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.
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