For more than twenty years, Dr. Tricia Hepner has been documenting and analyzing the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa country of Eritrea and their struggles around nationalist identity, nation-state building, development, and human rights.
In her past research, broadly referred to as “Eritrea and Exile,” she critically documented and theorized the Eritrean state’s strategies of transnational governance based on fieldwork in Eritrea and in Eritrean diaspora communities in the United States, Germany, and Ethiopia. Her monograph, Soldiers, Martyrs, Traitors and Exiles: Political Conflict in Eritrea and the Diaspora (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) demonstrates her theoretical innovation with respect to the relationship between territorial nationalism and transnational refugee migration, deterritorialized states and civil societies, and how armed conflict, militarism, and political fragmentation shape the most intimate spaces of personhood and subjectivity. Many of these themes were also addressed in her co-edited book (With David O’Kane) Biopolitics, Militarism and Development (Berghahn Books, 2009).
As political repression has worsened in Eritrea, and as state-led development schemes that deploy forced labor of military conscripts has precipitated further refugee flows, Dr. Hepner has developed the project “Generation Asylum: Eritrean Refugees and Human Rights,” to address longitudinal developments in the Eritrean global diaspora amid a changing global human and refugee rights context. From fieldwork in Shimelba refugee camp and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; to Frankfurt, Kassel, and Munich, Germany; and Atlanta, Chicago, and Washington DC, she has followed new, and mostly young, asylum seekers and resettled refugees in their efforts to seek refuge from the transnational reach of the Eritrean regime, and to navigate the increasingly harsh refugee and asylum regimes and anti-migrant discourses in specific countries.
With funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Fieldwork and the US Fulbright Scholars program, she has been looking at how refugee cohorts, or political generations, mobilize human rights discourses and strategies to both resist repression and militarization in Eritrea, and to advocate for refugee and asylum rights in exile.
The applied dimensions of her long-term work have included serving as a country specialist with both Amnesty International and the Rights in Exile Project, founded by the late Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, and her ongoing participation as an expert witness in hundreds of asylum and refugee status determination cases to date. Her testimony has been cited numerous times in US Federal Circuit Court decisions that shape asylum policy and law. A 2014 report she authored, commissioned by the Tel Aviv University law clinic, was instrumental in a landmark ruling by the Israeli Administrative Court legislating that military deserters from Eritrea cannot be categorically barred from asylum, a major human rights victory in a very difficult refugee context.
Dr. Hepner has also turned the anthropological lens back on asylum and expert testimony to interrogate it from the perspective of engaged or activist anthropology, collaborating with colleagues on a book project (African Asylum at a Crossroads, Ohio U Press 2015) and conducting roundtable discussions and workshops at the American Anthropological Association meetings on the politics and ethics of asylum expert witnessing.