As an international expert on resettlement and forced migration, Dr Christopher McDowell is often in demand from policymakers and global organisations with an interest in human displacement.

This was never more so in 2016 when Dr McDowell, a Reader of International Political Anthropology at City, was commissioned by the World Bank to research allegations of sexual crimes against women and girls displaced by a road-building project in Uganda and, separately, by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCT) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to evaluate the integration of vulnerable Syrian refugees in the UK.

In both cases, Dr McDowell’s research contributed to major changes of policy. The findings from the Ugandan project led to policy and operational changes at the World Bank as well as the introduction of new measures by the Ugandan Government to safeguard women and children affected by developments. Meanwhile, the recommendations from the UK project led the UK Home Office to grant 20,000 Syrians full refugee status – a pathway to full citizenship and an important precedent for other UK resettlement programmes.

“It was a very busy period,” says Dr McDowell. “I was working on the UNHCR-IOM project, interviewing Syrian refugees in the UK, and then going straight to Uganda. It was a fascinating experience because I am interested in where policy fails people and what the human impacts are of policy failure. To have two such vivid and stark examples of that, at the same time in different parts of the world, was really quite eye-opening.”

Dr Christopher McDowell.

Dr McDowell’s research interest encompasses all forms of population displacement, whether caused by conflict, environmental change or as a result of decisions made by governments to move populations for economic, development or political reasons.

It is a subject that has intrigued him ever since he studied for his master’s degree in South Africa in the immediate post-Apartheid era and had the opportunity to carry out research among women’s groups in the townships around Cape Town.

“I was impressed by the resilience of people living under the conditions in the townships and developed a desire to research displacement and the challenges that it poses to people,” he says. “It was a thirst to better understand what the human impacts are and how people overcome the negative impacts of immigration and displacement.”

In Uganda, the impacts on the women and girls who were displaced from their homes during the construction of the Kamwenge-Kabarole roadway in the west of the country were particularly severe. The construction project was funded by the World Bank, who received complaints in 2014 and 2015 from local communities alleging that women and girls were being raped and sexually abused by male construction workers.

In response, the World Bank set up an Inspection Panel Inquiry – an accountability mechanism for communities who believe they have been adversely affected by World Bank-funded projects – and Dr McDowell was commissioned as the Panel’s Social Development and Resettlement Expert.

Through interviews with affected people on the ground in Uganda, Dr McDowell and his multi-disciplinary Inspection Panel Inquiry colleagues established that the allegations of sexual misconduct were true and that the involuntary resettlement of local people had exposed women and girls to the risk of gender-based violence.

The final Inspection Panel Inquiry report was accepted in full by the World Bank and, within two weeks of the report being submitted, the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced a Global Gender-Based Violence Task Force to apply the lessons learned from Uganda to all the Bank’s development finance projects around the world.

This led to a series of significant policy and operational changes, including a requirement that any company bidding for World Bank business in the future should demonstrate that they have in place protection and safeguarding measures to reduce the likelihood of violence against women.

The Inspection Panel Inquiry’s findings led to other lending organisations such as the African Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank to examine their own portfolio of projects for evidence of gender-based violence and introduce policy changes.

The Ugandan Government also brought in a wide-ranging raft of legal, policy and operational reforms to the management of all of the country’s infrastructure projects to protect women and children, while the British Government adopted new safeguards in response to the Inspection Panel Inquiry investigation through its Department of International Development.

“It was such a sad project to do,” said Dr McDowell. “We knew in advance before we went out to Uganda that there had been accusations of what they call defilement in Uganda but when we got there, it was a real shock to see the extent to which this was happening.

“When we were there, they were upgrading only a relatively short portion of the road – maybe 10 kilometres – and there was abuse happening there. Further south, the road project went into even remoter areas such as forests and it is very worrying to think what was happening beyond the eyes of those who were supposed to be overseeing it.”

Underlining the breadth of his expertise in resettlement, Dr McDowell was commissioned by the UNHCR and the IOM in 2016 to lead a joint research and advocacy project into the UK Government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme (VPRS).

The goal of the Government was to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees in the UK between 2015 and 2020 and the task of Dr McDowell’s project was to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme. Those resettled were chosen specifically because of their vulnerability, many of them suffering serious medical or mental health conditions that could not be treated adequately in the region.

Individual refugees and refugee families were housed by local authorities across the UK and were offered a programme of support to help them integrate and build a life in the UK.

Dr McDowell travelled across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to interview around 160 resettled refugees as well as holding meetings with senior officials in 11 local authorities, at the Home Office and at the UN in Geneva.

In his report, published by the UNHCR, Dr McDowell made a number of recommendations in areas such as surge capacity, social cohesion, interpretation, accommodation, access to medical and mental health care, education, family reunification, English language teaching, employment and integration strategies.

However, his principal recommendation was that the legal status of the resettled refugees should be upgraded from temporary ‘humanitarian protection’ status, which carried some uncertainty about what would happen to them at the end of five years, to full refugee status, which is a pathway to full UK citizenship. This would enable the Syrian refugees to plan for their future with peace of mind, to consider long-term education and employment opportunities and provide a legal right to healthcare in the UK.

“What was most important that came out of this research was that in order for Syrian refugees to feel they had a long-term vision in the UK, it was necessary for them to have a legal status which gave them that sense of belonging and permanence,” says Dr McDowell. “The pathways to integration would be made much simpler if they had some guarantee that they were going to remain in the UK and that this was going to be their home from now on.”

The UNHCR wrote to the then Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, summarising the research findings, including the key recommendation that granting refugee status would help the process of integration.

After a series of meetings, the Home Office said it agreed with the recommendation and the Home Secretary announced that, from 1 July 2017, those admitted under VPRS would be granted refugee status. In addition, those resettled under the programme before this date could request to change their status from ‘humanitarian protection’ to refugee status. The change of policy affected as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees who were resettled in the UK between 2015 and 2020.

The impact of Dr McDowell’s research was extended further when the then Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced in June 2019 an extension of the VPRS beyond 2020, together with an extension of the scheme to include vulnerable refugees from areas outside Syria and the region. This new scheme also consolidated the UK’s Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme, the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme and the gateway protection programme into one global scheme.

Dr McDowell says: “As a result of working with the UN and being able to have high-level meetings with the Home Office, I was able to get my point of view across and so the research contributed to a change of policy by the UK government to grant Syrian refugees permanent refugee status.

“They accepted the findings of the research that this would aid their integration and I’m delighted that the UK Government made that change because it not only affected Syrian refugees but goes on to affect other refugees who are resettled in the UK as a result of other resettlement programmes from other conflicts around the world.”