The Historical Gadfly: Ellie Ott On Refugee Studies and Forced Migration

One good thing about running a podcast series like The Historical Gadfly is that it gives you the chance to learn things about topics that are otherwise totally out of your discipline or sphere of professional competence. I like to consider myself a curious, open, and broadly-reading person; one of my friends once joked that I was the only person they had known to mention the Uzbek language and Jürgen Habermas in the same sentence (the specific context for this quotation shall go unmentioned …). But after an enriching conversation with Ellie Ott for close to an hour on her journey from Lawrence, KS (home of the University of Kansas) to Pittsburgh to Oxford to Geneva, where she worked last summer as an intern for the UNHCR, I realized how little I knew – unfortunately so – about some of the big issues facing professionals who work with refugees today.

Ellie Ott, my guest on this episode of the Historical Gadfly, may not speak Uzbek, nor is she Jürgen Habermas, but I was still delighted to have her on!

Where to start? For one, as someone trained as a historian, I found it interesting, in preparing for my interview with Ellie, to read a little bit into the history of the concept of a refugee. As we discuss in our conversation, while refugee problems are really nothing new in human history, in some sense, things seem to have gotten complicated with the emergence of nation-states and, in some cases, modernizing states that thought that they had a mandate to move large groups of people around: think of Europe from about 1918-1945, for example. Only after the calamities of the Second World War did the United Nations codify the definition of a refugee as someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

A refugee camp for Rwandans in the eastern DRC, one of the world's worst problem countries for refugee issues

This international definition persists to today, and it has consequences. While sectors of the US population can have critical attitudes towards illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America, for example, one could make the case that significant parts of the Mexican population have a legitimate right to flee violence caused by the turf wars between the major drug cartels there. However, because the Mexican Drug War amounts only to “generalized violence” rather than violence against Mexicans because of race, religion, etc., it would be a stretch to classify escapees as refugees, at least under the UN definition. Huge differences in immigration and assimilation policy might result from shades or nuance or phrasing in such definitions.

But just because the UN authored this definition didn’t always lead to instutionalization, or ensure internationally-agreed-upon guidelines as to how UN member states should conduct refugee policy. The United States, as Ellie tells us, had a largely anti-Communist and pro-Southeast Asian refugee acceptance policy prior to 1980, when the Refugee Act institutionalized an Office of Refugee Resettlement within the Department of Health and Human Services, part of a complex refugee resettlement administration.

Looks tasty, but still a hard road ahead: Iraqi refugees at the dinner table in Dearborn

Further, while we may think of places like my native Los Angeles, or Queens, as places where one is likely to find the “real” American immigrant experience, it’s actually Ellie’s hometown, Lawrence, that may be more indicative of the ways that refugees are coming into, and changing American communities. In the Midwest, she notes, many Bhutanese refugees now compete with immigrants from Latin America for jobs in meatpacking plants; it is not in the Bronx but in the suburbs of Detroit and Dearborn, in Michigan, that you’ll find one of the world’s largest Iraqi (and for that matter, pan-Arab) expat communities. It’s almost enough to make this historian want to give it all up and become an ethnographer of refugee America.

For now though, I’ll have to content myself with this podcast with Ellie, which you can download here. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I hope you do, too.

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