Deidre Conlon, global and urban studies scholar-in-residence in Emerson’s Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies, teaches several courses on cities, and primarily researches immigration issues.
Her work on migration and mobility among asylum seekers has gained the recognition of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), a UK-based organization that funds research in the social sciences. The ESRC has awarded Conlon a grant to support a collaborative and trans-national project focused on organizations that support asylum seekers—individuals who flee their country of origin because they fear persecution. Under this grant, Conlon is collaborating with two UK-based geographers from the University of Exeter and a sociologist from Lancaster University.
Conlon became concerned with immigration issues while in Ireland in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, when she witnessed an influx of asylum seekers coming into the country. She chose asylum seekers in Ireland as her dissertation topic.
“One reason we are doing this project is because there isn’t a great deal of visibility or knowledge in the general public about the fact that there is a specific subset of immigrants coming to the United States. Related to that, there isn’t a great deal of work in the social sciences to understand what challenges organizations that work with asylum seekers face as well as what their successes are,” she explained.
The grant will allow Conlon and her team to map out who the organizations are and what they do to assist asylum seekers. Conlon will also explore how these organizations manage some of the issues that asylum seekers confront.
“Asylum seekers, like all other undocumented migrants, are not entitled to legal representation in the United States and evidence indicates that individuals who can access legal counsel are much more likely to be granted refugee status,” Conlon said. “[They] also encounter specific challenges such as trauma, not having support networks that other immigrant communities might have because many of them are arriving into the country on their own and have suffered some kind of trauma or violence.”
Asylum seekers who come to the United States arrive from many different countries, including Chad, Cameroon, Sudan, Guatemala, the Caribbean, Mexico, and China. Although the United States is one of the largest recipients of asylum applications in the global north, very little is known about the organizations that work to support asylum seekers. The average American hears the all-too-familiar story of the undocumented migrant, said Conlon, but how much does he or she know about people seeking protection out of fear of persecution in their country of origin?
“Given the relative ‘invisibility’ of asylum seekers vis-à-vis other migrant groups and the challenges involved in supporting them, we want to better understand how organizations that work with asylum seekers can accomplish the work that they do,” said Conlon.
One such organization is Human Rights First, an international organization based in New York and Washington, D.C., that promotes laws and policies that advance universal rights and freedoms. Another is Immigration Legal Defense Services, a national organization that advocates for and provides direct legal services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
“Many of these organizations work in relative isolation and report that they are not able to find out what other groups are doing. One of our goals with this project is to connect organizations with other organizations so that they can build a network of resources to better support their work with asylum seekers,” Conlon said.
While this grant from ESRC does not support student researchers, Conlon said that she and her team are considering bringing on more funding to support the dissemination of their findings through social media outlets. She hopes that this type of support would involve media studies students at Emerson, as well as people interested in social justice and civic engagement. She recently won an award from the Project for Public Science to participate in a weeklong summer institute on Critical Participatory Action Research, which she hopes will help her to develop a follow-on project to disseminate and continue this work. Conlon also recently presented a paper on asylum seekers at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in Seattle, Washington (April 12-16).