By Jasmin Lilian Diab
Source: Euro-med Human Rights Monitor
Legally speaking, the words ‘refugee,’ ‘asylum seeker,’ and ‘migrant’ have three very distinct meanings and implications. Using them inter-changeably leads to hindrances to the livelihoods of each population group, the policies that govern them, and the legal frameworks they fall under. Across the world, an ongoing debate is raging about the manner through which we describe the millions of people escaping protracted conflicts in their home countries and fleeing to safer places. So are they refugees, asylum seekers or migrants? The answer to this question is pivotal – as the term used not only outlines state obligations, policies and applicable international legal instruments, but also may deny a person their internationally recognized human rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. In dismissing many people on the move as “economic migrants” who are less deserving of humanitarian assistance, states have been able to shy away from their legal and human rights obligations towards some of the world’s most vulnerable groups. In 2015, widely popular news network Al-Jazeera made a trailblazing decision on the issue of terminology and wording, by announcing that it will cease using the umbrella term “migrants” when referring to the Mediterranean refugee crisis.[i] Quite fittingly, Al-Jazeera justified this move by insisting: “[…] the word migrant has become a largely inaccurate umbrella term for this complex story”.[ii]
This kind of “washing” is quite commonly resorted to for words referring to controversial subject matters – particularly those with economic, social, political and legal implications. At any instance in the migratory process, there are multiple terms available to describe human movement that are pertinent to the exact migratory experience an individual undergoes – as well as the nature (forced or not) of their experience. The intentional use of one particular term over another to describe a person on the move involves a choice on the part of the speaker and carries implications about their opinions and understandings about those they are describing, and the rights they believe those being described are entitled to. As Mawuna Remarque Koutonin argues, in the lexicon of human migration, there are still “hierarchical words” created for the purpose of putting white people “above everyone else”.[iii] For instance, when people refer to “expatriates”, they are often discussing affluent people, who have moved to another country – and are often white.
The UN Refugee Agency defines refugees as: “[…] persons fleeing armed conflict or persecution”.[iv] According to UNHCR, as of 2020, at least 82.4 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes.[v] Among them are nearly 26.4 million refugees, around half of whom are under 18 years of age.[vi] Refugees’ situation is often so dangerous and intolerable that they cross international borders in order to seek safety in nearby countries, and thus become internationally recognized as “refugees” and as entitled to specific protections under international law, local legal frameworks in host countries, the UNHCR, and other international UN agencies and organizations.[vii] These individuals are recognized as refugees precisely due to the fact that their lives and wellbeing is threatened if they return home. Refugees are additionally protected in international law by the: (1) 1951 Refugee Convention, its (2) 1967 Protocol,[viii] and (3) 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.[ix] Refugees are people for whom denial of asylum carries potentially life-threatening consequences.[x]
Moreover, asylum seekers are individuals who claim to be a refugee, but whose claim has not been evaluated yet or processed.[xi] While not every asylum seeker will be recognized as a refugee, every refugee is initially an asylum seeker. Asylum seekers are individuals who apply for asylum on the grounds that returning to their home country would lead to their persecution on grounds of their race, religion, nationality or political beliefs.[xii] An individual is an asylum seeker for so long as their asylum application remains pending. By the end of 2019, UNHCR states that there were an estimated 4.2 million individuals around the world waiting for a decision on their asylum claims, and more than one million individuals who seek asylum annually based on the aforementioned grounds.[xiii]
Due to the specificity (and implications) of each of the aforementioned definitions, placing refugees and asylum seekers under the “migrant” umbrella poses increasingly problematic realities for both groups. Migrants choose to move. They do not move because of an immediate or evident threat of persecution or threat on their lives, but rather with the aim of improving their economic standing, their education, their quality of life, or to reunite with their families.[xiv] Different from refugees and asylum seekers who are unable to return to their home countries safely, migrants face no such barrier to return nor are they at any risk if they do return.[xv] If migrants choose to return to their home countries, they will immediately continue to receive the protections and rights outlined for them by their government by mere citizenship. For individual host states, the distinction between asylum seekers, refugees and migrants is a pivotal policy concern, as states’ determination of each individual’s status on their territory outlines their obligations towards the individual in question, as well as the international legal protections this individual is afforded.
