsewhere. On the news we see aerial shots of battered and dilapidated boats overflowing with passengers, or throngs of people on foot carrying their meager belongings, dusty and tired from the long trek. The visual rhetoric we see in these spaces deeply shapes how we understand refugees, and 'their' lives in 'our' national spaces. Through their movement, refugees raise many powerful questions of interest to anthropologists, but also for policy makers, governments, local communities, and for those who endure forced migration themselves.

We've collected here a few interesting resources for discussing anthropological approaches to refugees, especially in light of the more recent and very visible migration of asylum seekers around and across the Mediterranean into Europe.

First, Mayanthi Fernando and Cristiana Giordano's curated "Hot Spot" in Cultural Anthropology on "Refugees and the Crisis of Europe" collects a number of anthropological perspectives on this phenomenon. As they note in the collection's abstract, the "unprecedented" movement of refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries to Europe since 2015 has "turned immigration, asylum, border control, and state sovereignty into interconnected problems, making migration not only a political event but also a media spectacle." The diversity of issues raised in these short articles -- a mapping of "the histories, geopolitics, ethical imaginaries, forms of sovereignty, and patterns of circulation that state categories of crisis and emergency render visible and/or invisible, in Europe and elsewhere" -- recommend them as course texts in discussing a wide range of anthropological questions centred on this highly visible public issue.

In thinking about what an anthropological perspective can bring to understanding this "crisis," I would highly recommend the interview that appeared in Peeps online forum between anthropologists Monica Heller and Sarah Green on "Shifting the global conversation on refugees" (2016).

For other interesting, but non-anthropological sources, instructors might be interested in the New York Times' feature from earlier this year on the the integration of Syrian refugees in Weimar, Germany. While the journalists who wrote this piece spent months in Weimar, this long-form journalism might be interesting to use in also raising the question of how journalistic and anthropological approaches differ.

Lastly, the Refugee Atlas (http://refugeeatlas.com/) is a visual atlas, whose creators suggest could "help to construct the anthropology in motion, referring to crucial aspects of human condition without any recourse to national, ethnic or cultural essentialism."

The Refugee Atlas project is part of the larger "the European History Atlas Under Construction - the transgenerational project of Strefa WolnoSÅ‚owa Foundation organized in collaboration with artistic and research organizations from Warsaw, Paris, Bologna and Antwerp." While this is rooted in a fine arts approach to understanding migration, refugees and multiculturalism, the atlas' juxtaposition of diverse and thematic historical and contemporary images and maps may make it an interesting visual for anthropological discussions. The project organizers worked with youth and seniors of both European and migrant backgrounds to explore themes around memory and history in connection to migration. According to the atlas' creators:
The phenomenon of mass migration often cuts across traditional cultural formations, reveals hidden tensions or unmasks shameful continuities. It catches culture in its movement and shows its perpetual fluctuations, irrevocable unrest. This is why making a visual atlas on the experience of migration requires stepping out of both the journalistic news culture, which changes the “refugee crisis” into another viral celebration of the ignorance, and the injunction to always associate the suffering of the oppressed with documentary sensibility.
What kinds of narratives do these images generate, and how might they reflect or differ what we typically see in the news, or in a quick "Google Image" search?

If you have other resources that would be a good addition to this short list, please let us know via email (anthrolens@gmail.com) or tweet us @anthrolens.

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