Critical Reflections on ‘Decolonising’ Humanitarianism and Refugee-Related Research – Roundtable Event

On the 4th of July 2022 the Southern Responses to Displacement project hosted a roundtable discussion on ‘Critical reflections on ‘Decolonising’ Humanitarianism and Refugee-Related Research.’ Speakers at the event drew on a range of historical, geographical and epistemological perspectives to collectively explore the future of humanitarian practice and research, including how to go beyond the fetishization of ‘decolonising’ humanitarianism and refugee-related research. Together, the speakers explored the opportunities and challenges of developing and actively supporting non-hegemonic ways of producing knowledge in relation to displacement, and the extent to which, and with what effects, the ‘decolonisation’ of humanitarianism and refugee-related research is meaningful or tokenistic in nature.

Thanks to support from the UCL-Institute of Advanced Studies who co-hosted the event. You can view a recording of the event, and read an edited transcript of the Roundtable below. The UCL-Institute of Advanced Studies has also supported the translation of the (edited) transcript into Spanish and Arabic which will be published soon.

You can listen to a podcast of the event below:

Critical Reflections Full Session Podcast

Edited transcript of the roundtable:

(You can access the transcript in Arabic here and in Spanish here)

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh: Welcome everybody to today’s event, my name is Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and I’m the Principal Investigator of the Southern Responses to Displacement research project which is co-hosting this event with the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies.

The aim of today’s Roundtable is to be part of a dynamic and ongoing conversation on the important questions of the future of refugee related research and of humanitarianism. This includes critical engagement with regards to the increasing discourse, if not practice, of de-colonizing humanitarianism, but, of course, noting that such critical forms of engagement long pre-date that “trendy” topic of decolonization.

Our contributors will be drawing on diverse and important experiences, including as academic researchers; as people who have themselves being researched; as responders, including teachers with refugee backgrounds and former humanitarian practitioners with large NGOs. (Speaker bios are available here). They have been invited to bring conversation starters, for the group, with a view for the event to involve listening to and responding to one another in the spirit of solidarity, including the potential for productive discomfort and productive forms of disagreement and debate. I might interject with a question – whether my own or from the audience – but otherwise I’ll be stepping back now and I’m very much looking forward to the conversation, as I’m sure that you are all too. So: thank you very much and welcome.

Jess Oddy: The question that I’ve been grappling with is: “To what extent, and to what effect, is the decolonization of humanitarianism and refugee related research meaningful or tokenistic?” and I’m happy to share some thoughts and, of course, my colleagues will come in with their own reflections around this. From my perspective, one of the key issues with regards to support for non-hegemonic ways of producing knowledge is that, for the vast majority of institutions or organizations, beyond a performative, kind of superficial level, this support isn’t there. In 2020, with the momentum around Black Lives Matter and Covid 19, both humanitarian and academic institutions released pledges, conducted unconscious bias trainings, re-shuffled their boards; we saw them begin to use terms like de-colonizing or issuing statements about complicity and upholding colonial values, but two years on I’m not convinced the majority of institutions that their day-to-day operations have changed. And when we look at humanitarian research, particularly when connected to INGOs, it’s often positioned to maintain systems and structures with a designated role in ensuring renewed funding. Furthermore, most research processes – be an NGO-led evaluation, an institutional grant, PhD doctoral studies program or donors pre-set long frame indicators – are often designed without the people most affected by humanitarian crises being in the room.

We also know that the people who are in the room, often come from privileged social economic demographics within their context, so people designing these agendas have limited first time hand experience. Although it’s been promising that there is this kind of growing body of critical humanitarian inquiry, most scholarship that seeks to decolonise aid is not being generated by people who are at the margins, but instead by those who are part of the academic or NGO apparatus.

Marcia Vera Espinoza: Thank you Jess – I work very closely with Gisela [Zapata] and other colleagues in Latin America [see more about the CAMINAR America network here], and I think we share some of the reflections that you put forward, not only in relation to the decolonization agenda but also in relation to the localization of Southern research, and I think we can see some parallels in the discourses there. For us, and I want to bring it to localization – I will relate that later to the topic of de-colonization -, we raised a couple of questions: first, who determines who is the local in this context; and another question that we think is very intertwined, as is the answer to it as well: who shapes these agendas, including the agenda of decolonization. And not only who shapes it, but also for what purpose and under which terms. While the call for localisation might have had some good intentions, some initiatives really fall short of really promoting Southern, localized knowledge or really engage with Southern actors that go beyond the traditional ones. I know that Elena [Fiddian-Qasmiyeh] has also raised these things, in particular within and across national and regional levels. So for us, the question is really: who is the local?

In many cases the local is not necessarily the one that knows the field the best, but actually those that are able to translate locality to Northern, mostly English-speaking actors. And that’s not necessarily the colonized academy bringing people to the table, without giving space to check the agenda, and it’s not really decolonizing refugee research or humanitarianism in general. English speaking actors really are the ones who are selected, who control the funding and allocate the resources.