The Politics of Blurring the Lines in Definition
And while the definitions of asylum seeker, refugee and migrant seem clearly outlined in writing, in application, some individual cases cannot be easily categorized as one or the other – nor can their legal standing be outlined to determine the types of protection these individuals have the right to, and require. Challenges to placing an individual under a specific “category” stems from the fact that labelling an individual as an “economic migrant” or an “asylum seeker” may not always reflect the complex reality of their migratory experiences, as well as the realities that motivated them to move (for instance, this is particularly challenging for migrants that leave areas with natural disasters, drought, etc.). Furthermore, are people arriving at the shores of host countries asylum seekers or migrants? Habitat for Humanity insists they could be “a mix of both” depending on their motive for moving – regardless of whether or not they arrive in the same boat.[xvi] In order to adequately assess the category under which these individuals fall, a case by case investigation must take place into whether or not this migration was “coerced” (for migrants) and “forced” (for asylum seekers and refugees).[xvii]
Moving from these complexities, state politics plays a fundamental role in shaping narratives, attitudes and outlining rights provision within their borders. Often enough, states refrain from specific categorizations in order to reduce its obligations towards particular groups, as well as to refrain from negatively impacting bilateral relations and regional political economies. When terminology such as “displaced”, “illegal immigrants”, “aliens” or “illegal arrivals” are used to refer to those seeking asylum for instance, the implications are not restricted to public sentiment – but rather are translated into policy, legal instruments, citizenship rights, and state obligations under the treaties and conventions they are party to. All this, renders the debate over the “right” term to use when it comes to cross-border movement not only controversial, but also highly political.
Using the terms “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “migrant” interchangeably poses dire consequences for the lives and safety of millions of people on the move each and every day, and additionally take away attention from the legal protections vulnerable groups on the move require. Not only can the use of specific words impact rights, this can also undermine public support for refugees, foster anti-refugee/immigrant sentiments, and further generate public disapproval of asylum processes and the non-refoulement principle. At a time where borders are being crossed at unprecedented rates, and a time where we continue to move closer to our understanding of an international community and a shared responsibility, it is pivotal to provide an adequate legal response for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations on the move through contextualizing responses to meet their specific human rights, social, cultural, political and economic needs.
[i] Barry Malone (2015), Why Al Jazeera will not say Mediterranean ‘migrants’, Al-Jazeera, Retrieved at: https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2015/8/20/why-al-jazeera-will-not-say-mediterranean-migrants
[iii] Mawuna Remarque Koutonin (2015), Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?, The Guardian, Retrieved at: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/mar/13/white-people-expats-immigrants-migration
[iv] UNHCR (2016), UNHCR viewpoint: ‘Refugee’ or ‘migrant’ – Which is right?, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2016/7/55df0e556/unhcr-viewpoint-refugee-migrant-right.html
[v] UNHCR (2020), Figures at a Glance, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
[viii] European Commission (2021), Geneva Convention of 1951 and Protocol of 1967, Migration and Home Affairs, Retrieved at: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/what-we-do/networks/european_migration_network/glossary_search/geneva-convention-1951-and-protocol_en
[ix] UNHCR (2021), OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, adopted by the Assembly of Heads of State and Government at its Sixth Ordinary Session, Addis-Ababa, 10 September 1969, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/about-us/background/45dc1a682/oau-convention-governing-specific-aspects-refugee-problems-africa-adopted.html
[xi] UNHCR (2021), Asylum-Seekers, Retrieved at: https://www.unhcr.org/asylum-seekers.html
[xvi] Habitat for Humanity (2016), Refugees, Asylum Seekers & Migrants: A Crucial Difference, Retrieved at: https://www.habitatforhumanity.org.uk/blog/2016/09/refugees-asylum-seekers-migrants-crucial-difference/
By Lyla Andreé
Lebanon resembles other Middle Eastern states (except for Yemen) in that it is not part of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 protocol on the Status of Refugees and did not develop a national asylum system. After 3 years of relative openness, the Government of Lebanon forbade in 2015 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) from registering additional Syrian refugees thereby denying them national but also international rights. This policy led to a situation in which about 70% of Syrian households in Lebanon have not one single member with a legal residency[i]. With the UNHCR contribution to asylum in such a deadlock in Lebanon, its mandate has mainly focused on burden-sharing, that is to the contribution to protection in the host country. Closely embedded in a large scale "resilience" approach to refugees' plight, the way in which the UNHCR implements its mandate in Lebanon is illustrative of the rise of a new conception of refugee protection that weakens the Refugee Regime, as I argue in what follows.
