Social Work professor a sought-after expert on matters of migration

by | Jul 25, 2018

Uma Segal consulted on refugee resettlement policy with the Portuguese government's High Commission for Migration through the J. William Fulbright Specialist Program this summer.

It’s been a busy summer for UMSL Professor of Social Work Uma Segal, who gave the keynote address at a conference in Scotland before heading to Portugal for a month to evaluate and consult on refugee resettlement policy with the government’s High Commission for Migration. (Photo by David Morrison)

Uma Segal got front-page billing on June 22 in Portugal.

Segal, professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, woke up that morning to find her name and her words – in Portuguese – staring back at her from the right column on the front of that day’s “Diário de Notícias” newspaper in Lisbon, the nation’s capital and largest city.

Segal was nearing the end of a month living and working there as she prepared a report for the Portuguese government’s High Commission for Migration, identifying areas of strength and chances for improvement in the country’s services for refugees. The government connected with her through the J. William Fulbright Specialist Program, a U.S. Department of State-sponsored program that maintains a list of American experts who can be called upon by foreign institutions for research and consultation.

It was in this context that a reporter from “Diário de Notícias” sought her out to discuss immigration. The resulting story took up the entirety of page five, complete with a feature photo at the top and the banner headline “Obama foi duro com ilegais mas não arbitrário como Trump,” referred to on the front page.

Loosely translated, the headline read: “Obama was tough on illegal immigrants, but not arbitrary like Trump.”

Segal admits to being surprised it received so much attention, although she would have preferred that the headline read “unauthorized” rather than “illegal.”

“The second question the interviewer asked me was, ‘Is Trump tough on migration, and was Obama weak on it?’” Segal said. “My response was that Obama, in fact, sent more asylum-seekers back who were not authorized than Trump has done, but Trump has made a lot more noise about it, and he has done it more arbitrarily. He’s got the whole country riled up on that. I don’t think I’m saying it in terms of my personal opinion. I’m saying it in terms of my professional opinion.”

Segal has spent much of her 32-year career at UMSL researching and teaching about immigration and refugee populations. She relished the unique opportunity she had this summer to take her expertise abroad and combine scholarship with practice.

Segal said the School of Social Work – and both its previous and current deans, Lois Pierce and Sharon Johnson – and especially Joel Glassman, UMSL’s director for international studies and programs, have been champions of her work, which has made her a sought-after expert in Europe.

Her stint in Portugal was her second go-round with the prestigious Fulbright Program, which was established after World War II to improve international relations between the U.S. and other countries through the exchange of culture, knowledge and expertise.

In 2013-14, Segal earned a Fulbright Fellowship to set up a new school of social work at Alliance University in Bangalore, India. This year, as a Fulbright Specialist, she got the opportunity to inform policy considerations by the Portuguese government, which was eager to learn.

“I did not expect them to be so open, even though they invited me,” Segal said. “I thought they might have just wanted me to rubber-stamp what they were doing, but they truly wanted feedback. That, as an academic, was very rewarding.”

Segal had in-depth meetings with the heads of different governmental departments associated with migration services. She toured refugee resettlement centers in Lisbon and Braga, which is in the north of the country. She administered two all-day training seminars and served as the keynote speaker at the World Refugee Day conference on June 20 in Lisbon. Her uncensored evaluation was distributed in the Commission’s newsletter.

Portugal is looking for ways to become a more attractive place for immigrants, Segal said. As a way to help mitigate the current refugee crisis, the European Union set up quotas for its member nations. Portugal’s mandated limit is about 1,900 migrants. The country said it could take 10,000, but it’s having trouble finding that many who will come.

“They don’t want to come to Portugal, because they don’t know anything about Portugal,” Segal said. “They all want to go to Germany and Sweden. Portugal is really depressed, sad that nobody wants to come. They’re investing so much energy in each refugee family. One of the messages I gave them was they should feel happy this is happening, because they have time to actually iron out the kinks before they get a lot of people coming in. Once the message goes out that they have this great program, so many resources, a lot more people are going to be coming. I think they kind of liked that message.”

Segal lived in an immigrant-heavy part of Lisbon during her stay and had regular conversations with members of the community. She said her background as a social worker and a native of India allowed her to have candid talks with migrants from countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal.

She found that some were taking advantage of Portugal’s leniency. They would come in on student visas and stay past their schooling, with their employers paying their taxes – instead of wages – for three years to make them legal citizens.

“There is a point where migrants also need to respect the country in which they’ve settled,” Segal said. “They need to value the laws, abide by them, and they need to integrate. We moved from a point where we placed the whole burden of integration on migrants, in my early career, all the way to putting the burden of integration on the host country. There has to be a middle ground.”

In addition to her time in Portugal, she gave the keynote address at the inaugural World Congress on Migration, Ethnicity, Race and Health in May in Edinburgh, Scotland. She’s also scheduled to speak at the second annual Summer School on Refugee and Migrant Health in September in Palermo, Sicily, a joint venture of the World Health Organization, International Organization for Migration, European Commission and European Public Health Association, and at the WHO European Healthy Cities Summit of Mayors in October in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Segal says that 84 percent of refugees still reside in areas of the “Global South” such as Africa and India. But now that more are making their way into the “Global North” – Europe and the United States – everyone is beginning to pay more attention.

“After having gone to Portugal, I see two camps: one is very accepting of refugees and foreigners, then there is a whole group that is not,” Segal said. “The piece that’s interesting is that, not only is the reaction based on what’s happening with migrants in Europe, but a backlash is also occurring because of the political rhetoric in the U.S. Now, the Global North is also recognizing that migration is impactful in a variety of ways, including socially and culturally.

“Increasingly, people who are dissimilar to them are immigrating. The real dilemma is that they need them for their workforces and their economies. Because of low birthrates, the natural populations in the Global North are aging and declining.”

Segal encourages both faculty and students to participate in the Fulbright Program, either as Fulbright Scholars or Fulbright Specialists. She believes both allow life-changing opportunities while bringing increased international visibility to UMSL.

David Morrison

David Morrison