The exercise has been a bit rhetorical, because we approach the local to select the right interlocutor within a particular space. That, for us, is not necessarily localized research, instead it becomes an instrumentalization of the local.

When decolonial or southern or local approaches are really designed, articulated and shaped by Northern actors, both in academia and international organizations, it already comes with a particular gaze that doesn’t necessarily unsettle the structure upon which it is produced.  So are we are happy with this type of decolonisation, particularly in the context of these networks in Latin America, that really reproduce the same practices, the same knowledge and the same ideas, under a particular banner that aims for validation.

The second problem we see is more practical: when some Southern actors are included to share their experiences, there are many issues to participate, to be present in these spaces. We see this within Latin America:  at one of the recent big conferences in the region that took place in Mexico, many colleagues from other countries in Latin American couldn’t access it because they needed visas, were stopped at the checkpoint, in particular on racialized grounds, and we see the same in the context of the UK.

We want to work with all our colleagues in the South, but we don’t have the infrastructure or the resources to allow them to join us in these spaces.

So, we feel that when it’s really a banner and it’s just the commodification and marketisation of the decolonial approach, it really falls short in what it is attempting to do.

Marwan Adinsa [Extract from pre-prepared audio-presentation, available in full below]:  I want to discuss some of the challenges I’ve encountered and, from the point of experience, where I think humanitarian agencies and academics should actually emphasize and make an effort to rectify to improve such issues.

I want to talk about racial ambiguity. In its literal meaning, it refers to a person whose racial background is not easily identifiable, and racially ambiguous people are individuals who are frequently mis-identified racially. Take, for example, people fleeing their country as a displaced person to their country of choice or a second country, and you realise the host community and the humanitarian organizations on the ground, sometimes when they don’t address you, it’s like they have never understood who you are actually, and the host community actually misunderstand who a refugee actually is.

They begin to see that to be called a refugee, is like you are from a different race, you are not like a fellow colleague, you are not like a full human being. They begin to make you look unidentifiable and you feel like you are so different. Humiliation, stigma become part of you, and then you feel like: why only me? And this has happened to individuals who are actually displaced not far from me, one of the people not far from me, who was for three years displaced from one country to another country as a refugee.

This also forces me to say that race is perceptively ambiguous and stigma is the same and normativity is impossible to discuss in these constraints or any other means, and therefore racially ambiguous individuals use many forms of resistance to navigate this encounter, to make identity claims that either affirm or endanger the racial formation order. 

Some of us, refugees or displaced persons, we always feel like: who are we then? If we are not given what we feel like we need, if we find that people don’t receive me, then I always feel like I’m really from a different planet.

You see it’s like, where I come from, they don’t know that these people always exist, this country exists, these communities exist and then you always look like you are not being identified as who you are, and that is where racial ambiguity actually comes in, as a concept, and as a challenge to people who are actually displaced.

As academicians, intellectuals, we need to really create awareness and educate people on how to eradicate this, when it comes to mis-identifying people or judging people without actually knowing who they are. Because some of other people begin to say: it is because of your mistake, that’s why I forced you to leave your place, but we always know conflict doesn’t end when it happens, and you may not know who causes conflict, but you will always realize that you are a displaced person.

Patricia Daley: I agree with some of the points that have been raised, but just because de-colonization is not going on within an institution it doesn’t mean that we, as academic researchers, can’t push for change. We should push for we should think are research priorities, we should think about the language we use, the categories we use to name people, to even name them in to being, as our previous speaker was talking about, in the sense that we create these categories of displaced people.  “Displaced people” is a humanitarian category created purely for the purpose of managing people, so what is our goal?  In the contemporary period, neo liberalism’s anti-welfare-ism, we’ve seen the rise of populist and anti-democratic forces that are really hostile to humane practices, to migration, to refugees, and I think what that’s done is to expose the false narratives that sustain the post-war state humanitarian regimes: that humanitarian agencies are there to do good.

That means we have to be even more critical within our spaces. I’m thinking about how Aimé Césaire uses the term “the boomerang effect” to talk about the impact of colonialism, the dehumanizing practices of colonialism on the colonized, but also he argues that it rebounds and impacts the colonizers themselves, and I think as researchers we have to be aware: Covid shows it’s possible for nations in the global north to sacrifice their people for economic gain or other reasons. We could see Mbembe’s concept of “necro-politics” becoming quite a reality in places where we didn’t assume it was a reality. So we need to take action as it’s not just refugees, us and them: refugees are very much part of us, and how we are likely to be treated. So even using an instrumental argument like that I think it’s important for us to actually address racism and racialization.

