Marnie J Thomson
2011 Human Rights Defender Award
As an undergraduate, I attended Washington University in St. Louis. I took my first anthropology course during my first semester – Introduction to Physical Anthropology – and was awed by both the professor and the subject matter. I knew I had chosen the correct major during my sophomore year when I discovered that all the courses I wanted to take were listed under anthropology. I studied abroad with St. Lawrence University’s Kenya Semester Program during my junior year. The program allowed me to study in Nairobi, hunt and gather with the Hadza, herd with Samburu pastoralists, live on a farm in Meru, and conduct an independent research project with an HIV/AIDS outreach program in the slums of Nairobi. After graduation, I took a gap year to live and work in Auckland, New Zealand, and traveled around the country. I returned to the US to earn a Masters of Arts degree in Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. My thesis grew out of my observation of a trial at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) while studying abroad. I argued that the Tribunal creates an official memory of the genocide while simultaneously erasing important elements of it. I am currently a PhD student in anthropology at the University of Colorado, and my research interests have shifted from Rwanda to the related conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Specifically, I conduct my fieldwork with Congolese refugees who live in Tanzania. Since 2007, the UNHCR and Tanzania have closed eleven of their thirteen refugee camps and are currently implementing repatriation programs in the final two camps. My research has two goals: (1) to understand the politics of this particular form of humanitarian intervention and its effects on Congolese refugees and (2) to understand the story of the ongoing conflict in eastern provinces of the DRC from the refugees’ perspective.
I always found the debates about cultural relativism versus human rights overly simplistic, but tied up with my frustration was a desire to defend human rights as an anthropologist. Thus, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly when my interest arose, but I think it really solidified into both an academic and practical pursuit during my first visit to Nyarugusu camp for Congolese refugees in 2008. I have returned to the camp every year since, and refugees have shared stories of the violence they experienced in Congo and their efforts to qualify for resettlement within the UN camp. Many have had their cases dismissed or disqualified without receiving any explanation. Without qualifying for resettlement in a third country, these refugees will be forced to return to the DRC when Nyarugusu closes. Refugees ask me not to accompany them to the registration center, where resettlement claims are filed, for fear that the aid workers – most of whom are Tanzanian – will believe they are trying to gain favor for their case. I do, however, meet with international aid representatives, usually in regional offices located outside of the camp, to present individual cases for resettlement on behalf of refugees and advocate for their human rights, particularly the rights to asylum, nationality, and freedom of residence. When I ask about these rights, aid representatives both in the camp and elsewhere explain that they are bound by UNHCR resettlement protocols and quotas. As I conduct more research on the relationship between human rights and humanitarianism, I will continue to advocate for refugees and their human rights.