Forced decisions? How a better understanding of displacement’s multiple push-factors may help to reform the global refugee regime
By Andreas Hackl
Refugee status implies that people were forcibly displaced from their home country, while migrants in search of work are often perceived to move primarily for economic reasons. Interviews conducted with Iraqi, Syrian and Afghan refugees in Austria reveal how refugees are not merely forced out by persecution and armed conflict: they are often forced to make informed decisions to flee for a combination of social, economic and political reasons (Hackl 2017). Focusing on these decisions and their diverse motivating factors can help us understand forced displacement as a more complex social process than the often-invoked binary opposition between political refugees and economic migrants.
This adds another element to recent calls for reforming the global refugee regime on the grounds that it tends to prevent the forcibly displaced from working, denies them a sense of autonomy, and bases humanitarian protection on an idea of direct “persecution” that was born out of the Second World War (The Guardian, March 22, 2017). Amid highly complex violent conflicts, mostly in failed states characterized by war economies and recurring instability, appeals for an adapted approach are gaining ground. What can we learn from refugees recollecting memories of their own “forced decisions”?
One lesson is that violence, state “dysfunctionality” and socio-economic problems often coincide. Not only guns and threats, but also sectarian clientelism, the deaths of family members, the inability to carry out one’s profession, or the refusal to comply with militias can lead to forced decisions. A lack of financial resources caused by war may drive women into situations where their only choice is to marry a Taliban affiliate, or they run the risk of falling into the hands of smugglers and into modern forms of slavery.
In the strict legal sense a refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This means that those who decide to leave a country because they can no longer maintain themselves without, for example, joining or supporting an armed militia, do not directly fall under this definition; neither do those who have simply lost all their property, belongings and family members. Recent cases have shown that there is flexibility in the refugee protection regime. As Syria has reached a general level of lethal violence, individuals receive general protection and refugee status quickly, or at the very least they cannot be returned home. At the same time, Iraqi and Afghan asylum seekers have much higher rejection rates and are frequently sent back.
While certain cases conform to the pure concept of forced displacement, there are many other refugees who face insecurity because of economic problems and persecution. The book chapter this post is based on (Hackl 2017) covers stories of persons in Iraq, who simply were no longer able to do their job or remain where they had previously lived. Moving to other areas within Iraq often brought about new dangers. And especially for young men, the question was often: join militias, or flee? There was no alternative.
Some of the accounts also indicate that a simple sectarian explanation of persecution, e.g. Shia against Sunni Muslims, does not always make sense. Many members of the same group may be forced to leave because they do not want to put their skills at the disposal of related militias, who need engineers, doctors, or journalists.
The interviews with refugees in Austria also indicated that generalized violence often leads to specific vulnerabilities, which are different for women and men. What is more, violence and economic problems reinforce each other:
A Kurdish man from Tikrit in Iraq related how war and violence gradually made daily life impossible. He used to work for an Egyptian company in another Iraqi city, often welcoming visiting delegations and taking them across the border in and out of Erbil, Kurdish Iraq’s capital. He said, “With the rise of ISIS it became difficult for us. On the one hand, the bombings, on the other, ISIS demanding that young men fight for them.” He added that he tried to live with his family in Kirkuk, but one day the company he had worked for withdrew from Iraq. “So we sat there in Kirkuk, four young people without work, without anything.” They sold their cars to get by, but one day, he decided to move to Europe, citing the ongoing explosions and the lack of jobs.
Often it is not only the potential of persecution that matters, but the fact that running a normal business can become dangerous. Economic life becomes impossible. A 50 year-old Yezidi woman witnessed the gradual implosion of all aspects of her everyday life before she left Iraq. She had run her own business as a professional cosmetician in the centre of Baghdad for over ten years. She said: “I had a house. I had a car. My life situation was excellent. But recently our life began to worsen.” Militias in Baghdad threatened and persecuted her, and the arrival of ISIS made things even more difficult. At the time when ISIS-followers began to threaten her because of the cosmetic salon, she discovered that she had cancer and moved to Lebanon for medical treatment. Remembering the last years of her time in Iraq, she summarised the carnage:
“We didn’t really live. We were like machines. We fought for our life every day (…) so that we could continue somehow. I went to work and something blew up close by, there were attacks and explosions. It meant that I might have died any moment. (…) When I arrived at my cosmetic studio, I had to reckon that militias might attack and kill me any moment. At home, I locked the door and prayed to the prophets of all religions that they protect me and help me to survive until the next day. Psychologically, we reached the breaking point. We were already destroyed.”
Against this backdrop, what can one learn from the many intertwined layers of displacement explored throughout this analysis?
