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Research sheds light on refugees’ activism, calls for changes to allow them to advocate for themselves

Research sheds light on refugees’ activism, calls for changes to allow them to advocate for themselves

Refugees in camps run by the United Nations are forced to perform “metaphorical gymnastics” to advocate for themselves while following rules that prevent them from openly doing so, suggesting changes to enhance their agency and improve camp conditions, according to a new study by Marnie Thomson, an assistant professor of anthropology at FLC. 

The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies, says the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) could help refugee-led organizations gain international funding and legitimacy by recognizing and promoting them.  

“Refugees spend years in refugee camps where they have to perform metaphorical gymnastics to be able to advocate for themselves while following the rules of the international organizations,” said Thomson, whose study calls for a fundamental shift in how international organizations and host governments support refugee-led initiatives.  

Her research, conducted over several years in Tanzanian refugee camps, emphasizes the active role refugees play in advocating for themselves and their communities. 

“More flexible approaches that allow refugees to take on leadership roles within their communities and listening to refugees’ needs and responding more effectively to their concerns would go a long way to improve the camps’ living conditions,” she added. “By promoting refugee-led initiatives, international organizations can enhance their efforts to address the root causes of displacement and contribute to long-term peace and reconciliation.” 

A cultural anthropologist, Thomson’s research focuses on the intersection of humanitarian politics and people’s everyday attempts to cope with violence. Thomson’s work focuses on the closure of UN refugee camps in Tanzania and the withdrawal of peacekeeping forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Her findings highlight refugees' resilience and active participation in community organizations and advocacy. Thomson argues against the prevalent notion that refugees are passive recipients of aid. Instead, her research showcases how refugees actively advocate for their rights and improve their communities.  

Thomson’s research underscores the importance of recognizing refugees as active agents of change, capable of leading their communities toward stability and self-sufficiency. 

Thomson is an assistant professor of anthropology at Fort Lewis College. She specializes in refugee studies, memory, and violence, with extensive field experience in East Africa.  

Study: Not idle: The gymnastics of refugee activism in—and out of—the aid apparatus 


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