UCCS researchers highlight changed perceptions of refugees over past 100 years

Two young Burmese refugees living in a remote camp in the mountains of Thailand smile at each other over breakfast. Photo courtesy of Isaiah Rustad, Unsplash.

Emily Skop, professor and chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, has been thinking about refugee issues since the seventh grade.

It’s a research passion that isn’t going away anytime soon.

On top of her courseload at UCCS, Skop has spent the last two years co-editing and contributing research to the 109th edition of “Geographical Review” – a special issue of the journal, released in Oct. 2019, that published brand-new scholarly works on refugee issues from an international cohort of researchers.

And Skop didn’t do it alone. She brought Master’s of Applied Geography alumna Arielle Cassiday ’18 and Joel Tonyan, systems and user experience librarian, along for the ride.

Emily Skop, professor and chair of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at UCCS.

Together, the three researchers conducted a bibliometric analysis of 100 years of peer-reviewed articles published in the journal. Their goal was to explore how the language surrounding refugee issues has changed over the past century.

By analyzing articles beginning at the time of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference following World War I, Skop, Cassiday and Tonyan found that the language used around refugee issues has shifted from words evoking physical landscapes such as “river” and “lake” to geopolitical terms such as “social,” “ethnic,” “community,” “cultural” and “political.”

In other words, Skop explained, as international communities began to feel an obligation to surveil and manage the movements of people across the globe after World War I, the language around refugees became politicized.

And to Skop, this points to one of the publication’s key research findings: that the language used to describe refugees and the labels used to categorize them can have life-changing effects.

Not all of them are good.

“One of the pieces in the issue uses [refugeeism in] Berlin as a case study,” Skop said. “It talks about how resettlement agencies and civil society actors label refugees as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The perceived ‘goodness’ of the refugee equates to how well they will be treated.”

Other research in the issue points to the ways that refugees are dehumanized and disempowered, even by the very countries that offer them asylum. Skop highlights that changes to international laws over the past century have fundamentally shaped the way that refugees are treated – for better and for worse.

“If I could point to one key takeaway [from the research],” Skop said, “I would want people to know that we should be thinking about linking the political and human rights issues at borders today to some of the legacies of foreign and domestic policies enacted since World War I. People should know that when decision-making happens, even at a global scale, it has a local impact.

The 109th issue of “Geographical Review,” co-edited by Skop, is a special edition on refugeeism.

“We keep trying to enact technological fixes for refugees,” she continued. “The technological fix in 1919 was to make international borders more real, and make these labels mean something. But they resulted in millions of unintended, often negative outcomes, particularly for displaced persons.

“If you don’t talk to the people impacted themselves, and bring them to the table when you make these policy decisions and technological fixes – if you ignore the voices of those impacted – you will keep running into negative outcomes. You won’t get the resolutions you’re seeking. So humanize these issues.”

Skop’s work on refugeeism isn’t going anywhere. She has begun writing an upper-division textbook on refugees, as well as working on funded research that will explore urban refugeeism.

But the 109th issue of “Geographical Review” remains meaningful.

“One of my goals as a more ‘senior’ scholar is to bring early-career scholars, like Joel and Arielle, into my work as much as possible,” she said.

“I have special-edited an edition of a journal before, but this one was especially inspiring. We were very fortunate to get an interesting group of international collaborators to write up pieces based on their own research. We brought in a lot of new faculty and early-career researchers. We were able to really highlight their work on refugees, and give it – and them – a new platform.”

The special issue of “Geographical Review” can be accessed online. It was co-edited by Skop and the University of West Virginia’s Karen Culcasi.

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