Themba Lewis

On the 11 July 2018, Barbara passed away quietly in her Oxford home. She was surrounded by her family and her files, in her bed and comfortable. 

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.

Barbara is perhaps most notably affiliated with the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford, which she founded in 1982 as the Refugee Studies Program and directed until 1996. The annual Harrell-Bond Lecture salutes her legacy in the centre, and other early initiatives, such as the Refugee Participation Network (now called Forced Migration Review) continue the push for greater understanding of refugee rights frameworks and challenges to refugee protection from the ground up.

It was the global south, however, where Barbara dedicated the majority of her efforts. These countries, the countries that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees and shoulder the greatest responsibility for protecting people, were where support was needed, she determined. She had seen it first hand, working as a researcher across Africa and the world since the mid-1960s.

She established the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University in Uganda, the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo, and Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (now AMERA International) to provide legal aid to refugees and ensure young people were able to study refugee law. She was a founding member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, The Euromed Rights Network, the International Detention Coalition, and the Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network. She helped draft the Nairobi Code of Ethics and trained student after student in appropriate refugee interviewing technique, testimonial drafting, argumentation, and research.

Barbara was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005 for “services to refugee and forced migration studies”. She is an awardee of the Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology awarded by the American Anthropologist Association, and was awarded the Lucy Mair medal for applied anthropology.

Barbara dedicated her final decade to building a global movement for refugee legal aid through a centralised information hub: Rights in Exile. She watched the clock ticking as she aged, and worked tirelessly to formalise the networks, contacts, expertise, and research she had compiled into what is now the Rights in Exile programme, which she co-directed with Themba Lewis and maintained with teams of dedicated interns, each learning from her experience, and each supported by her to pursue careers in refugee rights. 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 pursued a people-first, rights-based approach to protection and argued for it with a ferocious intellect, razor-sharp wit, experience lasting decades, and a confidence that humbled even her loudest critics. This legacy will continue as students read her work, including the seminal text in refugee studies, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees, the eye-opening Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism (with Guglielmo Verdirame, Zachary Lomo, and Hannah Garry), and her vision-plan article for her final years, Starting a Movement of Refugee Legal Aid Organisations in the Global South.

Barbara was a supporter of many, a friend to refugees everywhere, and inspirational in her commitment and unwavering dedication. She was also a mother and grandmother. 

But what Barbara really is, for so many of us who knew her and so many that knew of her, is a collection of unforgettable moments and life changing experiences.

For those looking to donate in Barbara’s memory, AMERA International, the organisation she continued to Chair, is a good place to do so. There are PayPal options and JustGiving options at the bottom of the AMERA International donations page: http://www.amerainternational.org/donate/