Barbara Harrell-Bond obituary

Passionate campaigner for refugees who founded the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University

Barbara Harrell-Bond, who has died aged 85, was a powerful and passionate advocate for the rights and dignity of refugees. For almost 40 years, her name was synonymous with their cause.

Through her scholarship, her influential but often scathing critiques of the “humanitarian industry”, as she termed it, but above all for her insistence that the voices of refugees must be heard, their agency recognised and their rights protected, she transformed humanitarian practice from its paternalistic and self-justifying modes of action.

She founded the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at the University of Oxford in 1982 to study the causes, consequences and responses to forced displacement; it was the first of many such centres she helped create around the world. She pioneered the field of refugee studies as an important area of academic concern, but only in so far as rigorous scholarship and research served to empower refugees by providing a critically constructive engagement with policy and practice. The RSC’s independence from humanitarian organisations, alongside the stature of the university, added significantly to the force of her analysis.

Fuelled by chain-smoking and coffee, she was driven by irrepressible energy and a personal and infectious compassion for refugees. Her home in Oxford was a sanctuary, a resting place and a transit station for innumerable refugees and asylum seekers; it earned a well-deserved reputation as a multinational venue for parties and international cuisine.

The daughter of Irene (nee Belden), a nurse, and Elmer Moir, a postman, Barbara was born in Webster, South Dakota. Growing up, she was an accomplished rider and musician, reluctantly destined to be trained as a nurse, at her mother’s behest. An early marriage, in 1951, to Nathan Harrell-Bond, a Methodist pastor, raising a young family in California and then accompanying her husband to Oxford in 1965, where he was to undertake a doctorate in psychology, curtailed that possibility but introduced new opportunities. Oxford became her home for the remainder of her life.

Building on her early interest in social studies, she was accepted into the Institute of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, embarking on postgraduate research on Blackbird Leys, a new housing estate on the edge of the city. The choice of research topic challenged conventions and received wisdom – hallmarks of Barbara’s lifelong reaction to the controlling and, as she saw it, the often disempowering functions of authority and institutions.

Obscure and remote societies, rather than working-class Oxford, were the mainstream of anthropological research at that time. She completed her MLitt in 1967. In 1969 her husband returned to California, and the marriage ended in divorce.

From 1967 until 1982 she conducted research in West Africa, first for her doctorate, on marriage among professional groups in Sierra Leone, completed in 1972, and then a series of research projects, also in West Africa, accompanied by her three young children. Focusing on socio-legal matters, this sowed the seeds for her later conviction that international refugee law and norms for refugees were fundamental to protecting people’s rights and to building a humane response. In Sierre Leone, she met Samuel Okeke, a Nigerian engineer, whom she married in 1974.

Barbara Harrell-Bond at her house in Oxford with Fatima Abdelrahman, a refugee from Sudan, in May this year
Barbara Harrell-Bond at her house in Oxford with Fatima Abdelrahman, a refugee from Sudan, in May this year Photograph: None

Two subsequent projects combined to establish additional foundations for her approach. Her research among Sahrawi refugees in Algeria provided powerful insights into how displaced populations could survive largely independently of humanitarian assistance. Then, in 1982, she was commissioned by the Overseas Development Agency (precursor of the DFID) to undertake an evaluation in Sudan.

Breaking the normal protocols of confidentiality, she delivered a public rebuke via the media to international humanitarian organisations for neglecting, and possibly keeping deliberately silent about, the unfolding humanitarian crisis in southern Sudan, where tens of thousands of starving Ugandan refugees were pouring across the border. As a result, assistance was immediately mobilised.

Her experience in Sudan was the source of her key text Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (1982), the gently punning title scarcely revealing the devastating critique of the humanitarian regime that lay between the covers. Few books change minds and practice in the way that Imposing Aid did. For an “industry” never before subjected to academic scrutiny, her exposé of disempowerment and creating dependency fundamentally changed how organisations have subsequently gone about their work.

They no longer saw refugees as helpless people needing handouts, but instead as active participants in designing and implementing assistance projects. For example, left to aid agencies, the distribution of that most existential of assets, food rations, symbolised control and dependency. Barbara insisted that refugees should be entrusted with this task and that the “food basket” should supply rations with which refugees were familiar, not surplus pulses and grains from European and American “food mountains”.

Barbara retired from the directorship of the RSC in 1996, and was appointed an Oxford emerita professor in 2009. She dedicated the last two decades of her life to refugee affairs in the global south, Africa in particular. In the countries and regions that host more than 85% of the world’s refugees and bear the main responsibility for their protection, she established new academic centres at Makerere University in Uganda, the American University of Cairo, and Moi University in Kenya, alongside numerous advice and campaigning networks that have as their mission the promotion of law, rights and legal aid for refugees.

She was appointed OBE in 2005 for services to refugee and forced migration studies.

Countless people benefited from Barbara’s skill in developing their testimonies and her advocacy for their claims for refugee status. Millions more who do not know her name will benefit from her relentless efforts to create ways of treating refugees humanely.

Her second marriage ended in divorce. Barbara is survived by three children, David, Stephen and Debbie, and three grandchildren, Julien, Camille and Nicholas.

Barbara Elaine Harrell-Bond, campaigner and academic, born 7 November 1932; died 11 July 2018


Roger Zetter

The GuardianTramp

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