Ethnographic Research on Refugee Policy, Statemaking, and the Care of Eritrean Refugee Youth in Ethiopia

  • Amanda Poole began an ethnographic research project on refugee policy and the care of refugee youth in Ethiopia in 2015. This project is a multiyear and multi-sited study conducted in collaboration with Jennifer Riggan, a political and educational anthropologist at Arcadia University. This research explores how projects and policies designed to care for and educate refugee youth are experienced by Eritrean refugees living in Ethiopia, how these policies shape the relationship between refugees and the host state, and ultimately, the impact of these policies on the migration decisions of Eritrean refugees. One important component of this research looks at refugee youth education.

    What role does education play in enabling refugees to envision a positive future in their host country, trust its government, and decide to settle there? In light of the mass influx of migrants to Europe, encouraging refugees to settle safely in their regions of origin has become a critical concern for international organizations, leading to a renewed focus on the pivotal role that refugee education plays in securing the stability and well-being of refugee populations.

    Education may provide a sense of normalcy, give hope to youth who may otherwise seek destructive outlets, promote healing, and convey skills for resolving conflict. However, studies of refugee education rarely explore the values and purposes of education for refugees themselves, or how migrants perceive social opportunities afforded to them by education. The question of how education configures the political agency of refugees and whether it influences refugees’ decisions about whether to stay in the host country or move on has seldom been asked.

    A popular restaurant in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia

    A popular restaurant in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia

    As the largest refugee hosting nation in Africa, and the fifth largest globally, Ethiopia’s role in designing model refugee policies and programs makes it an ideal site in which to study how providing education to refugee youth affects refugees’ decisions about whether to migrate onward or stay in the host country. Ethiopia opened the first camp for Eritrean refugees in 2004, and now hosts over 100,000 Eritrean refugees in six camps.

    Ethiopia not only cares for unaccompanied youth in refugee camps, but provides education in camps and local community schools, and has initiated a refugee college scholarship program. Educating these youth is seen as central to curbing the secondary migration of refugees out of Ethiopia, but there is little data about the efficacy of these programs in either the short or the long-term. A study in 2015, reported by the UNHCR, found that over 80,000 Eritrean refugees were missing from camps where they had been registered.

    This research is significant on a number of levels. We fill a gap in the growing anthropological literature on humanitarianism and refugees by focusing on refugee education—a topic that has been largely ignored. Given that education plays a substantial role in developing political agency, particularly in times of conflict, our research has the potential to greatly increase our understanding of refugees as social actors, not merely victims. 

    We also challenge dominant theories of the African state, typically viewed as weakened by globalization, by exploring the emergent politics at micro and macro levels that form as African states manage the flows of people across borders. On an applied level, we aim to inform aid organizations working in Ethiopia by shedding light on the well-being and struggles of refugee youth as they navigate programs established to care for them.

    Beyond Ethiopia, this research is relevant to policy-making on secondary migration, as it will help illuminate how and why refugees make migration decisions and how the programs designed to stem migration are working and are experienced by refugees.

    Department of Anthropology