The geopolitics of trauma: The role of PTSDin admission and resettlement of Iraqi refugees in the US

Grants and Contracts Details


Refugees are increasingly defined and cared for through a medical diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) both in the US and internationally. However, the role that the medicalization of trauma through this paradigm plays in refugee admission, resettlement, and wellbeing is not well known. With over two million Iraqis displaced from their country by the recent war, Iraqis have been one of the top three refugee populations resettled in the US in the past five years. Our multi-sited research will examine the effects of the PTSD paradigm on the processes and experiences of Iraqi refugee admission to and resettlement in the U.S. We will accomplish this goal by conducting interviews with a) UNHCR and International Organization for Migration (IOM) officials at resettlement support centers, consular staff, and panel physicians who administer mental health screenings in Jordan and Turkey; b) local resettlement service providers in four US cities chosen to represent both newer immigrant destinations (Lexington, KY and Boise, ID) and traditional gateway cities (San Diego, CA and Phoenix, AZ); and c) Iraqi refugees (both men and women, both those diagnosed with PTSD and those who are not) at the four domestic sites. Our analysis will examine the deployment of the PTSD framework in practices of refugee screening and resettlement and trace how this framework renders the trauma of war and displacement intelligible for state actors, service providers, and refugees themselves. A geopolitics of trauma thus collapses the spatial and temporal distance between sites of war and peace, creating intimate connections among violence, mental health, and the security of subjects and states. Our research is significant because understanding the geopolitics of trauma as an embodied experience remaps the relationships between foreign and domestic places and exposes the processes through which security and care are interwoven. The PTSD paradigm has emerged only since the late 20th century as a new vocabulary for clinical diagnosis and as an instrument in the governance of humanitarian migration. Our research will open up the practices, technologies, and narratives of PTSD to examine their effects within the international chain that leads from screening and admission to refugee resettlement and service provision. Further, our work seeks to trace the spatial outcome of these processes, from the variability of mental health screening and services to the foldings of time and space that trauma and refugee resettlement call forth. Our research thereby contributes to a broader understanding of how the rise of PTSD within the international humanitarian and mental health lexicon has come to shape ideas about the effects of war, the management of migration, the proper place of the past, the workings of memory, and the measure of well-being. Our findings will inform scholarship on the management of borders and the wellbeing of refugees. More broadly, it will advance studies of trauma in critical health geographies, expand scholarship on war and violence in feminist geopolitics, and contribute to migration studies a renewed understanding of migration trajectories and of the intimate connections between the security of subjects and states. The United States has a vested interest in understanding the consequences of the Iraq war and serving those displaced by the war and its aftermath. The need for in depth research on the effects of U.S. practices and policies regarding refugees from this region is only increasing given the large number of those displaced from Syria and new waves of Iraqis fleeing from recent violence. Mental health screening and treatment for Iraqi refugees is not only important for the well-being of these individuals within US society, but also contributes to U.S. national security interests. Our findings from our multi-sited research will yield new insights into the uneven geography of mental health screening and treatment that will be useful for shaping admission and resettlement processes. Our findings will also be helpful to public health practitioners attending to the critical needs of refugees and interested in the development of intercultural approaches to PTSD. In short, a better understanding of how both service providers and Iraqi refugees engage with the PTSD framework and its implications will both enhance US national security and fulfill our country’s humanitarian responsibility for the well-being of the displaced
Effective start/end date5/1/1512/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $474,613.00


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