Carla Hung

Society Fellow


Carla Hung is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina Asheville. She is a cultural anthropologist with research and teaching interests in the political economy of African migration to Europe and its thematic links to abolitionism in African diaspora studies. Specifically, her work analyzes the debt economies that enable Eritrean refugee movement and the diasporic politics of asylum seeking. Her current book project Trafficking in Hospitality: Misgivings over Communal Care Amongst Eritrean Refugees in Italy investigates the criminalization of community networks used by Eritrean refugees to seek asylum and advocate for political reform at home. The project is informed by her work as an expert witness in a trail where Eritrean refugees were accused of aiding and abetting human trafficking. Her multi-sited ethnographic research was funded by the National Science Foundation and Wenner Gren. She teaches courses entitled Abolitionism Activism Social Justice; Critical Humanitarianism; Indigenous Economies; Law and Culture; and Migrants and Refugees in a Global Context. 

Research Focus

Trafficking in Hospitality

While at Cornell’s Society for the Humanities, Carla will be working on her book Trafficking in Hospitality. The book examines how Eritrean refugee hospitality practices are criminalized by the European border security system. It is based on nearly two years of fieldwork with Eritrean refugees primarily living in Rome, Italy. Specifically, the book investigates a criminal trial where a number of Eritrean refugees were accused of human trafficking for what they would consider to be caring for their relatives and community members. The book shows how this trial reflects difficulties Eritreans face in turning to the asylum system to try advocating for political reform in Eritrea and survive a hostile climate in Europe. The core argument is that the extralegal forms of communal care that Eritrean refugees rely on to seek asylum in Europe are not simply makeshift solutions to structural inequality but political platforms to expose injustice in the law. Furthermore, criminalizing the use of informal systems that are necessary in order to gain the formal right of asylum exposes how asylum granting countries hold refuge out as a humanitarian good that can be retracted whenever resources are strained, or whenever refugees demonstrate not to be in need of such charity by making do on their own in order to advocate for political reform and social integration. The topic intervenes in current debates in anthropology about race and global mobility, and participates in public discussions about humanitarianism and the criminalization of solidarity. 

The ethnographic research that informs this book found that the heart of the misunderstanding between hospitality and trafficking during this criminal trial turns on the question of profit-making as a marker of exploitation between refugee hosts and their asylum seeking relatives. Drawing on scholarly debates on abolitionism, the book demonstrates how the humanitarian idea that exploitation is the failure to value human dignity over profitability emerges in the movement to abolish slavery and reflects a liberal understanding of the human as a contracting individual. The book argues that anti-trafficking efforts are rooted in humanitarian institutions that valorize a philanthropic relationship to money and are thus inadequate to evaluate whether the economies of care Eritrean refugees rely upon to seek asylum, like hawala debt transfer practices that ground transnational kinship and hospitality in the Eritrean community, are exploitative. Using a comparative analysis of  reciprocal systems grounded in the Eritrean refugee perspective, this book merges debates about reciprocity in African cultural systems of exchange to talk back to the philanthropic charitable imperative of the political asylum system in Europe today.