My colleague Amber Murrey and Nick Jackson have written a really interesting paper about “local-washing”, following on from what Marcia said about how international agencies now “local wash” development projects by bringing in local people, by using images of local people, when in fact the same process, the same actions are in play.

So I think we need to think about what are research priorities, what questions do we ask, where do we start our research from?  And that’s genuinely decolonizing: do we start from the refugees or do we start from the development agency?

I know we are reliant on funding and we might not get funding for such projects, but I think the more we start to do that, the better it will be, and the more likely we are to see shifts. 

Gisela Zapata: Can I complement what my colleagues have been saying on how humanitarian agencies have been reproducing these colonial discourses. As part of the [CAMINAR] research group that Marcia mentioned, we were doing research here during the pandemic, about the impacts of the pandemic on the well-being of migrant and refugee populations in Latin America, and what we saw was a new assemblage of factors, which includes an increase in the role of international organizations such as the UNHCR, IOM, all the UN bodies, as well as civil society organizations, local and international ones.  What we saw was the increased role of these organizations, particularly during the pandemic, not only contributing to, basically, increase the disengagement of the state with the people in their territories, but also kind of contributed to the production and reproduction of ideas, resources, funding structures that are basically to keep Western humanitarianism interests, political interests. That contributes to the subjectification of migrant and refugee populations as humanitarian subjects, as we argue in our recent paper [here] only entitled to emergency assistance in a framework where their presence is basically rendered temporary. Some refugee-led organizations are leading the way in resistance to these dynamics and these movements in the region.

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh:  Just to add to this very dynamic conversation, as someone who in the past has been researched and now is currently a researcher, I think that this positionality itself, perhaps

complicates things even further. Patricia mentioned naming and how this name should be written into being. I do feel, as somebody who was born and raised in a camp in Lebanon, how humanitarianism at times returns to the name of the donor. I still remember, I think that Elena also still remembers this conversation with one of the researchers in Baddawi camp who was recounting an interview that he conducted with some Syrian refugees who not long ago received aid from a charity or an organization from the Arab Gulf, and how this recipient was talking about the logo of the organization being inscribed on his blanket and that, as he was tossing and turning trying to fall asleep, he would see the logo from different perspectives and different angles, so much so that this logo has continued to exist in fact in his sleep. I think that this is a quite relevant for us to think about how naming happens at the expense of the names of those individuals who tend to receive aid and how we’re assumed to be there to be researched and to be asked the questions and of course we should be grateful that we are being asked. Marwan said that they don’t know who we are. In fact, I have to add to this and say times we don’t know who we are ourselves. I hear it from my mother, that you have to accept this position, that, as a refugee in a camp you’re there to be researched, to be interviewed, you’re there to be recorded.

In response to that, I would like to recite a poem which comprises two sections, on our encounters with mainly anthropologists in schools. I have friends who are anthropologists who tend to come to the camp, but they don’t understand that this term, research, should not encompass, in fact, the very existence of people. The title of this piece is ‘Anthropologists’ [from the collection, Writing the Camp’

I know some of them.

Some of them are friends but the majority are enemies

Upon the doorstep you observe what they observe with a lot of care.

You look at them the way they look at you, curiously and obliquely.

You suddenly develop a fear of imitating them whilst they imitate you.

You worry about relapsing into one of your minds while sharing mundane details with them.

Sometimes I dream of devouring all of them, and just once, with no witnesses or written testimonies.

All of us wanted to greet her.

Even my illiterate mother who never spoke a word of English said: Welcome!

After spending hours with us, in the same room, she left with a jar of homemade pickles and the three full cassettes with our voices.

I think that, again, it’s about capturing the voice, but at the same time, overlooking the silence too, perhaps pain and discomfort, that those who are being researched tend to hide.

Marcia Vera Espinoza: Can I just jump in here, to thank Yousif for shedding light into academia, and researchers as a spiral of the humanitarian machine: we are also part of migration industries in particular ways.

What I found very interesting is not only how we negotiate being part of the industry that we also criticize, but also how our research participants negotiate with us as well. Picking up as well on Gisela’s point in terms of refugee and migrant led organizations, particularly in the context of Latin America, we have seen very strongly how they have been claiming not being talked about them without them.

They make that point very strongly all the time and this is not recent, of course. We have seen a tradition of migrant and refugee led organizations: in the context of Latin America, Peruvian refugees displaced in the 90s, the Colombians displaced in the 2000s, now the Venezuelan displaced… They are different, have different political positions and come from different places as well, which facilitate or create tensions with certain structures of power that they want to negotiate, so they are not a monolithic group either, they’re very heterogenous.

But if you allow me, the poem that you read [Yousif], reminded me of a particular group of refugees in Latin American, a group of Palestinian resettled refugees that went to Brazil and Chile in 2007-2008 [read Marcia’s blog here].  And there’s one particular group of Palestinian refugees that arrived in Brazil and they protested outside the offices of the UNHCR for over nine months, claiming that they didn’t want to be there, because resettlement is a voluntarily option for refugees, and it is a discretionary measure imposed by the state, but they actually said that the information was unclear and they really wanted to claim the role of being a refugee. 

