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Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Tricia Redeker Hepner

Refugees and Asylum Seekers From Eritrea: Transnational Human Rights

Tricia Redeker Hepner’s current research focuses on refugees and asylum seekers from the Northeast African nation of Eritrea. As a cultural anthropologist interested in politics, law, and human rights, she is studying how Eritreans in Africa, North America, and Europe navigate paths to asylum and resettlement in the global North. She is interested in how national asylum policies and practices in places like the US and the European Union interact with the patterns of forced migration from the Horn of Africa, and the dynamics of the long-established Eritrean diaspora. Using multi-sited ethnographic methods and anthropological approaches to forced migration, transnationalism, and human rights, she is focusing on a comparison of asylum seekers who have been successful in obtaining refugee status in Germany and the United States, and whether their experiences of repression, flight, and refugee determination procedures are important in shaping an emergent human rights activism that is observable in the global Eritrean diaspora today.

Having studied the political and cultural dynamics of the Eritrean diaspora for more than a decade, her current research follows the new generation of Eritrean forced migrants who have fled problems of political repression, militarism, and human rights violations. As these new refugees leave Eritrea, they must navigate complex and often extremely harsh conditions in their quest for lasting safety and security. This includes detention and possible deportation from multiple countries, including the US and EU. Even when Eritreans reach a safe country, they enter a global diaspora which continues to grow and change in relationship to events in the Horn of Africa. This diaspora is also an important component of transnational governance for the regime that Eritreans are fleeing, meaning that refugees and asylum seekers are never completely safe from the repression they left behind. At the same time, a change in the principles governing diaspora activism is clearly marked. Today, Eritreans are engaged in human rights discourse and rights-based approaches to political change for the first time in their history. This growth of human rights discourse and organizing is occurring at the same time that countries which long supported refugees and asylum seekers, like Germany and the US, have come to see the latter as unwanted potential security risks. How do Eritreans come to see themselves as possessing inalienable rights amid so many forces that threaten these? How have new refugees and asylum seekers changed the dynamics of diaspora political organization today? What role do the frameworks of asylum and refugee policy and law in places like the EU and US play in shaping emerging human rights consciousness? Are there discernible differences between Eritreans who go to Germany and those who go to the US, and if so, why? How do asylum seekers and refugees exercise agency and choice amidst so many constraining factors?

In future research, she hopes to address the key differences between urban refugees and those who have lived in refugee camps administered by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This will build on research conducted in Ethiopia in summer 2008 by Lily Harmon-Gross, a former graduate student in cultural anthropology (M.A. University of Tennessee, 2009) under her guidance.

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