New Center Tackles Human Rights, Refugee Protection, and Gender-based Violence

Global; Public Health; Research

A new center directed by the Brown School’s Kim Thuy Seelinger is addressing human rights issues with a focus on gender- and migration-related issues locally and across the globe. The Center for Human Rights, Gender and Migration, based at Washington University in St. Louis’ Institute for Public Health, was established in 2020.

“The aim of the Center is to promote evidence-based solutions for challenges arising in the intersection of human rights violations, gender, and migration,” said Seelinger, research associate professor at the Brown School. “These are complex issues on their own – so when they overlap, problem-solving requires creative and transdisciplinary thinking. We’re interested in applied research – we draw on diverse methods and areas of expertise from across campus to address knowledge gaps. Then we work with policymakers and practitioners to devise and implement solutions.” Seelinger understands a thing or two about harnessing multiple disciplines – she is a social science researcher and lawyer, with faculty appointments both at the Brown School and the School of Law. She came to Washington University in late 2019 from the University of California, Berkeley, to start the Center with the support of her longtime colleague, Julia Uyttewaal. Uyttewaal serves as the Center’s manager.

Only a year old, the Center has become a powerful draw for students at the Brown School and across the university. Lacy Broemel, MSW ’21, serves as co-chair of the Center’s Student Advisory Council, a diverse group whose academic expertise includes social work, public health, law and English literature. “I’ve really enjoyed connecting with students from other programs to share research opportunities,” she said. She came to the Brown School to pursue her interest in refugee and immigration issues and the Center has well placed her to do that. “It’s been great to stay so connected to the field,” said Broemel.

One current project in that field, for which the Center recently received a $597,000 award from the U.S. State Department, addresses sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) among refugees and migrants in Mexico, Greece and Kenya. The project has immediacy, as the Biden administration revisits immigration policy and more than 500,000 more migrants and refugees journey north from Central America through Mexico each year. The work is needed more than ever due to the heightened refugee crisis in Mexico, Uyttewaal said. “Asylum seekers have been stuck in informal settlements in Mexico in incredibly unsafe conditions for several years. Some tried to cross the border when Biden became president, but they were sent back to these dangerous areas to wait longer.”

Many of these migrants are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. Seelinger has spent years studying the barriers that survivors face in revealing experiences of SGBV suffered during armed conflict and forced displacement.

“It’s something I saw from my lawyer days, representing immigrants who had experienced sexual violence. Disclosure is the gateway to access support and protection,” Seelinger said. “This is particularly critical for refugees– they have often suffered terrible things at home or on the road. With this new funding, we can build on our recent research in Mexico and Central America to better understand and address disclosure barriers in other contexts, as well. Disclosure is important, but it has to be approached ethically, safely.”

Based on the initial research in Mexico and Guatemala, the Center partnered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and local organizations in Mexico to develop a practical toolkit to improve the way service providers understand and approach refugees’ disclosure of SGBV. Seelinger and Uyttewaal have spent the past two years developing the toolkit in workshops with service providers working with refugees there.

The current project will evaluate how that tool is working in Mexico and extend research to Greece and Kenya. The ultimate aim is to develop an adaptable toolkit for practitioners working in diverse humanitarian crises around the world. The UNHCR will disseminate the final tools and research as part of its global guidance related to SGBV.

Other Center projects led by Seelinger include:

  • COVID-19 and intimate-partner violence. A study funded by McDonnell International Scholars Academy is investigating the relationship between COVID-19 and intimate partner violence (IPV) in Kampala, Uganda; Santiago, Chile; and St. Louis, Missouri.
  • COVID-19 and immigrants in the St. Louis area. Funded by the Institute for Public Health and the Immigrant Service Providers Network (ISPN), the study explores the impact of COVID-19 on diverse immigrant communities in the St. Louis are and organizations serving them, in order to ensure that immigrants’ needs are accounted for in pandemic-related relief efforts.
  • Crisis in North Africa. The Center is conducting a study commissioned by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) about the “mixed movement” crisis in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in which different kinds of people travel across North Africa with various legal statuses and support needs.
  • Evaluation of Panzi Hospital holistic model of care in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. At the request of 2018 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, Dr. Denis Mukwege, Seelinger is leading a team of WashU faculty to design an evaluation of Panzi Hospital – famous for its holistic support for survivors of sexual violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • War crimes trial in Liberia. Seelinger is working with eight WashU law students plus a recent graduate to virtually monitor the war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi, a former warlord from Sierra Leone accused of committing atrocities in the neighboring country of Liberia.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected researchers across the academic spectrum, but it’s had an especially significant impact on the intensely personal, international nature of the Center’s work. “We’ve really had to rethink how we do everything,” Seelinger said. “We can’t travel, we can’t interview folks in person, and we’re supervising our army of graduate students remotely. We couldn’t even have our Center launch last April!”

“Research-wise, we can manage,” Seelinger added, although navigating Zoom meetings with study participants across international time zones has been a challenge. “You have to schedule meetings differently because your interviewee is eight hours ahead of you. You have to build rapport in a totally different way,” she said. “You have to think, ‘What is my face doing?’ and ‘Does this come across like actual eye contact?’”

Despite the roadblocks, the Center has been a major benefit to many students, including Lacy Broemel. “When I came to the Brown School, I was eager to continue my education focusing on people and policy by connecting with individuals and their life experiences,” said Broemel, whose concentration is in social and economic development. She learned about the Center last spring and reached out to Seelinger and Uyttewaal, who invited her to co-chair the advisory board with Grace Day, a law student. Broemel had other roles at the Center, including participating in a literature review about the impact of conflict-related sexual violence and reparations; and participating in a Center-hosted discussion of immigration policy in the Biden administration.

“The Center has been a wonderful part of my time here at the Brown School,” said Broemel, who plans to move to Washington D.C. after graduation and work in refugee and policy advocacy. “Working with the Center has expanded my field of understanding and helped prepare me for my next career.”