UNHCR mandate in Lebanon targeting refugees' resilience and self-reliance
Framing the international stakeholders' response to the Syrian crisis, the Refugee Resilience Regional Plan (3RP) to address the Syrian crisis outlines the goal of "bringing about a scaling-up of resilience and stabilization-based development and humanitarian assistance to cope with the crises" by bringing together about 200 humanitarian and development partners, including governments, United Nations agencies, and national and international NGOs. Resilience was tellingly defined in 2017 by UNHCR as "the ability of individuals, households, communities, national institutions and systems to prevent, absorb and recover from shocks, while continuing to function and adapt in a way that supports long-term prospects for sustainable development, peace and security, and the attainment of human rights."[ii]. Resilience has become the essential goal of humanitarian & development joint action at a global level because it intends precisely to bridge the divide between relief, recovery, and development to prevent future crisis. In this perspective, service provision through the inclusion of forcibly displaced people into the hosting state services targets both resilience and self-reliance of refugees, linking humanitarian assistance and development: "While humanitarian action tends to be seen as contributing to the self-reliance of forcibly displaced people and development cooperation as building the resilience of host populations, bringing these concepts together has evident value." Building on this common ground, UNHCR's contribution is supposed to serve its mandate of international protection: "UNHCR’s work enhances protection and solutions by supporting self-reliance and resilience in three key areas: (1) strengthening the capacity of national services in the area of preparedness and emergency response, including contingency planning; (2) supporting national systems and local communities in responding to displacement once it occurs; and (3) helping equip the displaced for the future."[iii]
This evolution has also reached the education sector. In the same communication on resilience from a protection perspective, education is listed among UNHCR's main roles: "(2) supporting national systems and local communities once displacement occurs, in order to ensure the inclusion of displaced persons in national services, such as healthcare and education". In the case of the Syria crisis, the provision of education to refugees is enshrined both in the 3RP and in the international "No Lost Generation" initiative launched in 2013 by UNICEF and Save the Children to ensure that the Syrian children affected by the conflict are provided with education and protection in Syria and in neighboring countries.
In Lebanon, the 3RP regional framework gave way to the Lebanon Crisis Response Plan that requires yearly assessments of refugees' needs for each sector. Within this setting, the education sector has been one of the most funded and the most visible in Lebanon from the onset of the Syrian crisis, as childhood education has remained a core objective of the international endeavor. According to its mandate, UNHCR leads the Refugee component of the 3RP that merely deals with protection activities implemented in coordination with the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA). Besides overseeing the Response, UNHCR is also a fund custodian, counting among the main humanitarian actors providing services to refugees. This prioritization of Education in Emergencies and its integration within the public system in Lebanon conceptually fits with UNHCR's stated objective of building multi-scale resilience of the individual - reaching both Lebanese & Syrian refugees; of the community - empowering most vulnerable local communities in the society; and of the State - reforming Public education.
Widening UNHCR's mandate: Legal Protection versus Protection activities
The past twenty years saw the development of discursive and institutional strategies prioritizing education among UNHCR's fields of action as it is a basic human right enshrined in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Accordingly, education is defined as a tool for protection fitting UNHCR's mandate and shedding new light on its "raison d'être". UNHCR education activities foster social cohesion, provide access to life-saving information, address psychosocial needs, and offer a stable and safe environment for those who need it most[iv]. Based on this definition, protection is seen as an outcome of the implementation of UNHCR's mandate. Such a conception of international protection - as service provision - gained ascendency over that of protection - as the provision of rights to the individual - as it used to be traditionally prioritized in the Refugee Regime. Gradually, the normalization of UNHCR's humanitarian mandate aligned with that of other humanitarian stakeholders privileging a more technical and "evidence-based assessments of needs" that might overshadow the advocacy in favor of increased rights.