A very beautiful chapter by our colleague Carolina Moulin talked about ‘the grateful subject’ and how they negotiated coming to Brazil, with this campaign of UNHCR being so generous in Latin America, and they were like: We are not ungrateful with Brazil, we are just claiming our right to be citizens, you know citizens of the world that have been displaced historically.

I found that very interesting, in terms of when we talk about decolonising research or localised research and the role that the refugee population is claiming there: I wanted to highlight not only how they negotiate with the humanitarian industry, in the face of international organizations, but also how they negotiate with us as well, as academics and researchers, that we are part of the same industry. 

Jess Oddy: I’m holding my phone here, because Marwan is actually joining us via Whatsapp. To build on Marcia’s points about the research industrial complex, the INGO industrial complex and this idea that, actually, we are all involved and complicit in multiple industries that have multiple interests in this system. It made me think of this really brilliant paper by Gauthier Marchais, Paulin Bazuzi and Aimable Amani Lameke, called ‘The data is gold and we are the gold diggers: whiteness, race and contemporary academic research and the DRC’. They talk about, from the perspective of the demand for quantitative research in eastern DRC, how this has created a kind of industrial complex, but there are very implicit hierarchies in people’s different roles and the different value that is placed on somebody who’s a data collection, as opposed to somebody who’s maybe a research associate or the principal investigator.

One of the points they make is that, whether or not it’s explicit, the research industrial complex or the humanitarian industrial complex in this case really does rely on a racial regime of hierarchy that profits from inequity and inequality and it kind of links to Patricia’s point where she talks about our roles in this research industry and what we can do to minimize these ways of working that ultimately disenfranchised so many people and thinking more about this kind of constructive complicity.  If we are involved in these apparatuses, if we all work in this humanitarian aid system or institutions, what are we doing to mitigate that in our practice, how are we using our privileges, our positionalities, to leverage and make those small pushes for change without co-opting this label or idea of decolonizing which is rooted in struggle and redistribution of wealth.

Marwan Adinsa [extract from pre-prepared audio-presentation, available below]: Patterns of inequality are one of the major challenges in this regard. This pattern of inequality can be subdivided into two where we look at inequality in the form of gender and also in the form of classes.

And we’re saying these broad trends in patterns of inequalities, especially when I taught classes: the wages and expenditure and this also goes to the regards to the staff, as a teacher in the refugee context I’ve taught in many countries where I’ve been to as a refugee. 

And you’ll find that all of you might be teachers, and some of us may all have big positions, administrative positions. And then, maybe being overloaded with work, lesson plans, schemes of work and then at the end of the day when salaries come you, you are told that the refugee salary scale is also different from the host community teachers and in some point, even the refugee teachers are the ones carrying a heavy load because we are trying to help our fellow refugee but, again, you find you are not paid equally just because they call us a refugee. And that always created a gap in me and I always feel like I’m traumatized, I’m so stigmatized.

Why, if we deliver the concepts in class, if we always do lesson planning, if we always do the schemes of work, we approach the same methodology of learning and teaching, and then the benefits or compensations are not given equally as all of you are teachers, but it depends on who you are called. I see that being part of inequality when it comes to expenditure. We as intellectuals and humanitarian agencies we really need to see how we can address such concepts. Being called a refugee doesn’t mean that you are not available to deliver: some of us can deliver better. But again, when it comes to compensating the hard work, it is always given along the line of the classes of people being a refugee and being the host community: we really want to see how we can address it and put it in the proper context.

Patricia Daley: Can I say something about research methods, just following on from what Jess said because I also wrote a paper that ended up being a chapter in the Handbook of Gender and Development and the chapter is entitled ‘Researching sexual violence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: methodologies, ethics and the production of knowledge in an African warscape.’  I wrote that chapter exactly because of what Jess was saying, what I was witnessing in the field where the same techniques, the same care that goes into research into sexual violence in the West is not replicated in the Eastern Congo.

I mentioned the issue about numbers, but one of the techniques I heavily criticized, which was carried out by researchers in prominent institutions in the West was going into the middle of a village, throwing a coin, going to the house the direction in which the coin dropped and speaking to a woman about her experiences. Now, you can imagine how terrible that must be because the whole village, all the children would come around to listen. There were lots of issues around how you reach traumatized people in processes like that.  Also, I was looking at studies in Chicago and other places where they would give poor women money for food and so on, and for travelling expenses and other things. But when they interview them in Africa, they said no, it would just increase expectations of more money.

