Cultural Anthropology

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1.    Reflect on local responsibilities to immigrants and refugees.

2.    Evaluate the effects of migration on personal and communal identities.

3.    Consider the violence that can be part of a refugee or migrant’s experience.

Migration: A migrant is a person who has moved from one place to another, most likely for the purpose of working or living there, temporarily or permanently. Migrant and immigrant are overlapping terms that are hard to distinguish. Sometimes, people use the term “migrant” to refer to persons who regularly move back and forth between places, even crossing borders, while “immigrant” might be thought of as a person who has permanently moved residence.

For example, some migrant workers reside in Mexico where they are citizens but seasonally work in the California agriculture industry every year, living in temporary housing near fields or orchards. There is various type of migration and diverse kinds of migrants and immigrants.

Forced migration occurs when a group of people is forcibly, often violently, moved. An example of this is the Trail of Tears, in which Native people and communities were turned into internally displaced persons, refugees inside the United States not because they were asylum seekers from elsewhere but because their homeland was claimed by the government.

Unless you are a descendant of Natives who lived on this land, and even for some persons of Native ancestry, your story is one of migration. When we say that one out of five people in the Inland Empire today is an immigrant, we refer to migration that occurred during the person’s lifetime, and a portion of those immigrants are refugees.Serial migrants are those people who move to three different countries during their lifetime.

Some serial migrants are global elites who have the privilege and wealth to travel between luxurious oases around the world, for example summering in France and living most of the year between homes in Tokyo and New York. Other serial migrants may find themselves in a continuous search for security and opportunity, and some have been refugees.

California’s migrant workers may follow harvest seasons from one farm to another, picking strawberries for one farm and then lemons for another before returning to Mexico to see their families, and eventually obtaining documentation to work in Canada’s agricultural industry. Migrants such as these occupy precarious positions compared to the jet-setting elite.

They often work for lower wages than a worker born in the US and work with injuries without healthcare. Women migrant workers have reported rampant harassment and sexual abuse in fields and housing. In the cases where migrant workers are undocumented, fear of reporting abuse is tied to fear of deportation. Thinking about migration can lead us to question our categorical labels of race and nationality.

Some Sudanese refugees were granted asylum in Cuba and lived there during their childhood and teen years, then later moved to the United States for work, and eventually moved to Canada where they settled and made homes in Toronto. Paul Ryer, an anthropologist who studied this relationship, refers to these migrants as the “hyphen-nation of Cuban-educated Africans.”

They speak Spanish, listen to salsa, and in some cases have forgotten the languages of their early childhoods in Sudan. In Toronto, they may feel more like Latinx immigrants than African refugees, Sudanese-Cuban-Canadians. Ryer uses hyphenation as a way of representing the identities people form or experience through migration. Keep in mind that hyphenations are used selectively and are subject to cultural and historical context. Immigrants from Jamaica to the US may identify as Black but not African-American.

During my anthropological research, I met young people in Los Angeles who identified as “American-Armenian and not the other way around” because they wanted to indicate that they are Armenians first and foremost. Questions:

1.    How many people do you know in your personal life who have moved from one country to another at any point during their lives? What were the reasons they moved?

2.    How important is nationality or place of origin to your identity and sense of self? Discuss.

3.    Watch “The Danger of a Single Story” in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares her personal experiences of immigration.

  • What elements of her experience can you identify with?
  • Do you see any evidence in your local community of telling singular stories about immigrants?

Discuss.RefugeesIn May 2019, US Customs and Border Patrol dropped off more than 500 asylum seekers at the Greyhound Station in San Bernardino, California. “Noncriminal, processed family units,” most from Guatemala, were left in San Bernardino and other sites across Southern California with no resources or contact, awaiting their immigration court hearings due to overcrowding at the border.

Activists in San Bernardino discovered that some of these families ended up sleeping on the street, and many were sick or needed medical attention. Community volunteers, some affiliated with Catholic Charities and the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice, organized donations of clothing and watches and helped locate shelters, including motels and churches.

Some immigrants were assisted in purchasing plane tickets to reach their families in the US. US Customs and Border Patrol began calling to alert the local Catholic diocese of drop-offs, up to three a day at the end of May. It’s important to note that some refugees may be undocumented while others have received legal processing as asylum seekers under specific legislation.

