A review of The Refugee Label: Mapping the Trajectories of Colombian Youth and Families through Educational Bureaucracies in Ecuador by Diana Rodríguez Gómez
Rodriguez’s dissertation is a qualitative study about the ways in which the label of “refugee” (refugiado) shapes and is shaped by macro and microsocial actors that play a role in the landscape of education on the Ecuadorian-Colombian border. The author conducted an ethnographic study in Quito, capital city of Ecuador, and La Misericordia, a small town on the northern border of Ecuador and Colombia, in order to explain how youth with refugee status deal with the state and NGOs for gaining access to educational services.
The dissertation is organized in four chapters, one introduction and final conclusions. The introduction provides an account of Rodriguez’s biographical and theoretical journey that brought her to rediscover the implications of what it means to be a refugee. Subsequently, the author explores how this category is interlocked with the life experiences, perceptions and actions that different social actors related with the educational field construct on a daily basis with the state, NGOs, and local school environments.
One of the main goals of this study is to “de-fetishize” the label of refugee. Rodriguez gets deep into theoretical reflections, engaging in fruitful dialogue with Marx, Weber, Bourdieu, Appaduraian, Bakewell, among others theorists. In doing so, the author unveils the complexities and contradictions that the label of refugee has in this particular context. When employed by migrant Colombian youth in search of educational opportunities on the border, Rodríguez concludes, refugee as a category acquires a strategic dimension insofar as it becomes a malleable label and a sort of “currency” that empowers those who hold it for better navigating the blurred waters of educational bureaucratic systems with their social, economic and political implications.
The approach to the refugee label as a currency is one of the most interesting arguments of Rodriguez’s research. Based on Pierre Bourdieu’s definitions of social space and social capital, the author defines the label of refugee within this educational context as an “affiliation.” As young Colombians in Ecuadorian schools – or in relation to other institutions of the educational realm – used the term refugee, its meanings, emphasis, and connotations change contingently. In other words, “refugee” is used contextually as an affiliation, shaping the position of the individual holds the term within the social landscape of the school. Mobilizing ethnographic work, interviews, and quantitative data, Rodríguez certainly stresses a quite persuasive argument.
In Chapter 1, the author makes a theoretical reflection on the concept of refugee as a political and social category, and an instrumental label crafted by teachers and students. Rodriguez compared youth experiences in the school with different migratory status in formal and non-formal educational contexts, explaining the meanings and interpretations students make about the idea of being a refugee. Drawing upon extensive fieldwork, Rodriguez demonstrates that the refugee label as currency has less value as in educational contexts than within NGOs’ fields of action, where it facilitates prompt access to educational services. In highlighting this difference the author challenges a seemingly preconceived idea in public policy, which often assumes that the refugee label as a static category is effortlessly transferable from institutional realms to local arenas without experiencing any major modifications.
Chapter 2 analyzes the bureaucracy of educational systems, comparing the internal dynamics of the education sector in Quito and La Misericordia. Rodriguez’s main argument in this sections is that legality, or rather written policy, does not defines the limits of the educational system, especially for people holding refugee status. Instead, this limit is defined through “civil employees’ everyday interpretations of national legal frameworks.” The author concludes that access to school for Colombian refugees in Ecuador is a “social event where multiple actors meet under different understandings of the possibilities and constraints of the state as education provider.” (p. 37)
Chapter 3 studies the commodification process of the refugee status within the policymaking practices of NGOs. This section deconstructs the ways in which NGO staffers, facing the pressures of working with communities experiencing social necessities, employ market-oriented strategies to enhance and expand the meanings of the refugee label. In doing so, NGOs staffers seek to collect more resources to alleviate the suffering of the people they work with. However, in doing so NGOSs end up playing the game of a neoliberal economy that further deepens problems they are intending to fix in the first place. Rodriguez insightfully calls this contradiction the “neoliberalization of humanitarian aid.”
In chapter 4, the author examines the “neutrality” that policy-making scholars tend to assume when using the refugee by introducing the concept of “affiliations with war actors.” Relying again upon Bourdieu’s ideas of social space and social capital, Rodríguez outlines affiliations with war actors – namely the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC – as interactions that communities living in conflict zones have with agents involved in war activities. Based on fieldwork conducted in La Misericordia school community, Rodriguez explains how teachers and students’ affiliations with different war-related agents have more influence upon the construction and application of the refugee label than when it is done through policymaking. These results demonstrate the tensions and contradictions between macro and micro-levels of negotiation when it comes to designing and enforcing public policies in the educational realm.
Rodriguez’s dissertation is a contribution to the field of refugee studies, employing the educational field as an insightful – and very effective – manner to tackle this growing current of studies within contemporary social sciences. Scholars interested in topics related to migration, education, and policymaking will find in Rodriguez’s work an interesting window for visualizing the challenges and contradictions in the implementation of humanitarian aid programs in Latin America. Students of anthropology and sociology will also discover in Rodriguez’s work an innovative example of how to conduct doctoral dissertations based on ethnographic methods. This dissertation will become a fine book as it further integrates more statistical information about migratory patterns of the population in the area of study as well as on the economic dimension of the whole educational system under scrutiny. Rodriguez’s conclusions about the strategic use of the refugee label at different levels and by diverse actors are both insightful and persuasive, and it should be praised as a major trans-disciplinary contribution.
Department of History
La Misericordia, Putumayo, Ecuador, 2014. Photography by dissertation author.
Alto Comisionado de Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados. ACNUR (2009, 2013, 2015).
Alto Comisionado de Naciones Unidas para los Refugiados & Instituto de la Ciudad(2014).
Asamblea Constituyente (2011).
Asamblea Nacional de la República del Ecuador. (2008). Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador.
Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento. (2003, 2004, 2005)
Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos (2010).
Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (2015).
International Organization for Migration (2004).
Ministerio de Coordinación de la Producción, Empleo y Competitividad (2011).
Ministerio de Educación de Colombia.
Ministerio de Educación del Ecuador.
Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, Comercio e Integración (2008).
Observatorio de los Derechos de la Niñez y Adolescencia (2010, 2011).
Secretaría Técnica de Cooperación Internacional Ecuador (2014).
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2008).
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015).
Ed.D. Dissertation Teachers College, The Columbia University in the City of New York, 2016. 235 p. Primary Advisor: Susan Garnett Russell