When we talk about people crossing borders, policy makers, advocates, journalists, and academics often distinguish between “refugees” and “migrants.” Is this a useful legal fiction? Shorthand for an important distinction? Dr. Rebecca Hamlin argues that employing this binary limits protection for vulnerable people who are not protected by the rarified category of “refugee.”
In Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move (Stanford UP, 2021), Dr. Hamlin confronts the binary -- and the effect it has on our study, policy-making, and conversations about border crossers. Her book traces the emergence of the concept of refugee in the context of sovereignty and colonialism, pushing back on notions of essentialism in favor of a constructed binary. The logic of the migrant/refugee binary obscure power imbalances by focusing on internal explanations for why people are leaving countries in the Global South (corruption, war, poverty) rather than externalist forces such as globalization, postcolonialism, and neoliberalism. Using varied data and methods, she provides insight into the scholarly fault lines and the historical and current role of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) in perpetuating the binary. Her rich case studies reveal differences in how the binary is deployed in the Global North and South. Beautifully written and carefully argued, Dr. Hamlin challenges scholars and advocates for vulnerable border crossers to move beyond the binary, despite perceived risks.
In the podcast (recorded days after the fall of the Afghan government), Dr. Hamlin reflects on the continuing effects of the binary in contemporary events -- and how it limits creative scholarship, policy-making, journalism, and conversation about vulnerable border crossers. She mentions Claudio Saunt’s Norton book, Unworthy Republic and also the Hamlin-Abdelaaty Migrants or Refugees? It's the Wrong Question published in the Monkey Cage.
New Books in Political Science welcomes Dr. Lamis E. Abdelaaty as a part of this dynamic conversation and we look forward to new podcasts from Dr. Abdelaaty in the future.
Susan Liebell is professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
Susan Liebell is Dirk Warren '50 Professor of Political Science at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.