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Rethinking asylum

King Center fellowship recipient Pablo Seward Delaporte studies the tension between migrants in northern Chile and the government’s plans to resettle them.

Officially, the government in Antofagasta, Chile, has a policy of resettlement for the informal campamentos where many migrants from other South American countries have built homes and settled on the outskirts of the city since 2014.

The settlements have high concentrations of poverty and are prone to mudslides and fires, so the city’s plan is to offer the people living there—predominantly Black and Indigenous women and their families—subsidies to find homes within the city.

pabloe seward delaporte
Pablo Seward Delaporte

But the government also recognizes that the campamentos, which house nearly 30,000 people, provide a service that it alone cannot provide: During the COVID-19 pandemic, when migrant workers were stranded in Antofagasta and could not be repatriated because of travel shutdowns, the city asked the dirigentas—women leaders of the campamentos the city had recruited to help facilitate its resettlement plan—to find places in their communities for the displaced families.

“That was the state, in a way, recognizing that the campamentos are spaces of asylum,” says Pablo Seward Delaporte, a Stanford anthropology PhD candidate and King Center Graduate Student Fellowship recipient who has been studying the campamentos in Antofagasta since 2017.  

Understanding that asylum can mean different things to different people is a key goal of Seward Delaporte’s research, in which he has interviewed and observed 15 dirigentas for months, in addition to conducting interviews with the women’s family members and neighbors and the state officials, civil society actors, and activists participating in the city’s resettlement program. Seward Delaporte, whose interests include the politics and ethics of caring for marginalized urban communities, is seeking to better understand how societies create cities and distribute resources.

view of Antofagasta from hillside
One of Antofagasta's largest campamentos | Credit: Pablo Seward Delaporte

The question of whether the people in the campamentos should be resettled, as the Chilean government wants, or whether the campamentos should instead be integrated as-is into the fabric of the city is unresolved, Seward Delaporte says.

“There are interesting arguments to be made in either regard,” he says. “I’m more interested in taking a step back and thinking about campamentos as a certain form in which urban space is produced by people who are systematically excluded from cities and their benefits. Whether we resettle them or regularize them, the answer has to be that we include these people’s concerns and perspective and knowledge about what it means to make a city.”

Seward Delaporte was born and raised in Chile. The son of a Chilean mother and a Canadian father who worked in the salmon industry, he attended an international school as a child. In 2010—after deferring a year because of the global financial crisis caused by the Great Recession—he enrolled at UC Berkeley where he studied psychology and anthropology.

When he graduated in 2014, Seward Delaporte received a prize given to support intellectual and creative pursuits that contribute to the public good. He used the award to create an illustrated documentary film about how contemporary Indigenous people on Chile’s Easter Island relate to their colonial history.

In 2015, Seward Delaporte enrolled at Stanford, where he completed his master’s degree in 2017 and has continued on toward his PhD under the direction of Associate Professor of Anthropology Angela Garcia, who serves as chair of his dissertation committee.

Garcia says Seward Delaporte has “demonstrated himself to be an intellectually engaged and tenacious scholar, a dependable colleague, and an altruistic teacher.”

“One of the most impressive aspects of Pablo’s research is his depth of engagement with an enormous range of literature,” says Garcia, who also co-designed and co-teaches a course with Seward Delaporte called Asylum: Knowledge, Politics, and Population. The work “he has completed thus far include truly gripping fieldwork material.”

Andean people celebrating Carnival
Young women dancing their way up the main avenue during Carnival in the one of Antofagasta's largest migrant campamento | Credit: Pablo Seward Delaporte

In one draft paper, Seward Delaporte provides a glimpse into the life of Lourdes, a Colombian migrant whose experience illustrates the complicated relationship women like her have to the campamentos and the state. As a dirigenta, Lourdes is charged with helping resettle the members of her community, but even she doesn’t really want to leave her campamento, where she has been able to forge an independent life for herself and her family. In fact, on one of Seward Delaporte’s visits, Lourdes had recently invested all her savings in expanding her home to make room for a niece.

Seward Delaporte’s research encourages readers to look at migration from the perspective of the migrant rather than the state—a view known as the “autonomy of migration” framework.

“We often think of migration through the lens of state policy… in a way that pathologizes mobility and movement,” Seward Delaporte says. “In fact, people have always been mobile, have always survived inequality and exploitative capitalist and colonial history by moving. The autonomy framework tries to understand migration from the more subjective practices that lead individual people—who are then called migrants by the state—to move in a variety of ways.”

Seward Delaporte hopes to complete his PhD next year and has already written two peer-reviewed chapters about his work in Antofagasta. He says he is “incredibly thankful” for the King Center’s support, which allowed him to work on his dissertation over the summer.  Once he’s on campus, he hopes to participate more in the academic life of the center.

“I look forward to connecting with my peers who are also working in global development,” he said.

Eventually, Seward Delaporte hopes to write a book based on his research and experiences in the campamentos. But he says the dirigentas are doing the real work to raise awareness about the role their communities play in creating safe spaces for marginalized people; in fact, one dirigenta recently received a human rights award for her efforts.

“I have hope and confidence in the work that the migrant women dirigentas are doing,” he says. “Radical democracy means the reconstruction of the relationship between civil society and the state. In Antofagasta, this takes the form of giving power to migrant women dirigentas over the urban spaces they have created.”