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Reforms for Refugees

As the United Nations reports a record number of people forced from home, a UT Rhodes Scholar is taking a new look at refugee policies in the United States and abroad.

November 27, 2017 | Updated: November 25, 2019

Hera Jay Brown (‘18) won a Rhodes Scholarship in 2020 after she studied in three university honors programs that include faculty-mentored research and international engagement.

Haslam Scholars, UT’s highest-level honors students, perform international study. Baker Scholars focus on public policy, and College Scholars emphasize interdisciplinary study.

“I’m trained in anthropology,” says Brown, who has studied in Europe and the Middle East, “but it’s really legal anthropology, where the human factor impacts laws.”

Brown’s interest in refugee systems began in UT’s Disasters, Displacement, and Human Rights (DDHR) program directed by Associate Professor of Anthropology Tricia Hepner.

DDHR explores aspects of conflict and disasters in the human experience across several subdisciplines of anthropology.

Since then, Brown studied with internationally recognized scholars, concentrating on the reasons that refugees become displaced and how they are governed in new countries.

In Berlin, immigration expert Karla McKanders—who was then a UT law professor—and Tricia Hepner guided Brown’s research comparing refugee integration in Germany to more stringent practices in other countries. She was also supported by Inga Treitler, who has since become an assistant professor of anthropology at UT.

Brown was able to explore the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre under the guidance of its founder, Director Emeritus Barbara Harrell-Bond.

By focusing on the foundation of international refugee systems and policies, Brown explains, “I learned that the realities of forced migrants are not linear and not homogenous. They have many facets and require a multi-faceted approach in policy.”

Brown researched her Baker Scholars thesis—one of two theses she authored to earn her degree—in Amman, Jordan by interviewing taxi drivers about their relationships and attitudes to Syrian refugees.

“I was curious as to how class differences may impact views of the refugee situation in Jordan,” she says.

In Yellow Taxis, the economical transportation used by most Jordanians, Brown says the driver usually gave her a two-sided answer.

“On one side, ‘Jordan has an obligation to support refugees from Syria. They are our brothers, our family. We have a shared history,’” Brown explains. “On the other side, ‘They take our jobs and drive down wages. They drain the state coffers and steal our opportunities.’”

In Careems, an Uber-like service in Jordan that caters to a typically more international clientele, Brown says the drivers gave more nuanced answers at first.

“They are able to dissect the intricate details of what’s going on. They are aware of the obligations of the UNHCR [The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and points of international policy. They make the argument that integrating refugees into the work force serves to strengthen the economy in time.”

In the end though, Brown says the Careem drivers echoed the opinions of the Yellow Taxi drivers. “‘The refugees take our jobs, sap our government services, and hurt the economy.’”

For her Baker Scholars thesis, Brown analyzed integration pathways for Syrians in Jordanian host communities and compared them to the way refugees are admitted into the US system. Her work includes policy recommendations on how to reshape the US refugee regime. It builds on a proposed theory by Oxford scholars for refugee admission and integration within the European Union.

Brown’s goal is to get her findings in front of policy makers at the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and at the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.

After Brown served as the LGBT policy intern for former vice president Joe Biden’s DC-based foundation, she spent five months in Egypt as a Presidential Fellow at the American University in Cairo.

Brown was selected as a Fulbright-Schuman Research Fellow in 2019 to complete a research project on citizenship by investment across Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Malta, and Lithuania.

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