The African Centre for Migration & Society mourns the loss of Barbara Harrell-Bond, a pioneer in the critical study of displacement and humanitarianism. Almost single-handedly, she created a space in the academy for people concerned with the causes and consequences of people forced to move from their homes. Her trenchant and sometimes acerbic critiques of governments, UN agencies, and humanitarians often landed uncomfortably. As a result, she was not always favoured. Yet she was almost universally respected. She forged bonds with people that have survived decades and heated debates.
Her dedication and commitment extended beyond her own path-breaking work. Scores of scholars across the world owe, sometimes without knowing it, her an enormous debt. Working with others, she helped established research centres in Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, and our own in Johannesburg. Over the years, she expressed frustration that we were broadening our scope, moving beyond law; moving beyond refugees. We made this choice for various reasons, but we nonetheless remained in line with her fundamental commitments: to draw attention to people moving, people leaving home searching for possibilities to address poverty, precarity, and persecution.
In an era where states and citizens often turn harshly against refugees and other migrants, Barbara would have delighted in the counter movements and emerging solidarities. By people marching in support of Syrians and Somalis, of cities and citizens standing against the detention of children or dereliction of law. Of people organising to fill gaps left (or made) by governments and international organisations – some ostensibly dedicated to protecting people on the move. Undoubtedly she would have had sharp and encouraging words for us all.
Many of those she inspired remain in the academy. Others continue their work in governments, international organisations, and civil society across the world. Our teaching, scholarship, and public engagement stand as living tributes to a woman whose contributions will be felt for generations to come.