On Wednesday, Dr. Tricia Hepner, an associate professor of anthropology at UT, gave a presentation about how refugees from Eritrea use human rights discourse to address their experiences, focusing particularly on a group she calls "Generation Asylum," referring to the young people who were born or came of age after 1993, when Eritrea claimed its independence from Ethiopia.
In Dr. Hepner's presentation, she described the nature of life in Eritrea due to the way the government restricts its citizens, the many dangers refugees from Eritrea face, and the struggle of these refugees and asylum-seekers in other countries.
According to Dr. Hepner, the Eritrean government implemented an extensive militarization process after gaining its independence and currently boasts the largest developmental army on the African continent and one of the largest in the world.
She claimed that the militarization is a social process as well as an economic process and used higher education as a specific example.
"The University of Asmara has essentially been dismantled and devolved into a series of military-run technical colleges," said Dr. Hepner. "All students must complete their final year of high school in the military training facility, otherwise they cannot graduate from high school."
Dr. Hepner spoke about the countries these refugees travel to and the routes they must take to gain entry to these countries.
"The first countries of asylum are predominantly Ethiopia and Sudan," she said. "One of the major destinations has been to Egypt and then passing through Egypt through the Sinai to get to Israel."
She added that there are about 40,000 Eritrean refugees located in Israel, many of whom have been trafficked for profit.
"Many of the migrants never get to their destination," Dr. Hepner said. "They're trafficked either as sex slaves or for their organs."
Even certain American policies make it difficult for Eritrean refugees to make their way to this country. According to Dr. Hepner, one such policy is TRIG, or the Terrorism Related Inadmissibility Grounds.
"The U.S. defines as a terrorist 'two or more people, either organized or not, who have advocated the overthrowing of an establish government by use of force.' That's a really broad definition," she said. "So if you've been a member of an organization that opposes a brutal dictatorship that maybe has advocated taking up arms, the U.S. government can define you as a terrorist and prevent you from getting asylum or refugee status in the U.S."
She discussed a bit of the process of obtaining refugee status and moving from camp to camp.
"The UNHCR (the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also commonly known as The UN Refugee Agency) staff is really available for only two or three hours a week in the camp," Dr. Hepner said. "It's very difficult to get anybody's attention at the UNHCR."
Dr. Hepner showed a document that was presented to her by the Refugee Central Committee, made up of the inhabitants of the camp. The document outlined various violations of human rights within these camps. The target of the document was in fact the UNHCR and other organizations supposedly dedicated to "promoting and protecting the rights of refugees."
"I'm in (Dr. Hepner's) class on human rights," said Kathryn Gard, sophomore in anthropology who attended the presentation. "It's real world experiences of the topics we're discussing."
"We've been talking about terror and terrorism, the difference between them and how terror is the cause of terrorism," said Kala Hudson, senior in psychology who also attended the lecture. "We're about to get into refugees and...the consequences of what happens."