By Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek
Most current studies on refugees and asylum seekers coming to Europe focus on the reasons for fleeing, the challenges refugees face during their flight, and their experiences in potential host countries. So far little attention has been paid to the relevance of personal motives (e.g. fleeing to avoid a forced marriage, or to escape an ongoing vendetta) and to the importance of social obligations and relations in the context of forced migration.
When social relations are highlighted at all, they are mostly studied in the context of facilitating the establishment of refugees in their new places of residence (e.g. providing jobs, housing and a first orientation in the new environment), or in connection with transnational networks of refugees and their relatives and friends left behind in former places of residence. A few studies, such as the paper by A. Monsutti et alii entitled “Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation” (2006) and Ch. Berg Harpviken´s book entitled Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan (2009), highlighted the role of social networks for the reintegration of returning refugees in their former home region and/or in preventing people from becoming refugees at all by successfully securing a sustainable livelihood despite protracted war or civil war.
However, the decision to flee is not only informed by personal concerns (e.g. fearing to be killed by insurgents), but is also closely linked to social obligations individuals bear to their social environment (e.g. children, wife, kinsmen, friends). Thus, it seems worthwhile to focus on the intersection of social ties and obligations and the reasons for fleeing, including very personal ones as forced marriage.
In line with other studies, the data on refugees from Afghanistan that were collected in the framework of the ROR-n pilot study that informed the book “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna “ (2017) show that it is usually a combination of causes that influences the decision to flee or to renew a flight.
Frequently, we find a mixture of general security concerns (e.g. increases in local violence, heightening of ethnic and religious conflicts), personally experienced violence (death threats, detention by government and/ or opposition groups, reprisals by Islamic radicals, retaliation for having worked for foreigners), as well as economic and other reasons (e.g. being persuaded by friends to leave the country with them, evading an unbearable domestic situation, fleeing from an ongoing vendetta, being discriminated in current place of residence, e.g. in Iran). However, these flight motives are often closely linked to social obligations.
Despite decades of protracted violence, displacement and economic hardship that have badly affected the resilience and coping strategies of most Afghans, many still exhibit a strong commitment towards fulfilling their social obligations, in particular towards honoring their responsibility for the wellbeing of their family, kinsmen and friends. Thus, protecting the life of family members or offering children a “good life” are among the most important social obligations that – in addition to the aforementioned reasons – inform the pre-flight decision making process.
These social obligations are often deemed as more important than one’s own wellbeing and safety. Several of our interviewees mentioned that the final decision to flee was only taken when a personal threat (e.g. fear of being abducted, receiving threatening letters etc.) was perceived as not only endangering one’s own life, but also that of other family members (e.g. children, parents, brothers, etc.).
An illustrative case is a 54-year-old male Pashtun from Kandahar, whose brother had been killed several years earlier by the Taliban. The interviewee himself fell victim to a suicide attack in which he was severely wounded and lost the vision of one of his eyes. Yet, it was not until his two young children were threatened to be kidnapped for ransom that he and his family left the country.
Offering one’s children a better future also forms an important motivation for many refugees, as the following quote from the same interview illustrates: “Since I had been seven years old, blood had been spilled in Afghanistan, until today. When I consider my situation, without education, under no circumstance did I want my children to suffer the same fate. Education is very important!”
The commitment to protect the life of family and kin and to care for their wellbeing does not solely refer to one’s own personal flight (e.g. fleeing to minimize potential threats for other family members who stay put). It also extends to the obligation to organize the flight of a relative whose life is endangered or to send a family member away offering him/her better occupational or educational opportunities as in the case of a 21-year-old male Hazara, who at the age of 17 was prompted by his father to leave Iran, where the interviewee and his family were living in precarious circumstances.
The obligation to support family members, kin or friends focuses mainly on organizing the flight itself. Close relatives (e.g. father, father-in-law, mother-brother, etc.) and friends provide the financial means for the flight and/ or establish contact with a human trafficker, herein often using personal networks to trace a trustworthy smuggler. Yet, the support does not stop here. It is granted throughout the whole flight process by sending money to allow the continuation of the flight, by putting a refugee in contact with acquaintances that may facilitate further movements, or by offering advice for what to do next when a problem appears.