International efforts in the field of education in Lebanon are particularly illustrative of this tendency. In Lebanon, over half of Syrian refugees are children below the age of 18[v]. This situation has confronted the Lebanese public-school system with a gradual influx since 2013, as the country has always allowed Syrian refugee children to pursue an accredited education. The Ministry of Education (MEHE) has taken the institutional lead of the Education in Emergency response with the “Reaching All Children with Education” (RACE) program developed with the support of the international community led by the UN. The strategy has targeted Syrian and Lebanese pupils covering "both immediate humanitarian response interventions as well as longer term support that will build the resilience of children, communities, the education and protection systems, and infrastructure that are so critical to their future".[vi] The understanding of education as a tool for protection is mentioned in the introduction of the RACE II Strategy as an emerging theme for donors considering "the need to increase the focus on those sectors traditionally not well covered in humanitarian responses, but which are essential to protecting the future of an entire generation of children and the prospects of stability in Syria and the region". Education as a socio-economic and collective right encompasses refugees in the wider community of the “most vulnerable” enabling them to access public services.
UNHCR response to Syrian refugees is well enshrined in the international joint humanitarian-development effort, tipping the scale from a strict definition of international legal protection to a widened definition of protection based on service provision. Thereby, UNHCR's contribution to Syrian refugees' protection in Lebanon might overshadow the Refugee Regime's two mandates, namely that of (a) legal Protection and (b) the purpose of finding durable solutions for refugees. In other words, the international response to the Syrian refugees in Lebanon further shifts away international practice; from a rights-based approach to a need-based approach of international Protection; and from a purpose-centered process of finding durable solutions to a never-ending process of service provision. In doing so, both the discursive strategy and the implementation of UNHCR mandate in international protection question the classical statement according to which “Protection is thus based in the law; it may be wider than rights, but it begins with rights and rights permeate the whole”.[vii]
Service provision and the lack of legal and political responsibility for refugees
Deprived of its legal component, UNHCR's mandate of protection in Lebanon emphasizes the provision of services and targets resilience of the individual and beyond, refugees' self-reliance. The resilience-based approach to burden-sharing somehow institutionalized what used to be an anomaly or an “institutional curiosity”[viii] of the interstate system embodied by The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Established in 1949 as a three-year temporary mandate until a just and durable solution for Palestinian refugees was achieved, the agency’s temporary mandate has periodically been renewed for over 70 years, and it continues to provide essential services such as education, health, relief and social services to Palestine refugees in the Near East until the present. Far from being an innovative solution, the widened definition of protection promoted by the international community via the 3RP rather serves to mainstream an exceptional formula used decades ago in response to the exile of Palestinians. However, even lacking a protection mandate, UNRWA has played a changing and ambiguous political role representing Palestinian refugees in their hosting territories; this is precisely what distinguishes the Palestinian experience from the current response to Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Moreover, as it has widened its relief and humanitarian mandate towards development, UNRWA has increasingly acted as a service provider, therefore playing a Nation State’s role. In contrast, through its fragmented sectoral approach, the 3RP is able neither to be a representative agency nor to embody political and legal responsibility for Syrian refugees.
Protection beyond service provision
Currently, the collapse of basic economic and social services following the accumulation of major crises in Lebanon points out a "protection gap" and brings back the issue of legal protection for refugees and migrants. Amid an unprecedented economic crisis and following the Beirut Blast of August 4, 2020, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese experienced a rapid deterioration of their socio-economic conditions. Gaps in resources, services and capacities continue to widen, further hindering the access to and the quality of basic services (water and sanitation, shelter, electricity, food supply) before even tackling the issue of education. As the government was forced to put the country under a strict lockdown in January 2021, UNHCR reported that 88% of the refugees are living below the extreme poverty line and 50% of the Lebanese population fell below the poverty line.
