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?


My current 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 constituencies.

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 freely? 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 courses?

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.