Summing up, our Afghanistan data offer ample evidence that the decision to flee is informed by a combination of causes, such as security concerns, economic as well as personal reasons, and a vast array of social obligations. The relevance of social obligations in the pre-flight decision-making process has oftentimes been neglected in forced migration studies. This research gap should be closed by putting a stronger research focus on the intersection of social obligations and reasons for fleeing when studying forced migrants.
From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna is available for purchase here
Berg Harpviken, Christian. 2009. Social Networks and Migration in Wartime Afghanistan. Houndmills, Basingstoke, New York
Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.): From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna. ISR-Forschungsbericht Heft 45, Vienna 2017; Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaft
Monsutti, Alessandro and Collective for Social Science Research. 2006. “Afghan Transnational Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation.” Synthesis Paper Series; Kabul, AREU, August 2006
“Steps on the way to social integration”: Initial social interactions of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan with the host society, their relevance, assessment and implications
By Josef Kohlbacher
This post discusses how the refugees interviewed for the study perceived of the receiving context in the Austrian society. It focuses on social contacts of refugees with Austrians. These Austrians may be police officers, NGO representatives, refugee workers, language tutors, and so on. The analysis is based on the assumption that social integration is a process of change and exchange that involves both refugees and people of the host society and which starts immediately with the first contacts, though the extracted material only reflects the refugees’ perspective of this interactive process. Thus, I investigated the modes and consequences of interethnic social interactions and the resulting social ties in the refugees’ everyday life and path to integration. A qualitative and interpretative research approach was used to understand how refugees relate to social contexts and make sense of them on their path to social embeddedness in Austrian society. The temporal plane of reference is mainly the initial and early phase of stay. In some cases, refugees who had been in Austria longer were included in the analysis –mainly with regard to housing and labor market integration and social ties that have been established for longer–. A broad range of experiences have been represented in the study depending on socio-economic and socio-demographic variables such as gender, education, language proficiency and country of origin. At the time of our interviews, the range of interactions with locals spanned from living in a flat together with Austrian friends to a complete absence of social contacts with the local population.
Two main fields could be identified in which weak or strong social ties were particularly important. Both categories are based on the theory of the American sociologist Mark Granovetter, who found that the “strength” of an interpersonal tie is a linear combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (or mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize each tie. So, the best example for strong ties are friendship relations, whereas most neighborhood contacts can be classified as being of weak tie quality:
Refugees have to develop differentiated strategies in order to solve problems of “arriving” in Austrian society. One of the most important strategies for the interviewees was the search for social support. Refugees, who had lost their family network were very eager to establish new social ties to compensate for the social vacuum. It became clear that among the determinants of establishing social ties individual motivations, sociability and in particular language skills were among the most relevant.
Those respondents with good German-language skills were likely to fare better in all domains. Social contacts are the best German language training and also the best “antidepressant”, as the following quote from an interview with a young Hazara from Ghazni in Afghanistan illustrates: “In this area for example, in the beginning I stayed two years there, I spoke the language a little, but I had troubles and could not really learn, really now after some time I was able to find my way with my friends, I found Austrian friends and I can communicate with them. Now my heart became brighter.”
Our material also showed that involvement in education in general and in particular German language courses are a very important way of making new contacts. As mentioned above, “subjective” individual determinants as introversion or extraversion proved to be very relevant. Conversely, among the “objective” determinants, time plays a key role, as the longer one stays the more opportunities she or he has to integrate.
I also analyzed the long-term perspective, which means the relevance of social ties in structural integration. Here housing and labor market integration are the most important fields. In some cases, it turned out that even weak ties proved to be very effective in organizing housing opportunities for the respondents. This can be illustrated by the following quote from an interview with a young man: “My first experiences with Austrians were excellent. Actually, I am sharing a flat with an Austrian. He provided me his flat although he doesn’t really know me. He left his bedroom to me and my brother and he himself is sleeping in the smaller room. Though he does not know me, he did this all for me. Not even your close relatives would do this for you. The Austrians are really extraordinarily helpful and very affectionate people” .
