Human Rights Lab Looks at a Faculty-Led Project Studying The True Impacts of Refugees
NOVEMBER 18, 2019 by Hunter Johnson—A group of University of Minnesota faculty - from Political Science, Urban Planning, Economics, Sociology, Law, and Anthropology - sat in a circle in an intimate living-room setting. They listened intently as Applied Economics PhD candidate Colette Salemi described her research. She’s looking into the diverse economic impacts of refugee populations on host communities in Sub-Saharan Africa under the mentorship of Prof. Ragui Assaad. Salemi described her fieldwork experience in Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania, funded by the interdisciplinary collective. It wasn’t so much a presentation as a conversation. For three hours, the interdisciplinary group offered insights, questions, recommendations, and encouragement in a productive conversation around Salemi’s continuing project. Salemi led the discussion and took notes diligently.
This is the Human Rights Lab: a collaborative space that brings together faculty, students, and practitioners working on issues of human rights, fostering cross-disciplinary conversations that aim to improve each other’s work and design innovative and effective methodologies to advance human rights. As part of this “Minnesota Model,” Salemi’s project is one of a total of more than 20 projects supported by the Human Rights Lab since 2017.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about refugees and whether or not they constitute a ‘burden’ or a ‘blessing’ for host countries,” says Salemi. “I’m interested in better understanding the impact that displaced populations have in the locations where they settle or are forced to settle.”
The project entitled “Do Refugees Affect Host Community Outcomes? Studies of Refugee Camps in Sub-Saharan Africa” seeks to publish findings that will challenge assumptions around displaced populations. Using a variety of data sources combined with refugee camp geographic data, Salemi is analyzing the effect of refugee camp proximity on host community employment outcomes and also looking at the connection between deforestation and refugees.
“The political climate today has become so anti-migration and anti-refugee. One of the things that concerns me is the immediate assumption that when you open your doors to asylum seekers, the impacts will be negative. That unemployment will rise, for example. Which is not necessarily true. Or that health outcomes for your population will definitely fall, which is also not true,” says Salemi.
As part of her participation in the Human Rights Lab, this past summer Salemi was able to spend time conducting fieldwork to begin her research. In order to obtain a multi-country perspective, Salemi visited Nairobi, Kenya, Kigali, Rwanda, Kampala, Uganda, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. To improve her understanding of refugee camp characteristics, she conducted a qualitative study with key informant interviews of individuals who have experience managing camps in the regions of interest. According to Salemi, these interviews with practitioners are crucial.
“Interfacing with practitioners points out your blind spots because their perspective is much richer at this local level. There is clearly a strong benefit in tying our expertise together.” An important component of Salemi’s research for the Human Rights Lab is in fact a reflection on the nature of partnerships between academics and front-line humanitarian actors.
While meeting with a government official in the Ugandan Office of the Prime Minister, Salemi was given the opportunity to observe plans like this one to re-district refugee settlements such that households will be closer to services and markets.
Faculty lead Professor Assaad echoed the importance of academic collaboration with practitioners, especially as it relates to a mutual transfer of knowledge. “One way to do this is through long-term partnerships between academic institutions and implementing organizations where trust can be built and where academics can learn about the main challenges facing practitioners.”
As part of her work, Salemi also looked into an on-going challenge: the difficulty for researchers to find NGOs willing to engage in academic partnerships. Through interviews with nonprofits, Salemi found that many organizations see research as outside of their mandate, and academic partnerships only have value if they contribute directly to facilitating or strengthening the organization’s current programming. This suggested that best practices would require extensive preliminary searching to find a strong match between the organization’s objectives and the researchers. Even after finding a good match, the researcher needs to make sure there is plenty of time for the organization to plan on their collaboration within their fiscal year. Finally, legal accountability is essential, meaning the partners should draft a mutually agreeable MOU that codifies expectations.
At their first Human Rights Lab meeting, Salemi discussed their preliminary findings and addressed some of the challenges the research has posed thus far. She found the feedback to be constructive and enlightening.
“Having an interdisciplinary group of scholars to communicate and share these findings with is so valuable because this is such an interdisciplinary topic. It brings together geography, economics, legal studies, political science. And I’m not familiar with all of those literatures,” says Salemi. “There is something so refreshing about asking people ‘what’s your first read on this coming at it as a sociologist, or a legal studies person?’ It breaks you out of the loop within your discipline where you’re always hearing the same feedback.”
This is in fact the main goal of the Minnesota Human Rights Lab - to bring together diverse expertise and perspectives to advance innovative approaches to seemingly intractable human rights challenges. At a time where the world has more refugees than ever before, Salemi and Assaad’s research is no doubt topical and important. After the sponsored fieldwork and first session at the Human Rights Lab, they plan to integrate the insights from the field and the interdisciplinary faculty feedback into their work moving forward. Salemi spoke on the importance of continuing to strengthen their research. “I do think that there is a value in the production of quality information, putting it out into the world so that policymakers can take that someday and say, ‘actually, the reality is that refugees don’t necessarily have a negative impact on the economy…the reality is much more nuanced.’ That is my intention.”
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