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.
by Monika Mokre
Integration (or the lack thereof) certainly is a buzzword in public discourses on refugees. It is frequently understood as a form of assimilation, that is, the obligation of refugees and migrants to adapt to the values and culture of the receiving country. Contrary to this, the Austrian National Action Plan (NAP) defines “integration as a two-way process, which is shaped by mutual appreciation and respect, whereas clear rules secure social cohesion and peace. (…) An integrated society is characterized by social permeability and openness. Such a society allows individuals to shape their lives self-dependently, without being discriminated based on their origin, language or skin colour. Integration aims at participation in economic, social, political and cultural processes as well as compliance with related obligations.” .
Against this background, it is important to ask how refugees can design their lives in Austria, how can they integrate and be integrated in Austrian society. In my contribution to the book entitled “From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna”, I analyzed interviews with refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria from the following viewpoints:
Knowledge of one’s own legal situation
Statements on one’s own legal situation could be found in nearly all interviews, related either to the actual situation or to descriptions of first experiences in Austria. More than 25% of the interviewees made statements showing that they have or had insufficient knowledge about their legal situation. The first experiences in Austria are frequently described as extremely confusing and traumatizing. But, also, legal procedures are unclear and, obviously, in many cases not explained to the applicants.
“I have been here for about 7 months, and *-* till now there is no paper and no information about me, I am waiting, I mean.” (Sy18)
This situation of confusion can lead to rather far-fetched ideas on the asylum system in Austria.
S10: “In the meantime, two sons have arrived in Austria. They already got asylum. But I did not, as yet. I do not know why. (…) I think they take the young people, not the old people. (…) The old ones, are *-* beyond the expiration date, I think.“ (S10)
On the other hand, one has also to mention that nearly 30% have very good knowledge about their legal situation. This includes people in the asylum procedure and people who already passed the procedure and have now the right to stay in Austria. A few interviewees also mention that they help their fellow country people with bureaucratic questions.
Struggling with Bureaucracy
Knowledge about one’s own legal situation is only a part of the information necessary to create a new life in a new country. In the precarious situation of seeking asylum, a wide range of support measures are needed in order for the asylum seekers to find their position in society and to be able – at least in the mid-range – to live an autonomous life. This begins with legal procedures to get asylum but also includes lodgings and access to education and/ or work.
Overall, the interviewees took a rather skeptical stance on Austrian institutions and organizations. For those in the asylum procedure and, especially, those who have been in this situation for a long time, this procedure poses the most serious problem. And, also, lack of respect in the procedure is mentioned by the interviewees.
“Yeah, for the people they didn’t know, they know about your number, you are a number for them, you are a refugee. He didn’t look about your background from where you are coming, from which kind of society, from which level of education (…).” (S13)
But even after a positive outcome of the asylum procedure, many bureaucratic problems remain, above all for people who are not granted asylum but receive subsidiary protection or a humanitarian title.. Frequently, they feel subjected to arbitrary treatment by individual officials.
Several further issues play an important role for the ability of refugees to integrate into society. In the interviews, we can find detailed descriptions of the bad conditions at arrival and in provisional camps – especially in the summer and fall of 2015, the time of a huge influx of refugees for which Austria had not prepared beforehand. But also apart from the rather extreme situation in overcrowded and, partly, provisional camps, the interviews show that conditions are frequently not satisfying with regard to food, clothing, German courses, and internet connection.
Trust in the State
Interestingly, the interviewees see the Austrian state in general in a much more positive way than the concrete institutions and organizations they are dealing with. It seems that many refugees have kept their trust in a democratic state and rule of law in spite of their own, frequently negative experiences with procedures, institutions or organizations. Above all, the interviewees emphasize their trust in the rule of law.
“All people are treated equally here, irrespective of where they come from. Everybody has the same rights and duties. A country where human rights are respected and applied. I really have to say, this country deserves my full respect.” (I2)
Furthermore, the vast majority of the interviewees has a positive image of Austria and its population – in fact, the image is much more positive than the one of the state and its institutions. Probably, these very positive assessments of Austria are related to the fact that many of the interviewed refugees arrived during the period of the so-called welcome culture and were interviewed shortly after this time. The interviewers explicitly asked for an assessment of the open, liberal, and multi-cultural character of Austrian society – and the answers to that were unanimously positive.
What Will the Future Bring?
The interviews were also evaluated with regard to the expectations of the interviewees for their future. However, there was no explicit question on this issue; people were asked about their hopes for the future but not about concrete expectations. Thus, the number of positive, negative, or ambiguous responses was rather low.
Expectations for the future are mostly related to the present situation. Several interviewees with positive expectations are already working or studying or have concrete plans in this regard. Negative expectations frequently derive from a lack in legal security, e.g. in the case of one interviewee with the (very insecure) status of toleration. Ambiguous statements on the future result from a combination of hopes for one’s own career with fears for the family in the country of origin or, conversely, hopes for the children in Austria but an expected career disappointment for the interviewee himself.
This analysis of the interviews has to be treated with caution for several reasons. For one thing, it is based on a pilot study with a limited number of interviewees and no refined sampling procedure. Secondly, it partly deals with issues that were not at the core of the interviews.
However, even if the analysis is not representative it shows some crucial problems of the Austrian asylum system that need to be addressed. Out of everyday mainstream discourse one might conclude that growing fears and xenophobia of the Austrian population pose a major problem to refugees. However, at least at the time of the interviews, Austria and its population were mainly seen in a very positive light. The main problems refugees faced were related to the way in which their legal status and their life were organized by state institutions and state-related agencies. Thus, it is obviously necessary to improve these structures and procedures. Everybody has the right to be informed about his/her rights and there have to be clear-cut procedures known and intelligible to everybody concerned. In the case of asylum seekers dependent on public services, this requirement applies not only to their legal status but also to their right to welfare, education, and work. Social cohesion can only be upheld and further developed when newly arriving people have the opportunity to live an autonomous life as soon as possible.
 BMEIA n/d:. Nationaler Aktionsplan für Integration. (https://www.bmeia.gv.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Zentrale/Integration/NAP/Bericht_zum_Nationalen_Aktionsplan.pdf)
 Kohlbacher, J./ Schiocchet, L. (Eds.) (2017), From Destination to Integration – Afghan, Syrian and Iraqi Refugees in Vienna. ISR Forschungsbericht Heft 45, Institut für Stadt- und Regionalforschung. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp. 145-166.