In the field of labor market integration our sample mirrored that informal help and social contacts play a minor role. Active support for labor market integration by weak as well as strong ties with Austrians was rarely mentioned. There were only a few respondents, who were very optimistic also in expecting support by Austrian friends for realizing the future plans in labor market career on a long-term perspective.
Now, which were the main factors hindering social interactions? It became clear that language problems were among the barriers which were most frequently mentioned by the refugees. Thus, all our respondents were eager to improve their German by attending language courses and additionally by studying on their own. Xenophobia forms a further barrier but in our sample only few refugees spoke of experiences with explicitly xenophobic attitudes. Some refugees did not refer to explicit xenophobia but rather to a kind of general social distance in human interactions. In the words of an Iraqi woman: “It is true that this country is very progressive, but there is almost no social contact between people. There is no care for each other, there is no empathy or sympathy towards other human beings. There is no friend who suddenly knocks at the door and comes for some coffee.”
As ISR researcher I was also interested in the relevance of spatial factors. For many respondents the desire for more social contacts with native Austrians went hand in hand with an explicit preference for living in urban spaces due to better opportunities for social interactions. In this vein, an Iraqi woman said: “In the urban context I will have more possibilities to come into contact with Austrian people. By this it is easier for me to integrate and I will learn the language more quickly. In the countryside I perhaps have to live far from civilization and one has only very few contacts with the Austrian population”. One has, however, to emphasize that this argument was contradicted by other respondents. So, for example a female respondent from Syria stated considerable differences in the openness for social contacts and in their quality between smaller towns in Tyrol where she stayed before and the city of Vienna: “... the people, they were very nice with me when I was in Tirol, they were very, very nice with me, I have to say. ... But, when I came to Vienna, Vienna is a work city. You could easily not know, what is the face of your neighbor, just near your door and you meet him in the building in the stairs, but you didn’t know that he is the person, who is living there. It’s a very busy life in Vienna.”
As the research project was a pilot and exploratory study, the purposive sampling of respondents with specific demographic characteristics does not allow for generalizations. The study focused mainly on the experiences of refugees who were recent arrivals and did not perceive themselves to have fully undergone the process of re-establishing social networks. Therefore, the findings derived on the basis of the interviews were quite idiosyncratic to this specific group. It will be necessary to investigate larger samples of refugees from various ethnic backgrounds and with different characteristics in order to produce a representative picture of the patterns of building up weak and strong social ties in a receiving society for refugees.
This is the second post of our blog post series on From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna, edited by Josef Kohlbacher and Leonardo Schiocchet (2017). This book features results, analyses and interpretations of a pilot study conducted by ROR-n and can be purchased here
By Leonardo Schiocchet
Most refugees in the world come from the Middle East and Central Eurasia, and most forced migrants in Europe also come from this region. The so-called Summer of Refuge (or Summer of Migration) in 2015, when unprecedented numbers of forced migrants applied for asylum in Europe, made this fact apparent from Portugal to the Balkan Peninsula.
A recent book publication, From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna (2017), edited by Josef Kohlbacher and me, has been devoted to presenting and analyzing experiences of refugees from these regions in their country of origin, on their flight and after their arrival in Austria. This blog post inaugurates a series dedicated to showcasing this book featuring results, analyses and interpretations of a pilot study conducted by ROR-n. The edited volume contributes with in-depth qualitative data on forced migration from the Middle East and Central Eurasia to Europe, by means of discussing how Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees reached Austria and relate to this regional and urban context. Overall, this edited volume offers intimate stories on the disrupted lives of Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans both prior to deadly conflicts in the region and in exile. It also presents interpretations of sets of in-depth interviews, contributing to several topics in migration and forced migration studies. Research presented in this volume focuses on the unique moment of the first experiences of these refugees in Austria, which is essential to understanding the development of the interaction between refugee and host over time. This fresh outlook from the point of view of displaced persons is also in tune with established and contemporary scholarship on memory and agency. Besides, Europe is in dire need of a reexamination of attitudes towards forced migration, and Austria is no exception. Thus, the importance of this timely contribution can hardly be overstated.