And I feel terrible, so I wrote this piece about how we need to think about the sort of research ethics that we apply, the methods and techniques we deploy, because they dehumanize the people we speak to. They also increase the stigmatization if interviews are done, often in the open or in public places, and also how we represent that data, and I was really concerned about the images of these women, photographs and so on, that were reproduced in reports, available online and now that everyone can access everything online and have mobile phones, we have these women that probably want to move on and live their lives differently, now find themselves being constantly being exposed through these humanitarian reports because it justified funding that the humanitarian agencies will receive. So I really do think there are actually very practical things that we can do as researchers to address some of these inequalities.

Marcia Vera Espinoza: Talking about methodologies, and Marwan’s reflections are thought-provoking in terms of research practices and ethics, you made me think about the first question, about “the challenges and opportunities of developing and supporting non-hegemonic ways of producing knowledge in relation to displacement.”

I would like to briefly share a reflection of our current research project that really aligns with non-hegemonic ways of producing knowledge, but is actually pretty much inserted into hegemonic ways of trying to conduct research. As my colleague Gisela mentioned, at the beginning of the pandemic we came, very much without funding, just a group of colleagues getting together try to understand the impacts of the pandemic on refugee and migrant populations in Latin America, and we started putting together a research agenda. We came out with a research protocol at that time, and, as we had ethical questions about conducting research with refugee and migrant populations, because of the situation they were living in the region, we decided to focus on other organizations instead.

The process for me, as a researcher, was very illuminating in terms of working: we were 12 people in a Zoom room, having discussions, all from different disciplines and it was enriching in terms of working together and I really can, I think, say, for me, the process then became a group or sorority, and learning and also letting go in many cases, because we have very passionate discussions, all of us.

I’ve been reflecting lately about the possibilities of that type of research. We eventually got some funding, but we started with no funding whatsoever and we managed to still produce research, but to a particular personal cost. It was facilitated because we were working from home and we moved all our methodologies online and we were able to do this.

And now that we have come back to presentiality, being face to face, and having the commute and all the responsibilities that we have in the spaces where we work, it has becoming increasingly difficult for us to come together. We’re still working together on the outputs from what we did in the past 3 years, but moving forward with an agenda we have discussed has become difficult, not having the funding to do so, and even finding the time.

And I wonder how these spaces can survive when we are all in Latin American and here in the UK as well guided by the same metrics of academia and scholarship, in terms of where we publish, which funding we have etc; how we basically validate our knowledge production in the eyes of neo-liberal academia.

So I wonder if any of you have an experience to share in that regard? Or maybe something that you have done or anything that you can recommend? I think for us it has been very important in terms of putting this agenda together and working together, learning from each other, but: how to continue? We were very privileged to be able to do that because, despite [being at different stages of] our career development, all of us had secure employment at that time, and that made it possible for us to be able to engage in a research process that was completely unpaid.

Gisela Zapata: Just adding one extra point to what Marcia has been saying: going beyond the issue of funding, the other difficulty is gaining visibility for the knowledge we do produce. It’s very difficult for us to continue to establish a South-North academic dialogue or with the research or the humanitarian industrial complex, given the outlets for putting out this knowledge is very much English and Northern dominated.

One thing we discussed was how we can socialize all this effort, all the research that we conducted during these two years if we can’t even pay for this to be open access? We don’t even have money to employ research assistants, let alone pay £1,000 or £2,000 to have our knowledge put out there for a wider readership. We are at a loss here, this is the discussion that we are engaging in at the moment: the prohibitively expensive nature of those open access journals complicates matters even further.

Marcia Vera Espinoza: One more thing about journals is that – and we have also been discussing this with colleagues in other contexts – sometimes, when the research is produced and thought about from the local context, there’s a request to justify why it is relevant to talk about Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico. I do wonder sometimes when I receive those comments is: do they ask everybody publishing in in the UK or European context to justify why is that relevant? Why would the context of Chile be less important than what is happening in Europe at the moment?

Jess Oddy: I’ll just jump in on some of these points, when we are thinking about how this work has been disseminated, I think it’s also another reminder to question who is this research for and who is benefiting from it. I’ll go back to Marwan’s point, when he talks about the incentive system within the refugee camps, which has differentiated paid depending on your nationality, on your status and again  is very different from an international aid worker’s salary. Within the field that we work in, which is education in emergencies, there are countless studies on teachers’ motivation in refugee education and teachers’ well-being. There are hundreds of them, yet there are very few that really talk about this issue of the stark pay inequalities between teachers or the stark pay differences between any consultant, who could go and write a research paper or study on refugees well-being and perhaps get paid more in a day or week than many of the teachers get paid in a year. So when we’re thinking about the research that we’re doing: who is it for, who’s benefiting from it and how is this getting disseminated? For me, I can see, maybe, more useful research in our field would be looking at how people unionize in camps, how do teachers strike and push organizations to increase the incentive payments within places of encampment? That would be a critical insight for people who are also in other camps and need to use that knowledge to push for change.

