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We are delighted to announce that the RSC Director, Professor Alexander Betts, and his Humanitarian Innovation Project team have won a University of Oxford Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement with Research for their work exploring the economic lives of refugees.

Professor Betts’ research aimed to challenge the dominant framing of refugees as passive victims exclusively in need of humanitarian assistance and to show the ways in which they are drawing on their own skills, talents, and aspirations to develop creative solutions to meet their needs.

“Refugees are frequently thought of as a ‘burden’ on host states but they have the potential to contribute economically as well as socio-culturally,” Professor Betts explains. “Even under the most constrained circumstances, refugees engage in significant economic activity, and in doing so often create opportunities for themselves and others – turning refugee dependency into refugee self-reliance.”

The project was notable for the involvement of 42 refugees who were trained as peer researchers and enumerators. The approach enabled the refugees to become co-creators of the research and, in some cases, go on to new employment or further study thanks to the skills they had acquired.

The project involved qualitative and quantitative data collection on the economic lives of refugees in three refugee camps and the city of Kampala in Uganda, including a survey of over 2,000 refugees, one of the only academic data sets ever collected on the subject.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Government of Uganda, and colleagues at Makerere University collaborated on the research.

The UNHCR’s former Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees noted that the team’s work “has been path-breaking; and it has fundamentally altered the debate on the impact of refugees in countries of asylum, demonstrating the capacity of refugees for self-reliance and their ability to contribute to hosting societies.”

The research resulted in a policy change in the UNHCR’s own refugee livelihoods programming. It also featured in over 50 media interviews and in a TED talk viewed 600,000 times, helping to provide a stronger evidence base for public debate on the issue.

Professor Betts said: “I'm delighted to receive the award on behalf of the team and that the University has chosen to recognise the value of engaging refugees directly within the research process.”

The research will be published by Oxford University Press later this year as a book, Refugee Economies: Forced Displacement and Development.

The awards, presented for the first time this year, recognise and reward those who undertake high-quality Public Engagement with Research and have contributed to building capacity in this area. Twelve awards were presented from a total of 84 entries and the overall winners were the Ashmolean Museum and the Social Sciences Division for their LiveFriday event, Social Animals. The event saw departments across the division, including ODID, showcasing their research through an evening of live music, immersive performances, interactive workshops, live mass experiments and talks.

The awards were presented at a ceremony at Merton College attended by John Holmes, Head of Public Engagement at the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills and Dr Jenni Chambers, Head of Public Engagement at the Research Councils UK.

The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson said: “it has been exciting and reassuring to see the myriad ways in which people have been engaged with the extraordinary research here at Oxford.”

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