In the light of refugees' increasing vulnerability, the provision of basic services seems to go hand in hand with the provision of legal protection. A lack of legal residency and a work permit de facto worsens refugees' living conditions as legal discrimination weighs on their daily lives exposing them to the risk of arrest and detention. It also hampers their access to basic services like education, as well as to obtaining civil status documents (marriage, birth registration). Indeed, despite the many accomplishments of the RACE strategies and while their exile reaches nearly a decade, around 44% of Syrian children (aged 6 – 14) remain out of school, out of which 36% remained out of learning in the year 2018-2019.[ix] The COVID 19 outbreak one year ago has further compromised Syrian refugees' access to education. Notwithstanding COVID 19 contamination rate fluctuances, schools have remained closed for about a year in Lebanon. Educational programs are conducted remotely and more than 90% of public schools are delivering daily lessons via WhatsApp or Telegram. Remote learning reduces consequently the quality and outreach of education as it also conditions attendance to an internet connection and the availability of a smartphone and/or a computer. Even though UNHCR officially advocates for the fulfillment of its original mandate, the management of Syrian refugees' protection in Lebanon is facing a political stalemate. As a result, the resilience-based approach of service provision remains the only viable and consensual approach.
At the core of the resilience-based burden-sharing lies the danger that the approach of prioritizing collective rights over the traditional Refugee Regime takes root. It is worth remembering that the traditional Refugee Regime was achieved through the creation of an independent international institution responsible for refugees' international protection. To quote Hyndman, "Responses to human displacement and assistance to Forced migration speak the language of humanism: the protection of rights for all people."[x] Without alternatives to the current resilience-based frame, there is a great risk that the precarious situation of the refugees will be reproduced and exacerbated. This would once again raise the issue of statelessness issue that the Refugee Regime was supposed to solve.
[i] 2020 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.
[ii] Resilience and self-reliance from a protection and solutions perspective
[iv] UNHCR Refugee Education 2030 – A Strategy for Refugee Inclusion.
[v] As of December 2019, Lebanon hosts 620,706 refugee children and youth of all nationalities (i.e. Syrian, Iraqi, Somali, Sudanese, Eritrean, etc.) between the ages of 3 and 18, out of a total refugee population of 1,518,500. UNHCR registration figures, Lebanon Education Unit, 2021.
[vi] RACE II, June 2014, 5.
[vii] Goodwin-Gill. (2014) The International Law of Refugee Protection in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199652433.013.0021.
[viii] Al Husseini (2005) Réfugiés 50 ans après : l’évolution de la représentation du réfugié palestinien dans le discours officiel de l’UNRWA. Stephanie Latte Abdallah. Images aux frontière : représentations et constructions sociales et politiques –Palestine, Jordanie 1948-2000, IFPO. 117.
[ix] UNHCR Lebanon Education Unit, 2021.
[x] Hyndman. (2000). Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism. University of Minnesota Press. 181-182.
By Suzana Mallard
Throughout many displacements and my work in the area of mental health with migrants, I began to recognize a pattern in the groups of those who are foreigners or who are part of a diaspora group. When I was in college, I was a Cape Verdean student in Curitiba, and I wondered about the group of friends I had formed, about what brought us together. I realized that there were affinities that I did not know how to name and that went beyond a shared language or origin. It was something the experience of “staying a foreigner” could bring about. I use these words as a way of acknowledging that this term cannot be understood solely as a category of being, but rather as something that impacts existence. “Staying a foreigner” represents a contingency. In the group, there were representatives from other countries, other states, and from rural areas within their state. Most came from outside the city.
Academic works that address the issue of groups that organize themselves in diasporas often do so around the issue of identity maintenance, an element of culture that is shared and maintained for this purpose. Working with forced migrants, I recognized that many of the professionals addressing the needs of this group had experienced the condition of “staying a foreigner” themselves. The condition of foreignness concerns those persons who experience some type of psychological suffering. However, foreignness is understood here as an implicit condition of the human constitution that everybody experiences in specific moments. I am referring here to experiences of displacement where a person lacks the cultural context to understand personal observations or the expectations of others.