Even though each of the chapters in this book contributes to different topics, one topic in particular cuts across all contributions: integration. But what is integration? What are its conditions of possibility? How is it mobilized as discourse and practice? And, what does it leave out of the picture, if anything? These are some of the most pressing questions posed by the Summer of Refuge. As the reader will see in the other posts of this series, each chapter addresses integration, or rather, what I prefer to call “the encounter”, between refugees and their hosts by exploring different aspects, nuances, and diverse transdisciplinary competences.
Besides, all chapters in one way or another engage with the principles of humanitarian intervention and the power relations they convey, what we understand as human, humanity and humane, and how we organize society around it. As I argue throughout my introductory chapter summarized here (Schiocchet 2017), the relationship between the two can be in fact surprisingly contradictory, and the concept of “tutelage” lays bare relations of power constitutive of this social situation.
I use the term “encounter” to challenge assumptions entailed by the term integration in a similar way that Lieba Fair and Lisa Rofel engage with the term:
“These ethnographies explore how culture-making occurs through unequal relationships involving two or more groups of people and things that appear to exist in culturally distinct worlds. The term encounter refers to everyday engagements across difference. Ethnographies of encounter focus on the cross-cultural and relational dynamics of these processes” (2014: 363).
Yet, my discussion emphasizes instead the meeting between migrants, forced or otherwise, and their hosts. My point is not to discredit the importance of the concept of integration in general, only to suggest that encounter is more suitable as an academic tool to investigate how different worldviews influence each other upon contact, which in turn does not take for granted the normative imperative of fitting one term to the standards of the other. While integration remains an important policy tool, academics should first investigate the encounter at large and only then seek answers to integrating policies. This more holistic standpoint, in turn, gears the discussion on the topic toward what Noel Salazar and Alan Smart called (im)mobility (2011). As I develop elsewhere, refugees – obliged to cross borders rather than stay at their places of origin, living in overcrowded shelters, and serving as easy prey for war machines surrounding them – often do not feel mobile but immobile even when jumping country-to-country and continent-to-continent.
In part because most refugees feel obliged to abandon their homes to live under another country’s rule as a non-citizen, I contend that the refugee voices heard in the study suggest that the encounter between refugees and Austria and Austrians is best understood through the lens of tutelage. The concept of tutelage, in turn, has been only rarely applied to the anthropological understanding of refugees, and more often to the study of indigenous minorities or international legal regimes over given territories and their populations.
The concept of tutelage lays bare relations of power constitutive of the humanitarian intervention. It is what the works of Michel Foucault (1980) and Liisa Malkki (1985, 1995, 1996) combined would call a technology of biopower, meaning disciplinary practices determining power relations over life, through which power is exerted asymmetrically across the system of forces at play. Tutelary regimes legitimize the dependency of protectorates, children, indigenous groups, national minorities, refugees, and other subjects perceived as not apt for deciding for themselves. In denying agency and full political participation and autonomy, tutelage objectifies and depoliticizes.
Humanitarianism has its own vernacular politics, which is mobilized not only by the United Nations refugee agency, but also by NGOs, nation-states, the media, and the refugees themselves. Anthropologists working on refugees or on humanitarianism, such as Michel Agier (2012, 2008), Ilana Feldman (2010), and Didier Fassin (2013, 2012) have already pointed to the structure of the humanitarian discourse and apparatus. The principles and mechanisms of humanitarian aid depend on accepting nation state sovereignty above all. This, in turn, means that international treaties and “laws” relating to refugees, such as the Geneva Convention and its protocols, not only depend on each state’s own agreement and interpretation, but are also contextually subject to nation-state rule in practice. That is, the application of such principles is left to each state’s own devices. Institutions such as the United Nations can only suggest resolutions on how to treat refugees, but not enforce them in practice. Accountability and enforcement mechanisms are usually limited to international sanctions, when these are actually put into practice. The decision always lies with the General Assembly, which is in itself composed of UN member states, voting according to their own interests. Humanitarian intervention is thus complementary to nation-state sovereignty, rather than an opposite force. As refugees by definition do not fit into any nation-state, they need to be governed by a force external to the nation-state order of the world that, in doing so, reinforces nation-state sovereignty. Tutelage, thus, embodies the power relations at play between refugees on one side and the national-humanitarian order of the world on the other one.