The first insight is that the reasons for displacement and seeking refuge are rarely one-dimensional. Second, economic and political reasons cannot be sufficiently isolated from other factors in many cases. In some instances, political violence makes work and public life impossible. In other cases, the nature of one’s work triggers violence, and in yet other situations, one’s profession is in demand by violent actors who put pressure on individuals to comply. Third, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration is important; but it is equally important to acknowledge that sometimes people take forced decisions based on multiple intersecting push-factors.
Gaining a better understanding of how these different dimensions of displacement intersect will underpin future efforts to reform the global refugee regime. Here, the focus should not solely be on the support of refugees after their arrival in Europe or elsewhere. The points of departure are equally important. We should not only ask how refugees can get access to work, but also how exactly they lost access to work, security and a meaningful life in their home countries, as a consequence of pervasive violence, or of one of its side-effects.
Hackl, Andreas. 2017. “The Many Faces of Displacement. Pervasive Violence and the Dissolution of a Liveable Life in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan,” in Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.), From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian And Iraqi Refugees in Vienna (ISR-Forschungsberichte, Heft 47). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
The Guardian. March 22, 2017. Available at [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/22/why-denying-refugees-the-right-to-work-is-a-catastrophic-error]
By Noura Kamal
People need much effort to cope with unstable social environments and to get used to changes in their surroundings. But what if individuals were forced to leave their homeland? How will they be able to adapt to the circumstances they face in societies in which they may not even know the language?
War is among the main causes of displacement world-wide. As Edna Lomsky-Feder explains, “The personal memory of war is not homogeneous but, rather, multicolored: Some remember the war as a traumatic experience and others as a heroic event; some recall it as an experience that obstructs personal development, and others as an empowering and fortifying one” (Lomsky-Feder 2004, p. 82). That is, each individual has his/her own way of dealing with crises, and of telling their story. Particularly among refugees, these diverse expressions, or narratives, can provide us with countless aspects of human behavior during crises and in their aftermath. How asylum seekers cope with distress in their new place of living features prominently in the responses of a sample of Syrian interviewees.
As researchers, we must be careful when we reflect upon their stories. However, trying to look deeper into their narratives, highlighting certain aspects in detriment of others, can reveal important aspects of human lives, not least about how people confront the challenges of a journey in search of peace and dignity. But how do asylum seekers cope with war and flight?
In my contribution to the book entitled “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna”, I analyzed fifteen narrations by Syrians of different generations and affiliations to reflect upon the asylum seekers’ experiences of exile. While these narratives vary in expression, they also feature common themes. Most importantly, they express how hard the interviewed Syrians tried to be part of Viennese society and adapt to the obstacles they face in this new context. For many, voluntary work was the first step to overcome the idea that they are asylum seekers and prove for themselves that they can integrate and be part of the local Viennese society. Nonetheless, trying to be independent financially or achieving their personal satisfaction by continuing their education was also a vital aim for many in the sample. For many asylum seekers their self-confidence hinges on their ability to control their own lives and to contribute to the new environment. They much preferred to be productive members of their new society rather than being passive individuals. However, the income generated by regular work means they would lose the social welfare money. Sometimes this is not doable for members of large families, since the working family members’ salary cannot not provide for the whole family. If a man, for example, starts working, his wife and children at working age will stop receiving social benefits. Given this obstacle, they decided to contribute to their integration by engaging in social voluntary work. Many assisted in taking care of new asylum seekers arriving at the main stations in Vienna, such as Hauptbahnhof and Westbahnhof. But there were other forms of engagement as well. Thus a man in his mid-forties explained that during the process of looking for a job he had worked carrying wood for two months.
Despite the Syrian asylum seekers’ efforts to integrate into the new society, their experience of flight and exile affected their well-being. As Allen Feldman states: “There is no doubt that memories of the past say a great deal about people’s attitudes in and towards the present” (Feldman 2006, p. 15). Both men and women tried to find their way to a future that could give them hope and peace. The individual narratives showed that the personal relations and the background of each individual had a strong influence on how they adapted. Their political inclinations likewise affected their ability to cope with their suffering. The narratives reflected the impact of their social and political situation. Not all the asylum seekers from Syria faced the same hardships, whether during the war, or through their journey to Europe. It was easier for an individual with a wide range of relations beyond Syria to come to Vienna than it was for those who had no relations outside of Syria. In addition, political affiliations influenced the amount of support an asylum seeker received in adapting to the new circumstances. Finally, wealthy individuals found their way to Europe faster and easier than those who had a precarious income. It was noticeable from the interviews that traumatic experiences influenced how the Syrian asylum seekers communicated with strangers. Apparently, fear of others belonging to another religion made it harder for them to develop new relations.