During my doctoral research, I conducted interviews with twelve therapists addressing the mental health of forced migrants based in major cities in Brazil such as Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Curitiba and Minneapolis and Atlanta in the United States. All participants were working in different institutions and NGOs and were part of what we can call a cross-border clinic. The border clinic we speak of is the one relevant to forced migrants that is on the border between knowledges, cultures, languages and otherness. It’s a frontier territory that implies a psychic and symbolic displacement in a constant renegotiation between the familiar and the foreigner, between the self and the other. Otherness or alterity is a term meaning the "other of two", used to express something outside of tradition or convention (LEVINAS, 1982).
In this research I sought to find out if the personal experiences of the therapists had any impact on the listening offered to the forced migrant population. Listening in the therapeutic process is a dynamic that refers to the possibility of offering a space in which the subject can recover their own voice to tell their own story. It is worth noting that there are filters that permeate all listening, and therapeutic listening presupposes renouncing one's own cultural assumptions to ask the other about him or herself and offer ethical listening. When the account of the facts of a story takes place according to a conjuncture without going through the sieve of ethics, we distance ourselves from a certain neutrality. The ethics I refer to is that of listening to psychoanalysis, the ethics of the subject's desire. It does not respond to institutional demands or to the morals of a society or system, but it is the very foundation of human existence. For this purpose, I asked these therapists about their reasons for choosing this field of work.
Eleven of the professionals stated that they themselves had experienced or were still experiencing the state of being a foreigner. They reported that this experience had a direct impact on their fields of practice. The experience seemed to have an effect on the decision to work with this population and the way in which they listened to their patients also seemed to be affected by their choice.
We are born in and within our culture. The dynamics of groups are maintained by the feeling of belonging, the belief in the idea of being one and in the possibility of unity. According to STITOU (2007), the question of origin is necessary for the construction of a shared imaginary, which is also, in part, the reason for maintaining the social bond. This imaginary construction takes society as one and as a compact entity that responds to a single leader and concentrates on a single identification and a common ancestor. This belief is not supported by human experience itself, which highlights the impossibility of sharing the same place or history.
The perspective, marks, and memories of an experience, even when lived collectively, are individual and unique. This recognition offers the possibility of building a bond with others that is not built on the idea of communion. The experience of “staying a foreigner” offers the possibility of decentralization as well as to abandon the illusion of the universality of our beliefs. In this disenchantment process, it is discovered that the recognition of differences does not threaten an individual's singularity. This is a necessary process in view of the belief that the survival of a culture requires protecting it from any unknown influence as a justification for protecting against acts of intolerance and xenophobia. In a way, it is saying that letting go of this illusion is a way to get along with the other and also recognize yourself.
The experience of foreignness, even if it varies, brings up within the individual the possibility of recognizing a place. This experience always refers to the subject's life story, their color, their gender, their social place in the country in which they find themselves, and their capacity for resilience. “Staying a foreigner”, brings knowledge of an experience that has been lived, that is unique to each individual and cannot be shared. It is a place where you do not know what the other person expects of you. This experience has the potential to awaken the person from the illusion that belonging makes us one. It means that people who have “stayed a foreigner” share with each other an existential experience. It is from the phenomenon of human mobility that brings together cultures which are initially distant that the concept of Pangea is constituted. This term designating a single, but diverse, continent, is used as an analogy for the symbolic formations that operate in the cross-border therapeutic territory.
Writing about a similar phenomenon in 1969 Victor Turner said: “I prefer the Latin term "communitas” to “community”, to distinguish this modality of social relationship from an "area of common living”. (…) It is rather a matter of giving recognition to an essential and generic human bond, without which there could be no society” (TURNER, 1969, p.360).