But I think it comes back to this idea about what is currently being produced and maybe to move us towards thinking forward, if we are thinking about having these very different ways of knowing or of countering hegemonic narratives, we really need to think about what we’re producing and why we’re producing it, and who ultimately is our audience. Are we there to support that person living in the camp or – I don’t want to be dismissive about it – but are they there just to produce books and journals that actually many people can’t access or engage with.

Patricia Daley: I do understand what you mean, but I also think we should recognize that researchers, even those in the global North are differentiated, so some will have more power than others and I’m often not seen as very powerful in the global South because I’m a Black researcher.

Some people don’t expect me to have any access to resources; there are all sorts of assumptions made by people in the global South about my ability to leverage resources or power because I’m a Black researcher. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I can’t act in a de-colonial way because it also gives me access to spaces and hear conversations that might not be open to white researchers and in various situations.

Nevertheless, I do think we have privileges and because of those privileges, whether we are white or Black, we can carry out research or we can act in ways that could be much more supportive of the refugee communities. For example, if you are doing research and studies into teacher strikes, one of the things I found was that refugee teachers weren’t receiving their pensions: they were constantly on temporary contracts and only teachers who were on employment contracts could get pensions. So, I started to have those conversations with the Ministry of Home Affairs that was responsible for refugees, with international agencies as well, although I think they just fobbed me off, probably. But at least we can start those conversations. And this is not just a matter for those who are in the settlements, who themselves are vulnerable: they can protest but there’s a limit because there’s always a danger that they could be forcibly repatriated across the border or expelled.

The geographer Sarah Koopman has written about this in relation to Latin America, where she talks about alter-geopolitics and especially (she’s a white North American) how our bodies and the power and the positionality we have can actually be used effectively in supporting non-hegemonic ways if we think creatively about how we do so.

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh: Picking up on so Patricia’s notion of “acting in a decolonial manner,” alongside some of the reflections on the instrumentalization of decolonialism as a discourse and the incomplete implementation of that within institutional frameworks, Jennifer [Eggert] has shared a question in the chat bar which is, ‘What do people think about the term decolonization in the context of knowledge production and humanitarian action?’ Jennifer writes that the use of the term is, obviously contested, it was set in quotation marks in the title of the event.  So, what do we think about the term, and to what extent do we think that it’s useful for our work?

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh: I think perhaps what we need to acknowledge is that the term itself is not consumed as a reaction, or as a reactive proposition to something that is there, because we have to ensure that, within these colonial frameworks, knowledge is produced, not just knowledge in response but knowledge afresh. This would also take me back to the refugee camp when we think about the production of knowledge: I think that we have to assume that it is a coproduction of knowledge and co-sharing as well, where the refugee is not just the interviewee. The refugee can be also the analyst, the critical thinker, the theorist… not just the quotable, the person who features at times in transience [see here and here].

Patricia Daley: There are obviously quite a lot of people who are keen to criticize the use of the term, and I think we should do, especially where it’s performative, but at the same time, I think the term has traction. There are people who are very hostile towards it and those tend to be establishment people who want to maintain the status quo, and because of their hostility, I think I need to continue using it, and to actually operationalize it in a way that actually brings about change. I’m not going to use the term “emancipatory” in quotes: I mean that can bring about real emancipatory change. So that’s how I would use it and that involves doing research that doesn’t autonomize, you know, think about how we see the subject, the Western subject, instead of just focusing on doing work that either commodifies or autonomises people and objectifies them. I use decolonization actually with humanization because I think the two are very complimentary because the colonial methods, the colonial logics, have been about dehumanizing the research, dehumanizing us, dehumanizing the colonized. And if we are going to move away from those logics it’s a process of humanizing and that therefore means solidarity, it means mutuality, it means thinking about work that will emphasize our common humanity.

Gisela Zapata: Going on from what Patricia said, I find it very useful and I think one of our tasks or our responsibilities, has to do with imbuing that in our research process. This is the only way or, from where I stand, the only instrument or the only tool that I have on hand to give these abilities to these peoples, the people that we care about, that we centre our research on. Nonetheless, I myself here feel like I’m swimming against the current, basically because decolonizing is not ‘pop’ around here, because the matrix employed to keep my job are or have been entirely colonized by the matrix of northern academia, so I am being called to produce and to publish in those academic journals that, as I mentioned before, not only question why we matter, to begin with, like Marcia said, but also we have a very hard time socializing our research in these outlets.

Marcia Vera Espinoza: Thank you, Gisela, I have mixed feelings about the terms decolonize and decolonization, but I do find that it’s relevant, as long as we use a reflexive decolonisation approach to recognize our own inability, our own complicity, either in colonial dominion over space or our being complicit as well, and how we may reproduce hegemonic ways of humanitarian research and practice. So I think it is relevant in that regard, to understand what decolonization entails and what it can be, beyond being co-opted or marketized in a particular way just to create new points for universities.

