LAMIS ABDELAATY - ASSISTANT PROFESSOR, POLITICAL SCIENCE
Tell us about your academic background. How did
you get interested in your research topic?
I did my undergraduate work at the American University in Cairo, where I double-majored in political
science and econom- ics. After graduating, I worked for a unit at the Egyptian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs
that provided macroeconomic analysis
and evaluated foreign aid-funded development projects. At the same time, I pursued a master’s degree in economics at the American University in Cairo.
I eventually decided
that I would rather
be a political scientist. So I pursued a master’s degree in political
science at McGill University, followed by a doctoral
degree at Princeton University, where I focused on international relations.
When I started graduate
school, I thought
that I wanted to focus
on international security.
But by the time I had to select
my dissertation topic,
I had landed on a question that was both theoretically puzzling
as well as important from a policy perspective. I had read an article
called “Refugees and the Spread
of Civil War” for one of my courses. At one point, this article lists all of the various costs that are associated with hosting a refugee population. As I read this article, I found myself wondering: If refugees are so costly,
why does any country ever accept refugees? Of course, the question
and my approach evolved over the time. When it was time for me to decide on research
sites, I had to choose
countries that made sense
in terms of the questions I was asking
and that also
fit well with
my language skills
and expertise. I did
fieldwork in Egypt,
Kenya, and Turkey. These cases made a lot of sense in terms of my own skills
because I spoke Arabic
and Swahili. In terms
of research design,
the advantage of using these
three cases was that these
countries share some of
the same refugee
groups. For example,
Egypt and Turkey both host Iraqi refugees. Egypt and Kenya both have Somali
refugees. And so on.
What is your research about? How can we draw on
it to understand the current refugee crisis?
book project revolves
around countries’ responses to refugee groups.
Essentially, I argue
that a government faced with a refugee group
has three options:
they can accept
them, they can reject them,
or they can shift responsibil- ity to the
United Nations. My project tries
to figure out
why a government would pick
one of these
three choices with respect to a specific
refugee group. I argue that the government’s decision is shaped by a combination of international
and domestic factors. The relationship between the country
receiving the refugees
and the country
refugees are coming from is one factor.
And whether or not these refugees share an ethnic
identity with the group in power in the receiving country is another factor. When these
two sets of incentives point in the same direction, the decision for the govern- ment is clear in terms of accepting or rejecting. But when these
incentives point in opposite directions, that is when the
government will be most likely to shift responsibility to the United
Nations, in order
to avoid antagonizing either the sending
country or domestic constituencies.
So, in the book I lay out this theoretical framework and then I demonstrate the mechanism in three steps.
First, I conduct a global statistical analysis.
Then, I present two country case studies, Turkey
and Egypt, comparing how each country has dealt with
different refugee groups
and tracing changes
in refugee policies over time. Finally, in the
third stage, I look at a content
analysis of parliamentary debates in Kenya to examine
the differences in how members
of the execu- tive speak about refugees compared
to parliamentarians who represent domestic
I have not tested the extent
to which my theoretical framework
applies to the Syrian refugee
crisis, but there are a couple
of things that my research leads
me to emphasize. One is that the almost exclusive focus on Europe
is misguided. The Syrian refugee crisis has been a crisis in the Middle
East much longer
than it has been a crisis in Europe. Large numbers of people are now moving
to Europe because
they have been stranded in countries like Jordan,
Lebanon, and Turkey for years. Now that aid has dried
up and they are not allowed to work, they are left with no choice but to try to go elsewhere. Assessing what
is going on in European countries to the
exclusion of what
conditions for refugees look like in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan,
leads us to ignore some of the root issues.
In my book, there is an emphasis
on develop- ing countries. A lot of the research
that we have is focused
on developed countries, even though more than 85 percent of refugees in the world live in developing countries. For all the news coverage,
the numbers in Europe are tiny compared
to the numbers in the Middle East.
Something else that my research leads me to emphasize is that we should not only look at the admission of refugees. We also
need to look at their treatment. We tend to fixate on whether or not borders
are open - Are people
allowed in or not? - but we pay much less attention to what happens
to people once they are admitted. Are they allowed
to work? Are they
able to send their children
to school? Are they permitted to move around
All of these things
are hugely important for the lives and experiences of refugees themselves as human beings.
They also have implications for whether or not
people decide to stay. And they have implications for what may happen eventually if people are allowed to integrate into the
society or if they are able to return to their home
country. If, in the meantime, people have been
living in camps,
unable to work, completely dependent on aid, and their
children are not being educated, that has enormous
consequences if the crisis
in Syria is resolved and people are able to return home.
The final thing that my work leads me to emphasize
is the difference, and also the disconnect, between laws on the books and
policies and practices implemented on the ground. We tend to focus on laws or legislation within
a specific country. But in reality there are often cases, especially in developing countries, where what is on the books and how refugees
are treated are different.
Also, while the law might be consistent, different refugee groups
might be treated
differently from each other.
What courses do you teach? Do you have a favorite?
So far, I have been in Syracuse
for less than a year. Last semester, I taught an undergraduate course
on Human Rights
and Global Affairs (PSC 354). I am now teaching an undergraduate course called Refugees
in International Politics
(PSC 300) and a graduate course on International Human Rights (PSC 700). Going
forward, I plan
to develop a course tentatively called Power, Institutions, and Ideas in Global Affairs.
I like all
of my courses … they tend
to draw very
interested and engaged
students. All of these courses
are about issues that are both intellectually interesting to me and that
are important for the real
world. In all of my courses, I try to dis- cuss with students why the course is relevant,
not only from an academic
and intellectual perspective, but also in terms
of actual policy
and real-world outcomes. This is something that I am trying to do this
semester as well
in my course on refugees. Since there
is an ongoing refugee crisis,
I am trying to bring
in current events
and news stories.
And the students really partner
with me on this; sometimes they will bring
news to the classroom that I might
be unaware of.
In my course on refugees, there are often
topics about which
people legitimately disagree. There are some aspects that are
really provocative, and there are questions that really do not have a single
right or wrong answer.
For example, today we were talking about
ethical concerns: Does a country
have an obligation to prioritize its own citizens
over refugees? Should a country
ethically be able to select
refugees based on their skills?
Does a government have an ethical obligation to follow the desires
of its own citizens, even when public opinion might conflict with international law? These are all thorny questions about which
intelligent people disagree.
How does the Middle East feature in your
I try to draw examples
from around the world instead
of focusing exclusively on any particular region. For instance, the Syr- ian
refugee crisis is currently ongoing
and many students
enrolled in my course on refugees for this reason.
But this crisis is not the first,
and it is not even
the only ongoing
refugee crisis today. So it is important to put it in context. If you look
at issues in a comparative way, then you can better understand the causes of displacement and the responses
by countries and international organizations. I think
this is the
best way for
us to draw lessons from
what is happening and to try to think creatively about possible
solutions. That enriches
the experience for students as well as for me.