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Has there ever been more of a boogeyman in society than immigration? New faces, languages and traditions arriving in communities that eye their new neighbours with… indifference? Curiosity? Giving way to fear, intolerance and territorial aggression.

Despite not knowing what awaits, precarious lives are being lived on the move.

Our relationship with those people, particularly refugees forced to flee their homes under threat of violence or environmental calamity, is at a watershed moment. As we mark World Refugee Day on 20 June, we spoke to Dr Marcia Vera-Espinoza from the Department of Politics, whose research has taken her along the refugee journey from emergency camps on volatile borders to developing nations learning to accommodate the mass movement of people in their own region. She is part of a group of interdisciplinary colleagues, from PhD students and fellow academics to NGOs who focus on the different aspects of migration as part of the Migration Research Group at The University of Sheffield.

Marcia, as we approach World Refugee Day, can you talk about the term ‘refugee’? How does it differ from those we would call ‘migrants’?

It has been argued that one of the main differences between both categories is about choice. A migrant is someone who ‘chooses’ to move (searching for a better live, for new job prospects, or in some cases for education, family reunion, or other reasons); and a refugee is someone who has been forced from their home fleeing armed conflict or persecution. However, we also need to address an increasing population that is forced to move but that is not necessarily recognised as refugees; for example those people displaced by climate change and environmental factors.

A crucial difference here is that the status of Refugee is defined and protected in international law. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as other legal texts, such as the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration, remain the cornerstone of modern refugee protection. The 1951 Refugee Convention, negotiated after World War II, defines a refugee as a person 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.”

But I always revisit what a Colombian refugee resettled in Brazil told me when I asked him when he thought we will stop being a refugee:

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“I never thought about that before… I say that I will stop being a refugee when I stop having all these worries, instability and insecurity and all that. Right now, I feel that I will always be a refugee, who knows for how many years? Maybe I will die being a refugee. Even if I have the right papers […] So when would I stop being a refugee? I do not know. Maybe when all the fear disappears from my life, or when I feel part of this place and people put trust in me and I trust them. Or it may be the case that I stop being a refugee, but I will always be a foreigner here.”

What has your own research focused on?

During the last couple of years I have developed three connected areas of research. One of these projects aims to understand how refugee integration is defined, how it works and how it is experienced in Latin America and other developing regions.

While most of the attention is on the refugees coming to Europe and North America, the reality is that 80% of the forced displaced population moves within their regions of origin in the Global South. With that in mind, I have explored the experiences of resettlement by Colombian and Palestinian refugees in Chile and Brazil.

Our current project explores how key decision-makers make sense of the causes and consequences of international migration; and how this understanding shapes policy and regional approaches to migration and asylum. As part of this project we have interviewed more than 400 decision-makers in 29 countries, across 4 world regions (South America, North America, Europe and Asia Pacific). We have been keen to understand the current changes in asylum and refugee policy, the politicisation of refugee issues and the lack of solidarity shown by states and individuals, as well as the efforts of different organisations and refugees themselves to resist these narratives and try to rebuild their lives.

Finally, I have been working with an interdisciplinary team across the University of Sheffield, led by the Grantham Centre, and in partnership with other universities, NGOs and the UNHCR, in a proposal that seeks to understand planning, sustainability and innovation for refugee responses in a context of uncertainty, focusing on the Syrian refugees in Jordan. In the context of this project we have visited the Za’atari refugee camp to learn, from the refugee communities and the organisations working in the camp, about the main challenges they face living in a protracted situation.

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We’re seeing a resurgence of populist, nationalist sentiment in Europe and the USA; what effect is this having on the prospects for refugees to seek settled lives?

Unfortunately, we see this nationalist and anti-migrant sentiment emerging in different parts of the world, not only in Europe and the USA. The failures of the current system and austerity policies implemented across the globe after the economic financial crisis of 2008, contributed to a political and media environment that blames and distrusts the ‘other’. Migrants and refugees have become an easy scapegoat for failures in domestic policies and a strong narrative for populist movements.

But there are deeper structural issues rooted in deep inequalities created by colonisation, exploitation and intervention that cannot be ignored when we explore the drivers of refugee movements. The anti-immigrant sentiment also destroys our shared recent history. The refugee environment that we know today emerged in despite the recent experience of the two world wars, when the entire world helped thousands of European refugees.

The mistrust and negative characterizations that we see today also were part of the rhetoric more than 50 years ago. However, societies adapt and re-build and we know of the huge contribution refugees make to host countries.

Recent news of the horrible separation of families with children caged in detention centres on the US border with Mexico, and Italy blocking the arrival of the Aquarius rescue ship should makes us question our shared values as a society. The protection spaces for refugees are shrinking, while xenophobia and restrictive asylum policies are on the rise.

At the local level refugees face huge difficulties integrating, which extend the uncertainty and insecurity that they experienced during their displacement. Some of them still dream to coming back to their country of origin. Many others want to re-build their lives in a new country that allows them to forget the horrors that made them flee in the first place. At the global level, we see dangerous trends that put in question the core of refugee protection. We cannot forget however, that among all this madness there still actions of resistance and solidarity as well as huge resilience and agency by the refugees themselves.

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Who do you think has the most ability to have an impact on the conditions of refugees, and what are the greatest obstacles?

This is a huge question. The lives of refugees are marked by a multi-level governance system that determines their mobility, legal status in the host country and their access to different rights and services. At the same time, the refugee community is incredibly diverse, with different stories of displacement and journeys, with different skills, different hopes and different needs. All of this needs to be consider when we think about integration.

We mostly understand integration as a two-way approach, with adaptation processes between host communities and newcomers, but it is even more complex than that. At the bottom line, however, refugees need both protection as well as the conditions for them to rebuild their lives.

If your work could initiate one change, what do you hope it would be?

Wow, thinking of the impact of our work is overwhelming when we consider the millions of people that are separated from their families, in the middle of a journey or battling in a new country that sometimes is not as hospitable as you could expect. Their legal status is often unclear and they live with a deep uncertainty about their present and the future.

When I think of the humanity and resilience that many refugees show us daily, the only thing I can hope is that my research can generate understandings of their experiences that can start a dialogue (at the individual, local, national, regional or international level) that allow us to recognise that we are all failing refugees across the world, and that we can all do more, independently of how small or big our space of action is.

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