What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purpose is the blend of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship that they offer. We are presented, in such rites, with a "moment in and out of time," and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties. These are the ties organized in terms either of caste, class, or rank hierarchies or of segmentary oppositions in the beloved stateless societies of political anthropologists. It is as though there are here two major "models" for human interrelatedness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating people in terms of "more" or "less". The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudimentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated "communitas," or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of elders.
This approximation of mental health professionals and migrants may seem forced at first. It is fueled, however, by the commonality of shared experience. Each side brings knowledge about themselves and, at the same time, realizes that it does not know the other or what is expected of them. These conditions offer the possibility of asking and not inferring about the unknown.
When the interviewees speak of an interest, we understand that they are talking about something that affected them in their own experience of strangeness. In the same way, in the diaspora, migrants’ attempts to maintain their culture, language and identity, in short, the experience of ‘foreignness’, suggests the possibility of delimiting a territory. It suggests that it concerns subjects who share the place of an existential experience. If you think of diaspora as the dispersion of peoples, the existential Pangea represents this rapprochement, yet it is now exemplified by a shared existential trait rather than boundaries drawn by man.
I observed that those who have experienced “staying a foreigner” and subsequently returned to their country of origin continue to be affected by this experience of choosing to work with this population. As stated above, a certain type of knowledge about oneself allows you to listen to others. When the therapists I interviewed reported that their proximity to their patients derives from lived experience, I understand that they refer to the profound and transforming experience of having been a foreigner themselves.
However, this experience is not exclusive to those who have moved to foreign lands. For one of the interviewees, it was his relationship with language that linked him to this group. This therapist has a “speech defect” that impacts his hearing, just as someone who speaks a foreign language has an accent that reveals their nonbelonging. This professional recognized his experience with language as a vital element of his interest in working with the migrant population. These professionals reported an experience that seems to reflect knowledge about what it is to inhabit a particular space and recognize a quality of unknowing that impacts radical individuality.
It is a bond with the issue of migration that, for some, comes from lived experience which enables an understanding of this place occupied by the refugee migrant, that of a foreigner. It is an idea of otherness that does not match the national and cultural identity; one could say it is possibly created by the identity productions which are introduced via the notions of existential Pangea.
Throughout the interviews, the theoretical research process, and my own clinical practice, I observed that the professionals had “stayed foreigners”, which allowed them to take the fundamental pedagogical position of listening to the other. It is this idea – that the Lacanian clinic attributes to listening - on which the therapist draws to think about the experience of the other. There is a disposition for ethical listening, which recognizes the relativity of its referential and which is willing to investigate further. It is an ethical code that responds to the subject's desire and not to the institutional demands or to the morals of a society or System.
This willingness to go beyond the frontiers of the known opens up the possibility of encountering the unknown without restricting oneself by outward impressions. It comes with the recognition of the irrefutable responsibility of each subject towards the other, that of renouncing the theoretical framework itself. It also works to create a listening space in which others can show up as who they are to express themselves. In cross-border clinical practice, therapists are called upon to reinvent themselves in the face of the unknown and this intervention needs to include the other to be achieved.
Levinas, Emmanuel. 1982. Éthique et Infini, (dialogues d'Emmanuel Levinas et Philippe Nemo). Paris, Fayard, coll: L'Espace intérieur.
Stitou, Rajaa. 2007. L’étranger et le différent dans l’actualité du lien social. Nantes: Pleins Feux.
Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Suzana Duarte Santos Mallard (doctorate in Psychosociology, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, UFRJ/EICOS) is a psychologist and psychoanalyst, and a researcher in migration and diasporic phenomena. She is currently a member of DIASPOTICS/UFRJ, and an Invited Resident Student at the University of Minnesota (Family and Social Science Department), where she is conducting research among therapists who in turn work with forced migrants from 2018/19. Besides her academic activities, she is a full-time therapist who proposes psychoanalysis as a lens for listening to human and cross-cultural circumstances. Her research interests involve mental health, forced migration, decolonization and Afro-feminism praxis, psychoanalysis, and cross-cultural approach. For more on Dr. Mallard's work, including her publications, click here or follow her on Twitter: @Syoscha