A tribute to Gil Loescher
by Alexander Betts, Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs
© the Loescher familyEarlier this year, the Refugee Studies Centre lost a brilliant, kind, and inspiring colleague. Professor Gil Loescher dedicated his life to studying and teaching at the intersection of Refugee Studies and International Relations. He used his research to shape refugee policy and practice around the world, informing the work of organisations such as UNHCR and the US State Department, as well as working directly with refugees and displaced people in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.
Born in San Francisco, Gil went to St Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship, before training as an international historian and political scientist at the LSE. Gil then spent 25 years as a professor at Notre Dame, before relocating to the UK and taking up a position at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the early 2000s. He had a longstanding relationship with the Refugee Studies Centre following its establishment in the early 1980s, consistently pushing for Refugee Studies to engage more effectively with politics and history, visiting to teach and engage on numerous occasions. For most of the last two decades, we have been privileged to have Gil as a permanent presence at the RSC, most notably holding the title of Visiting Professor – one that massively understated his contribution to the Centre.
Gil’s intellectual contribution to Refugee Studies is immense. He is without doubt, the single most important academic to work on the international relations of forced migration. His approach can be characterised as based on drawing upon historical research to inform and engage with contemporary practice. He undertook pioneering archival research on the history of US refugee policy and on the history of UNHCR. His rigorous historical engagement enabled him to authoritatively identify recurring patterns and easily identify past precedent, in ways that were prescient to policy-makers. And his writing is a rare balance of rigour, accessibility, and empathy.
Throughout Gil’s scholarship are a series of common themes. Perhaps most importantly he recognised that refugee protection is inherently political, and needs to be seen as such, a perspective that paved the way for a generation of political scientists and international relations scholars to work on refugee issues. Throughout his writing can be found a preoccupation with the injustice of refugee camps, the futility of building walls to contain refugees, the importance of refugee resettlement. His overarching goal was to find practical ways to make the international refugee regime more effective in protecting, assisting, and providing solutions to refugees. And within this, a major focus was on highlighting the agency and autonomy of international organisations like UNHCR – and its staff – to make a real and tangible difference in practice.
Gil suffered life-changing injuries in the August 2003 bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, while advising on the humanitarian response for displaced Iraqis. Following his injuries, Gil inspired many with his rapid return to work, and his research engaged even more directly with the refugee communities he served. Despite the practical challenges, he embraced fieldwork, connecting with disabled refugees in the Burmese border camps in Thailand, for example. And this shift in focus was underscored by his work on protracted refugee situations, which had a notable difference in shaping policy debates on alternatives to encampment.
Gil was an inspiring teacher. He delivered his course on ‘UNHCR in World Politics’ to more than a dozen cohorts of MSc students. It was interactive and applied, taking concepts from international relations and grounding them in practice. Each year, students would have the opportunity to write and present a policy brief on how to address a particular protracted refugee situation. He would encourage innovative thinking, and students would delve deeply into ways to overcome encampment in situations from Dadaab to Cox’s Bazar. He was still teaching earlier this year.
On a personal level, Gil was the reason I came to Oxford. I wanted to study the international relations of refugee assistance, and he was the giant of that field. In the summer of 2003, I read his recently published UNHCR and World Politics in readiness for going up to Oxford to study for the MPhil in Development Studies. Then on 23 August I learned of the bombing in Baghdad. For days, I followed news of his progress by whatever medium was available, despite never having met Gil in person. A few weeks later, I learned of the extent of his injuries, and that he was the sole survivor from Sergio Vieira de Mello’s office. And yet, a year later, as I began taking RSC courses in the second year of my MPhil, Gil was back in the classroom, despite his injuries, teaching his ‘Refugees in International Relations’ course alongside James Milner.
As I got to know Gil, he became a generous and inspiring mentor to me, as he was to many others, offering extensive feedback on my DPhil chapters and early publications. I had the privilege to collaborate with him on his work on protracted refugee situations, and two book projects. In everything we did together, he was inspiring to work with, eager to do things well, and keen for others – especially younger scholars – to take the credit. Working with Gil provided an insight into how widely respected he was. Practically every leading International Relations scholar we approached to contribute to our edited volume did so because they knew and respected Gil. And, remarkably for a critically engaged academic, he was almost universally respected and loved within UNHCR.
As a colleague at the RSC, Gil was unflinchingly kind and generous. He would always make time for students and faculty who sought his advice, graciously volunteer his time for meetings and to assess the work of Masters and Doctoral students, and try to contribute wherever he could make a difference. His nearly two decades of contribution to the RSC were largely unpaid, and yet he contributed as though he were permanent faculty.
Gil’s legacy to the RSC is not only a seminal contribution to Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, but as a shining beacon of inspiration for how to be an academic who can make a real difference to people’s lives, whether refugees, students, or colleagues. We will miss him greatly, but we will not forget his legacy, as a scholar or as a human being.