At the base of the nexus between national sovereignty and international humanitarian intervention lies the main principle that humanitarianism should be apolitical. While this principle is most often naturalized as being beyond criticism, it has its limitations. Most importantly, most refugees perceive that the solution for their situation is not simply bed and board or to be taken (or not) to one or another country. The solution, for most, is inherently political. Most Palestinian and Kurdish refugees, for example, want their own country, rather than only food and lodging. As forced migrants, refugees were obliged to leave their countries of origin or else suffer persecution and violence. On the one hand, by treating refugees as mere objects of humanitarian policy, their claims are understood in principle as apolitical. On the other hand, however, refugees are treated by host nation states as a political problem, rather than as humans just like any other citizen. In the national-humanitarian order of the world, thus, refugees are apolitical when they want to be political, and political when they want to be taken as equal to other humans. This tension tends to frame the experience of refugeeness greatly, and has yet to be widely acknowledged by policymakers, humanitarian agents, and scholars alike.
I suggest that humanitarianism is a project entailing the creation of a humanity beyond politics that could never be fully turned into reality, as it is curbed by the whims of nation-states. Such a project cannot exist but within the relative and contextual space given to it by particular nation-state sovereignties. The result is a general policy of tutelage that conceals political contextualization and with it the aspirations and lives of the refugees themselves. This, in turn, goes against Hannah Arendt’s suggestion that Human rights should be above all political (see, for example, Arendt 1976: 296-297). Supposedly beyond politics, humanitarianism has often been considered beyond criticism too, and thus needs to be taken in scholarly perspective and understood as an ideology in Louis Dumont’s sense (1980, 1986) – that is, not opposed to truth, but as one truth regime among others.
Nonetheless, my remarks must not be read as effacing the notable improvement humanitarian intervention has ensured for the lives of refugees. It is imperative to keep in mind that the critique of the Humanitarian intervention I present here is academic, only meant to lay bare its mechanisms to diagnose the social situation analyzed. It is also not meant as a critique of Europe or Austria specifically, but of global humanitarian reason and intervention at large.
Only through comprehensive understanding of the socio-political processes at play can we move forward, overcome ideological and policy limitations, and ultimately contribute to the betterment of the refugee situation world-wide. Thus, my aim here was to show that no matter how outstanding this assistance is, it is only palliative to enduring political solutions. To be more precise, my chapter suggests that it is the tutelary character of humanitarian intervention, legitimized as apolitical, which must be rethought and substituted by a more comprehensive, context-aware, practice; a practice that would take refugees as subjects of their own destinies, and assume the inherently political character of refuge situations, refugee subjects, and humanitarian practice itself.
From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna is available for purchase here
Agier, Michel. 2008. On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2017. From Destination to Integration: Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Vienna (ISR-Forschungsbericht Heft 45). Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
Malkki, Liisa. 1985. The Origin of a Device of Power: The refugee Camp in Post-war Europe. Special Paper submitted to the Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, Cambridge.
____________. 1995. Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Schiocchet, Leonardo. 2017. Integration and Encounter in Humanitarian Tutelage. In Kohlbacher, Josef and Schiocchet, Leonardo (Eds.). In From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian And Iraqi Refugees in Vienna, pp.9-35. Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.
Leonardo Schiocchet has a PhD in anthropology (Boston University, 2011), is a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences Institute for Social Anthropology, and a member of ROR-n. His work has focused on the Anthropology of the Middle East, with particular attention to processes of social belonging and subjecthood among Arab refugees in the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. Many of his writings are available at