The brief answers a married woman with five daughters gave during the interview reflect her fear of being open. This especially came to light at the end of the interview, when she said that, even in Austria, she was afraid of telling others that she is Yezidi. Her brief answers may be understood in the light of David Morris’ words that: “the silence of suffering also points to very practical breakdowns of speech (…) the voicelessness of suffering often resembles the quiet retreat of people who live with chronic pain” (Morris 1997, p. 28).
However, in spite of their fears, the persons interviewed asserted strong agency. They were dealing with their experiences and reflecting upon them with a positive attitude. Regardless of their different affiliations, social belongings and social standing, Syrians asylum seekers found in Austria a good place to start over, especially the members of the younger generation, who hope to continue their education or to be part of the labor force, and thus want to contribute to their new society. But the members of the older generation found it hard to move forward. An elderly woman said that if the war in Syria came to an end she would definitely return. At the same time, she emphasized that her children would be free to choose their own path.
Feldman A. (2006), Home as a Refrain: Remembering and Living Displacement in Gaza. In: History and Memory, Special Issue: Home and Beyond, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 10-47.
Lomsky-Feder E. (2004), Life Stories, War, and Veterans: On the Social Distribution of Memories. In: Ethos, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 82-109.
Morris D. (1997), About Suffering: Voice, Genre, and Moral Community. In: Kleinman, A., Das V. and Lock M. (eds.): Social Suffering, Berkeley, University of California Press, pp. 25-45.
Noura Kamal is a social anthropologist and researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences Institute for Social Anthropology. She is a doctor in social and cultural anthropology (University of Vienna). Her thesis discusses the scope of agency in Nablus/Palestine under immediate siege and under regular Israeli occupation. Her current research focuses on the Yemeni post-1962 intellectual discourse regarding changes in the perception and understanding of tribes and tribalism in northern Yemen.
By Sabine Bauer-Amin
When people leave a war-zone and arrive in a new setting, they are often not perceived as a tabula rasa but already have certain connotations attached to them. One common connotation in the late 2010s has been the idea of “victimhood”. This idea and its ramifications can be highly conflictual for the affected persons. The strategies they develop to escape the “victimhood” ascribed to them and to regain agency call some of the core tropes of the current humanitarian refugee discourses into question.
How are these current discourses different from earlier ones? Although people had to leave countries that failed to protect them long before the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (and its additional protocols), it was this so-called Refugee Convention that clarified the rights of refugees in their host countries. The “refugees” represented in this declaration were mostly dissidents from the Soviet Union, hence white, middle class and politically motivated actors who left the Soviet Union based on their own decision. These characteristics together with a focus on political reasons for taking refuge shaped the perception of refugeeness within earlier humanitarian discourses. Over the following decades, this political conception was gradually replaced by a focus on economic reasons, such as poverty, hunger and a lack of alternatives. While these phenomena often appear in the context of wars, they originally were not the most prominent features of refugeeness.
The shift was enmeshed with the visual representations about refugee crises that became dominant in the 1980s (ELIE 2014:30; see e.g. IMAGES OF EXILE BY UNHCR 1991). In this context, the people depicted were mostly poor, starving and suffering from harsh economic circumstances in refugee camps somewhere in the Global South. The previously pivotal understanding that becoming a refugee was inherently based on political agency and political reasons was replaced by humanitarian discourses highlighting refugees’ dependence on foreign aid and on those countries receiving them. Hence, the prevalent depiction of refugeeness for the last forty-five years has cast them as passive, poor and apolitical victims and not as determined political actors. These pictures of poverty and war merged into a common assumption of what it might be like to be a refugee. However, these assumptions are representational constructions fostered by the changing visual representations and political discourses on refugees.
How are political actors turned into dependent victims in public discourses? This assumption is based on a “myth of difference” between those who are in need and those who can act upon the other’s need (JOHNSON 2011:1023). It entails processes of power and dominance that turn the less privileged ones into “suffering victims” who are depending on the intervention of those who can “rescue” them. While the donors and host societies are portrayed as powerful and seemingly acting out of their own humanitarian motives, the refugees are presented as disempowered masses without personal histories, reasons for exile, or political motivations. They are no longer critical figures and dissidents but are forced into a corset of voiceless victimhood without the capacity to act (especially politically) while fully dependent on international donations and receiving states. Although this might be the case for a significant number of refugees, it is certainly not for everybody. Instead of this, many people do not want to be portrayed only as the victims of their situation and want to negotiate their new position in society actively.
