Anum Merchant stands by a flowering tree near the Robins School.

The politics of human migration

April 18, 2024

Anum Merchant still remembers the stories of horrific brutality she read while visiting India’s Partition Museum with her high school class. The museum chronicles the violence and mass migration of refugees that occurred in the wake of the 1947 partitioning of India and Pakistan, an event that continues to shape the politics of the region today.

Born in the U.S. to Indian immigrants, Merchant spent most of her childhood in Dubai and her teen years in India. As Indian Muslims, her family had at times been subjected to religious bigotry in their predominantly Hindu homeland. During the COVID lockdown in 2020, she witnessed her mother volunteering in the southern Indian city of Bangalore with migrants from eastern India who suddenly found themselves stranded without jobs and unable to pay for food and gas.

These kinds of experiences sparked her interest in refugees and forced migration, the senior said. She has explored that interest further through her leadership studies and political science majors.

“In Dr. Datta’s Global Governance class, I learned the many ways scholars define human trafficking,” she said. “It’s so much more than the sex trade and often takes the form of forced labor. For my final paper for Dr. Flanigan’s Leadership Ethics class, I researched whether public officials have a duty to help refugees integrate into their host countries.”

In her senior thesis, supported by faculty mentor Guzel Garifullina, she explores the effect of populist politics on pluralism. Specifically, she examines the current right-wing populism of India and Denmark and the historical left-wing populism of Venezuela under former president Hugo Chávez.

“Populism has a common thread — there is an in group and an out group,” the senior said. “Populist leaders typically have negative attitudes toward refugees and immigrants.”

As a Bonner Scholar, Merchant served as an immigration intern with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy during spring semester 2021. She researched immigrant child labor in Virginia’s tobacco fields, with the aim of influencing state policy.

She has had direct experience working with Virginia’s immigrant community as a volunteer with the University of Richmond chapter of the Scholars Latino Initiative (SLI). Founded by leadership studies professor Peter Kaufman, the nonprofit SLI promotes college access for Latinx high school students. Merchant has mentored Yoselin, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, ever since they were first-year students in college and high school, respectively.

“This year, I helped Yoselin with her college essays and applications,” Merchant said. “When you grow up in a culture unfamiliar to your family, you have to work twice as hard. I have seen that in Yoselin. I love watching her grow and figure out what she wants to do. She’ll be attending Virginia Commonwealth University in the fall.”   

Taken together, her academics, volunteering, and internships have informed her understanding of the challenges facing migrants and refugees, Merchant said. The Jepson Scholars Foundation recently selected her as a Jepson Scholar, awarding her a full scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in refugee and forced migration studies at the University of Oxford in the fall. Eventually she plans to pursue a law degree as well, with the goal of becoming an international human rights lawyer.

“I’m fascinated by how and why people become refugees and migrants, what their lives are like after they migrate, and how their experiences continue to affect future generations,” Merchant said. “The overlap of community and policy interests me. I want to use the law in ways that benefit different communities.”