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.