SOAS University of London


Championing the human rights of displaced people

The research of many scholars from SOAS, University of London supports the rights of people displaced by famine and conflict, and through ethnicity, religion, gender or sexuality.

This important strand of SOAS’ work draws on the expertise of researchers from a wide range of disciplines – anthropology, development studies, gender studies, languages and culture, history, politics.

Their research influences the policy of governments around the world; it informs the work of agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank and international NGOs like Oxfam, as well as courts and civil society.   

Crucially, their work changes the lives of individuals, arming human rights advocates with evidence to support and protect refugees, strengthening diaspora communities and helping to rebuild the lives of people made incredibly vulnerable by forces beyond their control.

Displaced comm pic
A man, who has been displaced for 20 years, stands beside his house and a tent given to him recently by the Iranian Red Crescent. He lives in Hargeisa, Somaliland where thousands of displaced people like him live the most precarious of lives (the tent is remarkable both because it is a rare thing to receive help and also because it is not watertight and thus not all that useful). Photo credit: Laura Hammond.

Two decades since the Somali Republic collapsed, the Somali territories are still suffering from chronic political uncertainty, violence, widespread food insecurity and high levels of displacement. Newly displaced people crowd into refugee camp complexes in Ethiopia and Kenya, congregate in Somali enclaves of regional towns and cities, and attempt risky journeys to other countries in search of security - more than 220,000 refugees from the Horn of Africa are now living in the Yemen. Research by Dr Laura Hammond and Dr Anna Lindley (Development Studies) has advanced a deeper understanding of the relationship between political violence and economic and food security factors in prompting displacement. Their recommended responses to internal and refugee displacement, and alternative approaches to integration, policy discussions at the highest level, including those of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Their research has also substantially advanced understandings of the role of remittances and other transnational flows in Somali livelihoods, with relevance for aid agencies, Somali political authorities, diaspora associations, and financial regulators world-wide.

From the early 1990s, Professor Michael Hutt (Languages and Cultures of South Asia) publicised the plight of tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis who had fled or been expelled from Bhutan, where their families had lived for generations.   He made extended visits to UNHCR refugee camps in Nepal, where his fluency in Nepali meant he could conduct recorded interviews with refugees, documenting oral accounts of their families’ migration to and life in Bhutan. Through this and further research, he traced the historical pattern of Nepali settlement in Bhutan and clarified the processes by which the Bhutanese government was able to withdraw citizenship from and exile large numbers of ethnic Nepalis.  His research informed the international response to the crisis, and roughly two-thirds of the Bhutanese refugee population have now begun new lives in western countries.

Nepali pics
One of the refugee camps in Nepal visited by Professor Hutt

Research by Dr Rahul Rao (Politics and International Studies, CISD) informs government and activist decision-making in different parts of the world in the wake of violation of human rights based on sexuality or gender identity.  For example, by focusing on global politics of Christianity and the use of history, memory and ethnography, he is developing strategy for local activist responses to homophobia, contesting conservative claims that homosexuality is alien to Uganda. He has also provided country of origin reports on Uganda to assist the UK Immigration and Asylum Tribunal in adjudicating cases involving persons fleeing persecution on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Since 2008, the SOAS Centre for Gender Studies has been offering fellowships and mentoring programmes for female academic refugees from across the globe, including the Middle East, particularly Iran and Iraq.  Professor Nadje Al-Ali has been working closely with a number of Iraqi refugee academics within the UK and Jordan. She has also carried out research amongst Iraqi women in the diaspora on the gendered memories of war, sanctions and dictatorship as well as the impact of invasion and occupation.

Fleeing a dreadfully repressive regime whose human rights violations include indefinite conscription, religious persecution and widespread detention and torture, thousands of Eritrean refugees apply for asylum each year. Research by Professor Richard Reid (History) on the historical and current political dynamics in Eritrea and the Horn of Africa, in addition to influencing government policy, has proved indispensable to human rights advocates working in region and to those in Europe, North America and beyond daily making decisions relating to the asylum claims of ethnic Eritreans.

Fieldwork in Iraq from 1989-2002, gave Dr Erica Hunter (Study of Religions) extensive contact with the Mandaeans, a small ethno-religious group (approximately 50,000), who traditionally resided in southern Mesopotamia. They are an ancient, largely Aramaic-speaking community who, despite the misnomer of ‘John the Baptist Christians’, are Gnostic and are linked with the Essene environment of Judean Palestine at the time of Christ. Unlike Christians and Jews, the Mandaeans are not recognized by Islam as ‘ahl-al-kitab’ (peoples of the book) and hence have suffered terribly. Since 2003, some ninety per cent of the Mandaean population has either been killed or fled from Iraq. In Iran, discrimination is also rife as Mandaeans are ‘infidels’, with no constitutional and few legal rights. Expert witness reports by Dr Hunter have all resulted in successful applications by Mandaeans from Iraq and Iran for asylum in the United Kingdom.

Research by Dr John Campbell (Anthropology and Sociology) has focussed on Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees, and especially ethnic Eritreans. Since the mid-1970s, conflict in Ethiopia has created several million refugees while in 1998 Ethiopia de-nationalised and expelled approximately 75,000 Ethiopian-born ethnic Eritreans. Extensive fieldwork in Africa and Israel, together with analysis of international legal institutions like the UK Home Office and British law courts informed Dr Campbell’s investigation of the link between sovereignty and statelessness.  His findings have been the basis for a recent book and for his expert reports for asylum cases, which have been globally disseminated through a range of online repositories and curated resources such as the UN’s REFWorld, proving life-changing to stateless Ethiopians seeking refuge in the UK, US, Israel and beyond.

Many SOAS staff who work on issues relating to displaced peoples are members of the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies, which aims to foster and promote a supportive research and teaching environment for scholars concerned with issues of migration and diaspora.