Accepted Paper:

Refugee authority, humanitarian authority: legitimacy and negotiation in a refugee protest  


Nora Danielson Lanier (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

Taking an extended sit-in protest in Cairo, Egypt as a case study, this paper explores the negotiation of authority in debates over the event, showing how Sudanese protesters’ claims on the basis of global norms were refuted by the assertion of humanitarian institutional expertise.

Paper long abstract:

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is known globally for its advocacy on behalf of refugees. In Egypt, however, UNHCR's Cairo office has been the site of ongoing protests by the people it is mandated to help. In the largest of these, several thousand Sudanese protesters staged a three-month-long 2005 sit-in in front of UNHCR-Cairo. This paper explores the conflicting claims of authority negotiated through the landmark event. Recent research has explored ways in which humanitarian governance may function as a form of repressive authoritarianism over silenced refugees. Empirical study of refugee protest complicates this discourse by interrogating the grounds on which both refugees and humanitarian agencies claim authority. In this paper, I apply Ecker-Ehrhardt's 'authority talk' method to analyse the protest's debates as political communication through which relationships of power may be traced. I show how, while protesters claimed legitimacy on the basis of international norms and rights, UNHCR-Cairo steered attention away from the protesters' systemic critiques and towards bureaucratic processes over which the office could claim expertise. By asserting authority over the protesters' legal classifications, I argue, the office undermined protesters' claims and shifted responsibility onto the Egyptian government - and ultimately disassociated itself from authority over the protesters. In investigating these contestations, the paper explains why UNHCR's advocacy role may be questioned by refugees themselves, and contributes an at once local and international study to the discussion of shifting hierarchies of contemporary knowledge and power.

Panel RM-SPK01
By whose authority: investigating alternative modes of power and the legitimization of expertise