On 11 November 2020, the Music and Minorities Research Center (MMRC) launched its first annual lecture, delivered in online form and hosted by Ursula Hemetek, director of the MMRC. Despite the special circumstances, this event managed to engage an interdisciplinary audience from all around the world and fulfil its main goal, which was to bring scholars from different disciplines together in constructive and lively discussions that reflect contemporary academic discourses and stances on crucial social issues.

The topic of this year was forced migration. Dawn Chatty, professor emerita of anthropology and forced migration at the University of Oxford, a former director of the Refugee Studies Centre and an active practitioner in the field, was invited to give the keynote address entitled Anthropological Reflections on Fortress Europe. Her presentation focused on the circumstances under which the modern humanitarian era arose and on how its initial objectives, linked with moral obligations and social responsibilities toward people seeking refuge, were gradually transformed by European governments into what is today referred to as a “fortress” mentality.

Marko Kölbl, a senior researcher at the Department of Folk Music Research and Ethnomusicology at the mdw, presented his response from an ethnomusicological point of view, drawing particularly from his research on the musical expressions of the Afghan community in Vienna. He drew attention to how populist policies and discourses criminalise certain migrant or refugee communities while underscoring the importance of ethnomusicological fieldwork in providing narratives and cultural representations of migration that contrast with those constructed to serve xenophobic agendas. The event opened with the musical contribution of Salah Ammo (bouzouk and voice), a Syrian-Kurdish, Austria-based musician and master’s degree student in ethnomusicology at mdw, and concluded with that of Bahram Ajezyar (tablas) and Milad Bakhtiyari (harmonium, voice), two important figures of Afghan music-making in Austria.

In the following interview, Dawn Chatty speaks about her personal motivation to engage in social anthropology and about the role of anthropological research in understanding the relationship between policies, moral economies, and refugees’ lived experiences as well as in providing knowledge for further implementations in activities that can affect refugees’ realities for the better.

Professor Chatty, what motivated you to get involved in social anthropology and particularly to focus on the geographical area of the Middle East?

Dawn Chatty (DC): Like a lot of anthropologists, I had an early childhood experience of another culture. When I was six months old, my parents moved to Damascus. Growing up, I remember accompanying my father, who was an eye doctor, when he used to do pro bono work on the outskirts of Damascus with the Palestinian refugees. Sometimes my father would also stop at the black tents of the Bedouin. I was fascinated by them, by their sheep, by their baby lambs. When I was nine years old we left Syria for the US, where I started school. I remember I was missing Syria. In my later studies in middle school and high school, I discovered that there was a discipline called social anthropology, and so I pursued that interest. My original PhD research was on the Bedouin economy.

Dawn Chatty © privat

I was very interested in challenging the social perceptions of the Bedouin which existed in the 1970s and persist even today: that somehow they are “backward” or “irrational” in the kinds of choices they make. I did that with my first book, called From Camel to Truck: The Bedouin in the Modern World (1986, revised 2013), which was based on fieldwork with Bedouin from Syria and Lebanon. Then I went to Oman, where I worked with the camel herders in the Jiddat il-Harasiis, helping the government to extend services to them without forcing them to settle. When I came to the University of Oxford to write a book about the nomads of Oman, I was asked to apply for a new post that was just being set up at the Refugee Studies Centre. Its director, the legal anthropologist Barbara Harrell-Bond, was a very charismatic woman who suggested to me that forced settlement of nomads and the forced migration of settled people are the two sides of the same coin. They face the same social discrimination, the same lack of human rights, the same lack of political rights. And she was correct. I applied and was very lucky to get the post, and I have been at Oxford ever since, working on forced migration of settled people while also continuing my research on forced settlement of nomadic people.

International refugee policies and the problematic ways in which European governments deal with forced migration have lately been the focus of fierce criticism. What has been going wrong, and what kind of alternatives do you examine in your research on forced migration in the Middle East?

DC: UNHCR was created as a response to the terrible carnage and displacement of World War II. It was set up largely as a way of providing individuals with refuge. It became very clear even as early as the 1950s, with the Hungarian revolution and the 200,000 Hungarians who fled the country, that the UNHCR had to deal with very big numbers. And while the UNHCR was responsible only for about 2.5 million people around the world in the mid-1970s, it is now responsible for 70 million. Today’s numbers are huge because many of these “refugee crises” are not being resolved within the emergency phase of the first year or so. Combined with that, we are at a stage of our political history in the Global North where populist politics has become very powerful. As a result, many of Europe’s politicians and governments are refusing not only to actually take up political responsibility as part of the EU, but also to assume basic social responsibility for providing a moral economy, for providing hospitality to people who have lost the protection of their own governments.

