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Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE, Emerita Professor and Founding Director of the Refugee Studies Centre

Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, OBE, Emerita Professor, was a legal anthropologist who founded the Refugee Studies Centre in 1982 and directed it until 1996. Prior to this she conducted research in West Africa from 1967-1982, while employed by the Departments of Anthropology, University of Edinburgh and University of Illinois-Urbana, the Afrika Studiecentrum in Leiden, and the Faculty of Law, University of Warwick. On her retirement from the RSC, she conducted research in Kenya and Uganda (1997-2000), and was Honorary Adjunct Professor at the American University in Cairo (2000-2008). She wrote the seminal text Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees in 1982.

An unflinching advocate of legal aid programmes for refugees and research and teaching in refugee studies in the Global South, Barbara was a driving force behind the establishment of a number of programmes in countries including Uganda, Egypt, South Africa, and the UK. She was responsible for the information portal (Rights in Exile) that promotes legal assistance for refugees around the world. In 2013, Rights in Exile became the refugee rights component of the International Refugee Rights Initiative, which issues the monthly refugee legal aid newsletter, Rights in Exile.

Barbara was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005 for services to refugee and forced migration studies. Barbara was also a recipient of the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology awarded by the American Anthropological Association, and received the Lucy Mair Medal for Applied Anthropology in 2014. In July 2016, she was awarded an honorary doctorate at the School of African and Asian Studies (SOAS), University of London.

In 2018, a documentary was made about Barbara’s life, titled ‘Barbara Harrell-Bond: A life not ordinary’. We were extremely pleased to welcome her to the Refugee Studies Centre on 20 June 2018, World Refugee Day, for a special screening among family and friends.

Far from being only an academic, the focus of Barbara’s life-long work was on refugee rights, and on keeping refugees at the centre of humanitarianism, issues which resonate even more deeply now, in an age when asylum and protections for refugees appear daily more endangered.

Barbara Harrell-Bond died on 11 July 2018 at her Oxford home. She is survived by her three children, David Harrell-Bond, Stephen Harrell-Bond and Debbie Bond.

Obituaries and tributes

Emeritus Professor Roger Zetter (RSC) wrote an obituary for the The Guardian, commenting that Barbara transformed humanitarian practice (the ‘humanitarian industry’ as she called it) from “its paternalistic and self-justifying modes of action”. Her book Imposing Aid, he says, delivered a devastating critique of the humanitarian regime and fundamentally changed how humanitarian organisations worked. He ends, “Countless people benefited from Barbara’s skill in developing their testimonies and her advocacy for their claims for refugee status. Millions more who do not know her name will benefit from her relentless efforts to create ways of treating refugees humanely.” Read the full obituary here. Roger also wrote an obituary for the Journal of Refugee Studies.

BBC Radio 4’s programme Last Word remembered Dr Harrell-Bond in an episode on Sunday 22 July 2018, featuring contributions from Professor Roger Zetter and Dr Laura Hammond of SOAS. Writing for IRIN News, Dr Hammond states that “refugees around the world lost an irreplaceable champion with the passing of Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond.”

Themba Lewis writes on the Rights in Exile website that “It would be difficult to overstate her contribution to refugee rights and to legal anthropology, and impossible to quantify her impact on the lives or refugees, students, colleagues, and institutions around the globe.”

A Statement on the Passing of Barbara Harrell-Bond was made by Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Financial Times published an obituary describing Barbara as “a once-in-a-generation force of nature”.

For Al-Fanar Media, Parastou Hassouri (who worked for 3 years at AMERA, a charity founded by Barbara) pays tribute to Barbara, recalling their first meeting when Barbara says to her “So you think you can save the world? I hope you don’t plan on sleeping much.”

Annual Harrell-Bond Lecture 

Each year in Michaelmas term, the RSC holds the Annual Harrell-Bond Lecture. Recent speakers have included Professor Walter Kälin (Envoy of the Chairmanship of the Nansen Initiative, and Professor of Constitutional and International Law, University of Bern), Patrick Kingsley (journalist, ex-Migration correspondent at The Guardian, now at the New York Times), Dr Jemilah Mahmood (Under-Secretary General for Partnerships, IFRC), and Pierre Krähenbühl (UNRWA Commissioner-General).