I think we could have a decolonial agenda in practice, and I think maybe that relates a little bit with a question in the chat in terms of: how realistic is the assumption of decolonization? I think that was hard in the context of Latin America so, as Gisela said, it’s not an agenda that is particularly driven, neither by the organizations or government, maybe by academia.

But actually, I think it is really pushed by the refugees and migrant organizations themselves, understanding of course that not every refugee or migrant is part of an organization and there are many with completely different interests. But they have been pushing for a space at the table, not only to be invited to those spaces in a particular way but actually to be active. Even in our spaces, recognizing the need for payment for researchers if they’re going to be researchers, but also being part of the discussions about migration governance and understanding that, still, their mobility and lives are determined by governance structures, within and outside the territory. So I think that the reality is a difficult one, but I do think, from the context that we study, in particular, we can see how they have become very articulate, they have branched out beyond the territory to actually use, for example, other digital arenas in much smarter ways, to not only create local links, but also transnational links that have allowed them to claim different spaces.

Jess Oddy: I think that it’s really useful as a prompt to start conversations and to start challenging this idea that we’re living in a post-colonial world. But for me I think the way it’s currently being used is quite de-politicized and, as we talked about today and we touched on this in different points of the conversation, the systems that we are working within are embedded within certain practices in certain industrial complexes which are working by design.

And I think it’s far more useful or productive for me when I’m thinking about these terms to think of the next logical step, which is moving more towards abolitionist thinking and thinking about how can we start to look at really dismantling these systems and structures that exclude so many people and start thinking much more radically about what the possibilities are out there and really stretch the  humanitarian imagination that way.  Unfortunately, Marwan has been unable to join us for the end of the closing session, but I will share these reflections with him, and of course the recording as well.

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh: Thank you so much and I’m sure all the audience members will join me in thanking our speakers for sharing their critical perspectives with us today. In addition to having the recording which we will be able to be to share with Marwan, we will be posting Marwan’s full podcast on the Southern Responses to Displacement website [please see below].

With thanks to the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies, an edited version of the transcript will be translated into Spanish and Arabic for publication on the Southern Responses to Displacement website ( to take a small step towards ensuring that such materials are more openly accessible to a wider range of audiences. There will be many other opportunities, I’m sure, to continue, both as part of this project and of many others, such important reflections and perspectives moving forwards.  Thank you all for an excellent roundtable and looking forward to continuing these conversations: Thank you.


You can listen to Marwan Adinsa’s contribution, who was unable to join the event live due to connectivity issues, in full below:

Marwan Adinsa


During the event speakers referenced multiple texts both in their contributions and in the chat box. You can access these texts below:

Daley, P. (2015) “Researching sexual violence in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: methodologies, ethics and the production of knowledge in an African warscape” in Coles, A. Grey, L. and Momsen, J. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Development, Routledge.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Recentering the South in Studies of Migration,’ Introduction to the Special Issue, Migration and Society, 3(1): 1-18.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) ‘Looking Forward: Disasters at 40,’ Disasters, 43(S1): S36-S60 (Open Access here).

Koopman, S. (2011) ‘Alter-geopolitics: Other securities are happening’, Geoforum, 42(3): 274-284,

Marchais, G. et al., (2020) ‘The data is gold, and we are the gold-diggers’: whiteness, race and contemporary academic research in eastern DRC’ in Critical African Studies, 12:3, 372-394, DOI: 10.1080/21681392.2020.1724806

Mbembe, A. (2019) Necropolitics, Duke University Press.

Moulin, C. (2012) “Ungrateful subjects? Refugee protests and the logic of gratitude,” in Nyers, P, et al. (eds.) Citizenship, migrant activism and the politics of movement. Routledge. pp. 66–84

Murrey, A. and Jackson, N. (2019) ‘A Decolonial Critique of the Racialized “Localwashing” of Extraction in Central Africa’, Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110:3, 917-940.

Qasmiyeh, Y.M. (2021) ‘Writing the Camp’, Broken Sleep Books.

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2020) ‘Introduction: Engendering Plural Tales,’ Migration and Society, 3: 254-255.

Qasmiyeh, Y.M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) ‘The Third Voice and Third Eye in our Photo-Poetic Reflections,’ Refugee Hosts.

Vera Espinoza, M. et al. (2021) ‘Towards a typology of social protection for migrants and refugees in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Comparative Migration Studies, 9 (52).

Vera Espinoza, M. (2019) ‘Expectations and the politics of resettlement. Colombian and Palestinian refugees in Chile and Brazil.Available from Refugee Hosts

Warnock, R., Taylor, F. M. & Horton, A. 2022. ‘Should we pay research participants? Feminist political economy for ethical practices in precarious times.’ Area. 54 (2): 195-202.

