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date: 21 October 2019


This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

Refugees are understood as forcefully displaced people who flee conflict in their country of origin in search of safety in another country. Their international legal status is defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention complemented by the 1967 Protocol. To be recognized as a refugee, an individual must fulfill three conditions: fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; having crossed an international border and being outside his or her country of nationality; and having lost the protection of the country of origin. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a mandate to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to some 20 million refugees, according to 2016 figures, and to promote the three solutions to their problem: voluntary repatriation in the country of origin; integration into the first country of asylum; resettlement in a third country. The more than 5 million Palestinian refugees fall under another set of texts and are supported by a separate agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

This body of international legal texts and practices has triggered the emergence of a whole set of studies in the social sciences. This new and distinctive field of research was further institutionalized when the Refugee Studies Centre was established in 1982 at the University of Oxford and when the Journal of Refugee Studies was launched a few years later.

Anthropologists have played a significant role in these developments. Many have worked closely with humanitarian organizations assisting refugees on the ground, while many others have critically addressed the conceptual background of the notion, with its supposed state-centric and sedentarist bias, according to which solutions are found when movements stop. Refugees represent a practical and theoretical challenge for anthropology. Indeed, the figure of the refugee has been analyzed as a categorical anomaly that disrupts the functionalist idea that societies form coherent sets anchored in discrete territories. Is the refugee a distinct social type with specific protection needs, or does it result from a bureaucratic label that comes with potentially alienating consequences? Some authors insist that refugee studies have imported uncritically the legal and humanitarian terminology of governments as well as international and nongovernmental organizations. Some others consider that theory and practice should inform each other. This debate may call into question any sharp distinction between applied and fundamental research. Refugees are a field of study for anthropologists, but they also represent an opportunity for jobs. If there is little doubt that anthropology might inform the way refugees are assisted, a fundamental question is also how engagement with humanitarian action and post-conflict reconstruction will affect anthropological practice as well as theory.

While 85 percent of the world’s forcefully displaced people are in developing countries, the so-called European refugee crisis of 2015 has attracted much attention. Among the many topics addressed in the first decades of the 21st century, let us mention the social meaning of the legal notions of asylum and refuge; refugees living in camps and so called self-settled refugees in urban centers; return; strategies developed by the people labeled as refugees and their capacity to respond to the situation they face; the long-term process of cultural adjustment; and memory of the country of origin and feeling of belonging.