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Refugee Passage: The Spectacle of Magnanimity and the Politics of Nepali-Bhutanese Arrival in the United States

Event Type
asian american studies
Department of Asian American Studies
Asian American Studies Conference Room | 1208 W Nevada St, Urbana
Feb 3, 2020   4:00 pm  
Dr. Retika A. Desia
Kat Fuenty
Originating Calendar
Asian American Studies

In late 2015, the US Embassy in Nepal circulated a press release titled “United States Resettles 100,000th Bhutanese Refugee from Nepal,” celebrating the occasion in a ceremony attended by representatives of the UNHCR, IOM, and the US Ambassador to Nepal. Touting the Nepali-Bhutanese example as “the most successful program of its kind,” festive events like this struck a self-congratulatory tone that emphasized how increasing resettlement numbers of Nepali-Bhutanese refugees had become routine towards the tail end of the resettlement process that began in 2007.  Such spectacles of “success,” however, mask both the dire circumstances and the normal state of affairs of refugees facing extended exile in the Global South.  The incommensurability between the small numbers of the globally displaced resettled ( < 1%) and the celebratory spectacle of humanitarian organizations remains fundamental to the day-to-day operation of the humanitarian machinery.

Based on transnational ethnographic research, this talk follows the movement of Nepali-Bhutanese refugees, as they travel through the nodes of the resettlement trail—from refugee camps in Eastern Nepal, processing centers in Kathmandu, and international airports through the Gulf region and the US.  By juxtaposing the embodied experience of border crossing with the deeply controlled visual economy of the global refugee rescue, this talk asks the following: What does the euphoria around resettling a tiny percentage of refugees reveal about global humanitarian solidarity and public empathy, especially as those displaced demand entry into the Global North and are met with unprecedented resistance? What happens if the spectacle of humanitarian success and not suffering becomes the lens through which to understand humanitarianism and refugee movement?

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