Watch Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Juliano Fiori and Patricia Daley discuss ‘Decolonisation in Forced Migration and Humanitarian Response’ here.


Prof. Patricia Daley – Prof. Daley is Professor of the Human Geography of Africa and Vice-Principal and The Helen Morag Fellow in Geography at Jesus College, Oxford. Prof. Daley’s main research interests are the political economy of population migration and settlement (forced migration, identity politics and citizenship);  the intersection of space, gender, militarism, sexual violence and peace (feminist geo-politics); racial hierarchies and violence (geographies of racialization and coloniality using Critical Race Theory and decolonizing methodologies); the relationship between conservation, resource extraction, and rural livelihoods (political ecology). She has authored, edited and contributed to numerous publications, including her 2018 co-edited book, The Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations.

Yousif M. Qasmiyeh – Yousif is a doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford whose research examines the archive, time and containment in refugee literature in Arabic and English. He is a poet and translator who was born and educated in Baddawi refugee camp (Lebanon). He was Writer-in-Residence for the AHRC-ESRC funded Refugee Hosts research project; is the ‘Creative Encounters’ editor for the Migration and Society journal; and Joint Lead of the Imagining Futures Baddawi Camp Lab funded by the AHRC-GCRF. His poetry collection, Writing the Camp (Broken Sleep Books 2021) was The Poetry Book Society’s Recommendation for Spring 2021, was selected as one of the “best poetry books of 2021” by the Daily Telegraph, was Highly Commended by the 2022 Forward Prizes, and was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s 2022 Ondaatje Prize.

Dr Marcia Vera-Espinoza is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Health and Development (IGHD) at Queen Margaret University, in Edinburgh. Marcia’s work focuses on the study of inclusion of migrant and refugee populations and migration governance in Latin America. At the IGHD, Marcia leads the Psychosocial Wellbeing, Integration and Protection Cluster. Marcia is a co-founding member of the research group Comparative Analysis in International Migration and Displacement in the Americas (CAMINAR). She is also PI of the EU-AMIF project ‘New Scots Integration: A Pathway to Social and Economic Inclusion’. She has recently published in Comparative Migration Studies, Frontiers in Human Dynamics, Migration and Society, Geopolitics, Global Policy, and Development Policy Review, among others. Her co-edited books include ‘The Dynamics of Regional Migration Governance’ (Edward Elgar, 2019) and ‘Latin America and Refugee Protection: regimes, logics and challenges’ (Berghahn Books, 2021).  

Jessica Oddy is the Director of Equity-Based EiE Consulting, supporting organisations, institutions and academia to design and deliver equity-centred programmes, policies and research rooted in social-justice. A former secondary school teacher, she has worked for various organisations, including NORCAP, Save the Children, Lutheran World Federation and War Child UK. She is a PhD candidate at the University of East London’s Centre for Migration, Refugee and Belonging, where she teaches the OLIve higher education access course for refugees and asylum seekers. Her research focuses on diverse young people’s educational experiences in emergencies and how colonial legacies influence the types of programmes available for youth in displacement situations.

Marwan Adinsa has a decade of experience teaching primary and secondary education in urban areas and refugee camps in Kenya and South Sudan. He is passionate about teachers in humanitarian contexts and themes around identity and belonging in forced migration. As well as teaching and lecturing in Juba, Marwan is a post-graduate student at the University of Juba, where he is pursuing an MA in Research and Public Policy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration and Management and a diploma in Leadership and Management. Originally from the Nuba mountains, Marwan speaks English, Kiswahili, Arabic and Achurun.

Gisela P. Zapata is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Demography and researcher at the Centre for Regional Development and Planning (CEDEPLAR) of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), Brazil. She holds a Masters’ Degree in Economics from North Carolina State University (USA) and a PhD in Human Geography from Newcastle University (UK). She is a fellow of the Brazilian Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and member of the Research Group Comparative Analysis on International Migration and Displacement in the Americas [CAMINAR]. Her research focuses on international migration and displacement, migration policies, remittances, and the migration-development nexus in Latin America. 


The roundtable was convened and chaired by:

Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh – Prof Fiddian-Qasmiyeh is Professor in Migration and Refugee Studies at University College London; Principal Investigator of the ERC-funded Southern Responses to Displacement Project; and Joint-Lead of the Baddawi Camp Lab of the AHRC funded Network Plus project, Imagining Futures through [Un]Archived Pasts. She is also Co-Editor of the Migration and Society journal and was PI of the AHRC-ESRC project ‘Local Community Experiences of and Responses to Displacement from Syria‘ (aka Refugee Hosts). Her recent publications include The Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations; Refuge in a Moving World: Tracing refugee and migrant journeys across disciplines; and ‘Recentering the South in Studies of Migration.’

This event is supported by the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS). More information about the IAS can be found at

Featured image: A view of Tripoli, N. Lebanon (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: