A global crisis we can't turn our backs on

March 1, 2002

The University of East London refugee studies programme is enabling research, free from prejudice, of a growing minority in most societies, says Philip Marfleet.

Refugees have become a preoccupation of politicians and editors. Increasingly, they feature in parliamentary wrangles over immigration and in repeated, sometimes obsessive, media coverage. The tone is invariably negative: ministers and leader-writers pronounce that refugees are illegitimate, opportunistic, probably criminal. Where does their evidence come from? What sources do they cite? Whose researches are mobilised?

In striking contrast to the confident official pronouncements about refugees is the scarcity of information and analysis. Although scores of millions of people are now forced migrants, their circumstances have received modest attention at the academic level. For many years refugees were viewed mainly as the collateral damage of international crises. Typically, accounts in political science or international relations offered a footnote that war or civil conflict had displaced large numbers of people: the reader was left to guess their fate.

By the 1980s millions were on the move in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most had been displaced in states weakened by economic crisis and in which the political and cultural divisions sharpened or implanted by colonial rule surfaced in all manner of conflicts. By the end of the decade there were 15 million refugees worldwide. A small minority - some 5 per cent of the total - applied for asylum in the West. The response of governments was to develop new regimes of exclusion such as the European Union's "Fortress Europe" and an increasingly hostile discourse of the "bogus" - inauthentic - refugee.

A number of pioneering researchers sought a different perspective. They had begun to develop a multidisciplinary approach that permitted study of the realities of forced migration. Several were associated with the refugee studies programme at Oxford University, which offered the first refugee studies courses. But still there were restricted opportunities to research and study refugee issues - a problem that became more pressing as ethnic cleansing and mass displacement in Europe produced millions more migrants and as numbers of refugees in Britain continued to rise, notwithstanding the attempts to exclude them.

In 1995 a group at the University of East London undertook to establish the first dedicated refugee studies programme in London. We were aware of both the need to address the general academic deficit and the needs of growing refugee communities in Britain, especially in East London, which already had a reputation as one of the refugee centres of Europe.

East London has been celebrated as a place of asylum par excellence. Since the migration of the Huguenots from France in the 17th century, the East End has been a home for generations of refugees. During the 19th century it offered sanctuary to numerous political exiles, especially to leaders of nationalist movements in Italy, Poland and Hungary, and socialists from France and Germany, including Louis Blanc and Karl Marx.

Governments of the mid-Victorian era were eager to promote Britain's liberal tradition of asylum. They were less enthusiastic about the mass migration that later brought Jewish refugees from Russia and eastern Europe. The refugees nevertheless succeeded in establishing communities that had a lasting impact on the culture of East London. A century later those fleeing conflict and oppression in Africa, Asia and the Middle East found a home in the area, making it one of the most culturally diverse in Britain.

In 1997, UEL began a postgraduate programme in refugee studies - the first that set out to examine the global and local dimensions of forced migration. We were aware of unfulfilled demand but surprised by the rapid growth of the MA course.

Hassan, one of the earliest graduates, says: "Mostly (refugees) are under suspicion, people do not believe our stories - or do not want to believe them." The course, however, took refugees seriously, and he says it gave him the chance to think through all aspects of his and other refugees'


Many refugees participate in the course, together with practitioners and professionals from human rights organisations, law firms and legal centres, teachers, health workers, counsellors and others who have experience of refugee lives. Increasing numbers of students come from overseas, giving it a truly global dimension. Many graduates go on to work in the human rights and refugee fields: Hassan is now a community worker in West London.

The course sets out to consider refugee issues free from the prejudice and hostility that attends much political debate and media coverage. It adopts a refugee-centred perspective, treating the experiences of tens of millions of forced migrants as of intrinsic interest. Students are encouraged to think about the circumstances that lead to displacement, the multiple journeys undertaken by refugees, the problems posed by legal regimes on asylum, the struggle to secure asylum, and the complexities of life in exile.

A multidisciplinary perspective uses insights from politics, international relations, law and legal studies, sociology, anthropology, psychology and cultural studies. The course also highlights a dimension of refugee life that seldom appears within the official discourse of the refugee - the creative energies of forced migrants and the achievements of refugees as individuals and as communities, especially in art, literature, film and a host of activities that emerge within the culture of exile.

Scarcity of information and analysis means that all research on refugees is of value. Recent projects at UEL throw light on a host of problems that should be of interest to policy-makers. They include work on the refugee housing crisis, the educational needs of refugee children, and how refugees experience return to their countries of origin. Of special interest in the light of recent events are projects on the refugee dispersal system, the establishment of detention centres and how statutory bodies treat refugees.

As many students are practitioners, they are able to undertake research "from the inside". A recent investigation of the probation service in London revealed that it remained "blind" to refugees - largely uninformed about their circumstances and experiences. The project recommended a series of changes to make the service more effective for refugees, who often live under extreme stress and at the margin of survival.

UEL will shortly receive the large archive of books, journals, reports and documents accumulated over many years by the Refugee Council. This will be housed at the UEL Docklands campus where it will be open to academics, researchers, students and - importantly - to refugees and community groups.

There is no sign that the global refugee crisis is abating. Social inequalities are becoming more marked and more states worldwide are becoming weak and unstable - developments that often precede crises of mass displacement. It is likely that more people will seek sanctuary in countries that appear to offer stability and hope.

Analysis and understanding of forced migration is essential if the mistakes - and tragedies - of the past are to be avoided. In the 1930s, many Jewish victims of fascism in Germany and Austria were unable to obtain visas to enter countries of asylum such as Britain. Queues at consulates in Berlin and Vienna were testimony to their predicament - and to the reluctance of the British government to find a place for them. Despite this terrible lesson, victims of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s also faced official evasion or outright rejection.

The circumstances of forced migrants past and present need to be understood: one means of achieving this is by finding a place in our universities for refugee studies.

Philip Marfleet is coordinator of the University of East London's MA in refugee studies. For more information, contact: p.marfleet@uel.ac.uk

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