Through the creation of this fundamental difference, people are essentialized as “naked refugees” and deprived of other possible perceptions. This creates the stereotype of the generic refugee, which in turn is essential to the structure of the contemporary discourses on refugees. This generic refugee became an indexical representation of refugeeness and shapes imaginations in hosting countries. BLEIKER argues that through such representations meanings are introduced into the public (2011:515). The aforementioned constructions inform visual representations and shape wider meanings in the social world. (JOHNSON 2011: 1017). At the same time, they create problematic expectations in the countries receiving refuges and/or donating money.
Why would different social actors mobilize this victimization trope even when not believing in the stereotype it produces? For NGOs and supra-local organizations, victimization plays on an emotional urge to contribute and mobilize funds. For policymakers, it justifies interventions and programs (mostly in the Global South) in the realm of humanitarianism (JOHNSON 2011: 1016). For host countries, victimization contradicts the threat posed by the “dangerous alien” (MALKKI 1995: 11) and his potential for political dissidence. Depicted as helpless and vulnerable beings, refugees become a controllable group whose political agency seems to be limited. For refugees, this trope helps to gain visibility, which is especially important for social movements, oppositional groups and minorities. For minorities in particular, the victimization trope can be weaved into claims of protection that might not be guaranteed simply through a ‘minority’ label.
The victimization trope and its shortcomings have pervasive consequences for the refugees whose profiles do not always correspond to it and the related myth of difference. Differences between the supposed powerful and powerless are not as rigid as the dominant discourses would suggest, putting into question the myth of difference, and, by extension core ideas of refugeeness. One of the most important of these ideas is that refugees give up political agency when leaving their country. As JOHNSON states, political agency is the ability to have an impact on one’s own life and on the lives of others. Usually, these qualities are linked to the notion of citizenship. In addition, NYERS states that citizenship is a political identity that entails claims to equal rights, liberty, self-determination, individualism and agency (2004: 203). Thus, those being denied these rights become non-citizens. This alleged loss of political agency justifies the often-hostile attitude of host countries towards refugees’ political involvement either locally or in their countries of origin. This clearly contradicts the main understanding of refugees as political actors as expressed in the 1951 Refugee Convention. However, as victims of violence, political suppression and persecution, refugees are in fact political actors. This mismatch between the denial of political agency while being de facto political actors often creates tensions with humanitarian agents and host state authorities. Refugees’ political agency might undermine humanitarian justifications for conceding legal refugee status (BAKEWELL 2010: 1690). Furthermore, the expression of exile as an intrinsic political decision based on refugee’s choice, self-determination and agency, rather than on extrinsic reasons, questions the “forced” in forced migration. Over the last forty years, humanitarian discourses have fundamentally changed the perception of refugees from political actors to suffering victims and have, in effect, contradicted the original understanding of the Refugee Convention.
In this blog post, I have analyzed the structure of contemporary humanitarian discourses about refugees to show how they drifted away from the ideas enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Furthermore, these discourses also contradict the self-perception of refugees as political actors. Although there are reasons why social actors use the trope of victimization characterizing the contemporary humanitarian discourses, the myth of difference, on which it is based, creates tensions. Most importantly, stereotypes about refugees that have been fostered through visual representations portraying refugees as “essentialized”, passive, and helpless victims. This victimization in turn creates expectations on refugees that are for many hard to fulfill and come at a high emotional cost. An important conclusion is that all too often the humanitarian debate leaves out how refugees experience their victimization and how they struggle to overcome this labeling. This compels us to ask further questions and to critically approach the victimization trope: what if people do not want to be voiceless and apolitical? What if they want to (re-)empower themselves? What if they do not want to be identified with their past and their suffering? What if they do not want to be non-citizens but become equal co-citizens in their new countries of residence?
BAKEWELL O. (2010), Some reflections on structure and agency in migratory theory. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36 (19), pp. 1968-1708.
BLEIKER, R. (2011), The aesthetic turn in international political theory. Millennium 30 (3), pp. 509-533.
ELIE J. (2014), Histories of Refugees and Forced Migration Studies. In: FIDDIAN-QASMIYEH E., LOESCHER G, LONG K. & SIGONA N. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, 23, pp. 22-35.
JOHNSON H.L. (2011), Click to Donate: visual images, constructing victims and imagining the female refugee. Third World Quarterly, 32 (6), pp. 1015-1037.
MALKKI L. (1995), Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and Hutu Cosmology among the Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. University of Chicago Press.
UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES (UNHCR) (19919, Images of Exile 1991-1991. Geneva, UNHCR.