What we can learn from the Middle East is that the neighbouring countries of that area are doing more than their share. And they are doing it because of social networks, kinship ties, but also a social sense of responsibility to look after those people in need—knowing that once they are not in need anymore, they will be your ally, they will be integrated and give back. We don’t always need international law in order to help people who are in need. There is that “give and take” of the gift, which I think the countries in the Middle East have been very good at managing. If we think about Lebanon, 25 % of the population in Lebanon is made up of displaced Syrians. In Jordan it is about 10 %. And then you compare the numbers in Turkey—4.5 million—with the numbers in Germany today, and Germany has made out well. Turkey has accepted, in per capita terms, four times the numbers that have been accepted in Germany, and they are managing. So we have to find a way, at least in the Global North, of accepting those who seek asylum in our borders without necessarily thinking that this is going to destroy our state, is going to destroy our culture, is a threat of rising criminality. These are all baseless clichés. It is conspiracy theory gone mad.

In many cases, refugees and local people have struggled together for freedom of movement and against the forced settlement of refugees in camps. In recent times, such activities have been criminalised. Particularly in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2016, music played an integral role in this kind of mobilisation. For some ethnomusicologists, the study of such musical expressions could provide some insights for action in the domain of applied ethnomusicology, e.g. in music-centred interventions in support of social coherence. Applied anthropology shares similar views. Do you have some examples to lay out?

DC: I think that music, in particular, is a very powerful tool to promote social inclusion. I have seen it now being used in Athens, Greece. We have anthropologists working together with Greek and Syrian refugee youth in sonic realms. They are producing informal events that are showing the relationship and the symbiotic nature of music amongst the Greeks and the displaced Syrians. These are being put on YouTube, and people are listening to it, they are appreciating it. It makes you recognise our humanity and our kinship, if I can put it that way. Today, people who express their solidarity are being criminalised by governments in power. And this can stop only when enough people stand up and say: “No, these people are our cousins, they won’t harm us, we have a commonality in our humanity!” Governments have to stop criminalising these activities. We are now seeing ever more efforts to engender social inclusion of refugees using music, or let’s say sonic means, music mixed with poetry, song, and other very powerful expressions like dance. I believe that even though some peoples’ music is strange to other peoples’ music, by learning it we can learn to appreciate each other over time.

For those involved in the social sciences and humanities in a socially responsible way, this last question comes up very often: Can, finally, academic research influence socio-political realities by pointing the way towards social justice, and if so, to what extent?

DC: The primary goal among those of us in anthropology who do applied anthropology is to ameliorate the situation for people who are suffering, to try to improve life situations. This does not mean we can change it dramatically. Even the early anthropologists in the US like Elizabeth Colson, who was among those who agreed to work in the Japanese-American internment camps in WW2, did not necessarily think that they could shut down the camps and let everybody out. That fell beyond their power at that time. But this is also a two-step process. In the case of Syrians, one of the reasons that I wrote my last book, entitled Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State (2018), was because I realised that most people in the UK (I don’t know whether as much in Europe), when they talked about Syria, really had no idea of who Syrians were. Syria is on the Eastern Mediterranean, it is literally our neighbour. There have been numerous cultural, political, economic exchanges throughout the centuries between Europe and Syria. Furthermore, modern-day Syria consists of a diversity of ethnic and religious groups—of whom some, like the Bulgarians and the Circassians, have recent origins in the Balkans and Trans-Caucasus of Europe. They are all part of what makes up the population of what we call Syria and Syrian culture. If people can understand who the Syrians are, then they maybe will be less preoccupied with the fortress mentality of keeping them out of Europe. I think anthropologists can never really change politics directly—but over time, I think, they can have an influence either by making people aware of their ignorance or by creating new knowledge for them.



Chatty, Dawn. ([1986] 2013). From Camel to Truck: The Bedouin in the Modern World. Cambridge, UK: The White Horse Press.

Chatty, Dawn. (2018). Syria: The Making and Unmaking of a Refuge State. New York: C. Hurst & Company.

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