As asylum seekers, the immigrants described above are refugees, people who have been forced to leave a country or their homeland due to persecution, extreme hardship, insecurity, or violence. They seek asylum in the form of protection and shelter, sometimes basic human rights or the ability to live, work, and educate their children without being regularly threatened with violence.

Some believe the US has been a haven for refugees, represented by the Statue of Liberty, but others remind us that there have always been limits on who is considered a refugee and who isn’t. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 26 million people in the world living as refugees in 2019. Almost half of those are under the age of eighteen.

Seventy-three percent sought asylum in neighboring countries to the ones in which they’d experienced persecution or extreme hardship. A person can apply for asylum at a US border port or through a US Embassy if they are a continent away, as was the case for Bahar who has applied for US asylum status on the basis of persecution as a transgendered person in Iran.

Laws constantly change in defining who could and could not enter the US as refugees. For example, in 2020, President Trump proposed banning asylum seekers from Somalia and Yemen. A quota exists limiting how many people can be officially processed as refugees and this number has been drastically reduced under the Trump administration.

Violence is one push factor causing people to leave one place for another, but violence can be experienced as part of the refugee experience as well. Thousands of people die each year during the migration process. Migration across the Mediterranean Sea is one of the deadliest routes where drowning is the major cause of death.

In North America, over four hundred refugees died in 2020, with the major causes of death being drowning and exposure to the elements. Some refugees live in urban areas, like El Paso or San Bernardino while awaiting legal processes of resettlement in a new country.

In 2020, sixty percent of worldwide refugees live in urban areas. Turkey is currently the country with the highest number of urban-located refugees. Other refugees may live in refugee camps, most of which are run by governmental and non-governmental organizations including the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Refugee camps are temporary sites that intend to provide housing, food, medical care, and basic human needs until refugees are accepted as asylum seekers elsewhere.

Whether in urban areas or camps, refugees are vulnerable to racism, scapegoating, and exploitation. In the US, President Trump said of Central American refugees seeking asylum that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” were hiding amongst them, implying that the refugees were terrorists (Schor 2018). In news media and political rhetoric in line with Trump’s view, refugees were labeled criminals who were invading the US to destroy American culture.

This kind of rhetoric is associated with actual hate crimes and discrimination against anyone perceived to be part of the Central American refugee population. A 2017 report found, however, that the top ten cities in the US for receiving refugees experienced drops in crime after the refugees settled there. Like detention centers at the US-Mexico border, many refugee camps across the world are overcrowded and lack the basic sanitation and security they are meant to provide.

Gendered violence is also a threat to people in both urban and camp locations. Some camps don’t have secure showers or restrooms, and some may experience their sexual orientations being outed in a way that creates more risk for their safety. Unfortunately, it is occasionally the staff of the refugee camps or detention centers who take advantage of people and sexually abuse or harass them.

A UN report states: “In many refugee situations, particularly those involving the confinement of refugees in closed camps, traditional behavioral norms and restraints break down. In such circumstances refugee women and girls may be raped by other refugees, acting either individually or in gangs, and self-appointed leaders may thwart attempts to punish the offenders.

In certain camp situations, unaccompanied women and girls have been known to enter what is called ‘protection marriages’ in order to avoid sexual assault. The frustration of camp life can also lead to violence, including sexual abuse, within the family.” (Obradovic 2015)


1.    Conduct an online search to get the latest information from a credible source (Amnesty, UNHCR, etc.). Where in the world are most refugees from? What is the main reason people have become refugees?

2.    Explore the Missing Migrants Project website and watch this webinar to learn about the Undocumented Migration Project led by anthropologist Jason de León. Why is it important to document missing and deceased migrants and refugees? Is your local community affected by the violence of migration? How can your local community address the violence of migration?

3.    First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the UN. Said said, “Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.

Yet they are the world of the individual person, the neighborhood he lives in, the school or college he attends, the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, and equal dignity without discrimination.

Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world” (Roosevelt 1958). Keeping Roosevelt’s idea in mind, do you think members or institutions of your local community have a responsibility to refugees and immigrants? Discuss.

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