Alum Searches for Solutions for the Displaced

By Debra Holtz

Since delivering the 2005 undergraduate commencement address, Gilburt Loescher ’67 has toured refugee camps along the 1,500-mile Thai–Burmese border, written two books about the plight of the dispossessed and continued teaching and research at the University of Oxford.

At 63, Loescher is not considering retirement any time soon. “I really love what I do,” says Loescher, one of the foremost experts on international efforts to deal with forced migration. “I’ve been doing this since the late 1970s and have developed a great deal of experience about these issues. I also enjoy teaching and the students seem to get a lot from me, so I think it would be a shame to stop that.”

Besides, Loescher says there’s too much to be done. By his estimate, 50 million people worldwide are displaced from their homes because of conflict. “Most are warehoused in refugee camps around the world with little assistance by the international community,” he says. “Over two-thirds of the world’s refugees are in these protracted refugee situations that don’t make the headlines … They are denied freedom of movement and are not provided opportunities to engage in employment. Whole generations are growing up in these environments.”

In 2003, Loescher was at the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad to assess the human cost of the Iraq war when it was attacked by a suicide bomber. Though he survived, he lost his legs and 22 of his colleagues were killed.

“Since my initial recovery, I deliberately chose to focus on longstanding refugee situations that are ignored by the international community,” says Loescher, who received a Ford Foundation grant to study chronic cases of people living in exile due to political upheaval.

Loescher hasn’t allowed his injuries to stop him from searching for solutions in the field. During a three-week trip to Thailand in 2006, Loescher found signs of hope for the 140,000 Burmese refugees who have fled one of the longest-running conflicts in the world. The Royal Thai government, long criticized by human rights groups for denying basic rights to refugees, has begun providing them with education and vocational training to become economically self-sufficient.

“The time was ripe for Thailand to consider alternatives to this policy of strict warehousing,” Loescher says. “The government realized that the situation in Burma was not going to resolve itself any time soon.”

In his new book, United Nations High Commission for Refugees: The Politics and Practice of Refugee Protection into the Twenty-First Century, co-authored with two colleagues, Loescher writes of the changing nature of conflict in the post-9/11 era. One of the largest mass displacements in the last half-century is affecting Iraq and its neighbors, he says. More than 2.2 million Iraqis have fled the war to countries such as Jordan and Syria, while 2 million Iraqis remain internally displaced. Loescher says little is being done to address this growing problem.

“It’s pretty shameful that the United States and Great Britain have resettled so few Iraqi refugees,” he says.

Given the circumstances of Loescher’s last trip to Iraq, it is unlikely that he will return to the Middle East.

“They would be very uneasy about my going,” Loescher says of his wife, Anne, and daughters, Claire and Maggie. “And it would be terribly unfair of me to raise those concerns with them.”