Discuss the refugee discourse and the politics of salvation

Essay, 2015
12 Pages, Grade: 58,0



1 Introduction
1.1 Definition of key terms
1.1.1 Bottom-up Approach
1.1.2 Sphere project
1.1.3 Refugee

2 Theoretical framework
2.1 Structuration theory
2.2 Labelling theory
2.3 Dramaturgical theory

3 Refugees as defenceless
3.1 Immigration detention centres
3.2 Media images
3.3 Statistical inaccuracies
3.4 Humanitarian aid

4 Refugees as rational actors
4.1 Women`s embroidery workshops
4.2 Redefining gender identities
4.3 Refugees as economic drivers
4.4 Education as empowerment
4.5 Financial remittances
4.6 I am an immigrant campaign

5 Conclusion


The refugee discourse treats refugees as objects needing salvation, Discuss

1 Introduction

The “refugee,” label has been politicised and is often misconstrued by various actors to advance their positions at the expense of the rights and autonomy of the refugees themselves. Zetter (2007) avers that the refugee label has been politicised by the reproduction of institutional fractioning and by embedding the wider political discourse of resistance to migrants and refugees. This paper posits that refugees are rational actors who possess a sense of agency and should have their own autonomy. They should not be continuously subjected to the dependency syndrome that typifies them as defenceless and defines processes of humanitarian intervention without giving them due recognition. The paper will initially analyse how the refugee discourse treats refugees as needing salvation. It also theoretically analyses the frameworks in the doctrine of refugees by critically assessing the politicization of the refugees discourse. Secondly the paper will draw in case studies showing how the refugees possess agency. The paper will then conclude by outlining the advantages of viewing refugees as rational beings with the ability to determine their paths for survival and contribute to socioeconomic growth.

1.1 Definition of key terms

1.1.1 Bottom-up Approach

This is a process whereby local actors participate in decision making about the strategy and in the selection of the priorities to be pursued in their local area Chambers (1991). Programs are tailor made to adapt to the needs of the communities they serve. This practice is significant in refugees’ studies because it is the most efficient way of addressing humanitarian situations by accounting for the existing local social institutions in a given area, such as the culture, traditions, education and general way of life. Humanitarian assistance programmes for refugees should not seek to impose external practices or ideas but rather to complement existing norms and values by involving the local chiefs, government and locals in decision making.

1.1.2 Sphere project

This was an initiative set up in 1997 detailing a set minimum standards in the core areas of humanitarian assistance with a major aim at significantly improving the lives of those affected by disasters. The main focal areas of assistance were interwoven around the provision of water and sanitation, nutrition, food aid, health services and shelter[1]. It also stipulates the need to recognise disaster victims as dignified humans, not hopeless objects. It further emphasises the need to respect the affected population, whose capacities and aspirations should be highlighted. Protagonists against this project critique it for its straight-jacket approach and that it seemingly devalues efforts of the affected population to solve their own problems because it is external oriented placing emphasis on humanitarian agencies.

1.1.3 Refugee

A refugee is someone who, owning to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his (her) nationality, and is unable to or, owning to such fear, is unwilling to avail (himself) of the protection of that country[2]. The problem with this definition is centred upon overlapping terminology since it does not account for the divergent groups within what constitutes a refugee. Refugees constitute of heterogeneous groups such as asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and migrants yet the definition is oblivious of this fact. The fact that it is difficult to spell out what constitute a refugees means there will be problems associated with the whole discourse as epitomised by this paper.

2 Theoretical framework

The essay will make use of the structure-agency theory in articulating how refuges possess a sense of agency and ability to delimit their patterns for survival. Goffman`s theory of the dramaturgical analysis of everyday life will also be roped in to establish the different forms of engagement, definition of roles and the shifting between roles in various settings by the refugees.

2.1 Structuration theory

Giddens posits that social life is constituted by more than just random individual acts but by the interaction and relationship between human agency and social structure. Structural forces are the underlying structures of society which produce or shape human actions; whereas human agency is defined as ‘the capabilities of human beings’ Gregory et al (2011). The paper will evoke this theory to explain how refugee’s positive experiences can increase their sense of wellbeing in a host country and ultimately shape their social networks and increase their feelings of comfort. Refugees possess agency and in turn can shape the structure of their societies through their coping strategies and resistance mechanism.

2.2 Labelling theory

This theory explains how the behaviour and self-identity of people is formed by the labels, terms given to define and classify them by society. Zetter (2007) postulates that by examining how labels are created and applied we can better understand how patterns of social life and cultural norms, straining under the intense pressure of forced displacement, are mediated, impacted and ultimately controlled and reformulated by institutional agency. The different terms given to refugees in different contexts has a bearing on their social life and activities and how they portray themselves whether the label sticks or they discard them. Labels have an effect in shaping structure whether refugees are called migrants, guests, asylum seekers or internal others.

2.3 Dramaturgical theory

Goffman`s theory explains how time, place and audience shape the nature of human life. The presentation of the self is done in a way to gain approval from the audience. Goffman distinguishes between the front and back stage which are important dimensions in understanding the life of refugees. How refugees present themselves to the humanitarian workers, government and to the world (audience) and how they interact in the back stage when there is no audience is ultimately different. This paper notes that this theory helps best explain why refugees can be homeless and vulnerable in one instance and be independently selling the food hand-outs given to them in the other.[3] They are thus rational actors and constantly engaged in dramaturgical interplay as part of their daily lives.

3 Refugees as defenceless

The refugee discourse has been criticised for treating and depicting refuges as defenceless and weak hence needing external assistance. It has done this through the reductionism process where refugees are deemed to need humanitarian assistance hence it is common to see pictures of refugees in a dire state, with ripped clothes and rarely are the success stories told because the suffering pictures are more appealing in soliciting for donations and are intricately tied to what constitutes a refugee.

3.1 Immigration detention centres

The process asylum seekers have to endure after arriving in some host countries strips them of their agency and reduces them to needy subjects’ dependant on the host country for “salvation.” Authorities view and treat refugees and migrants as lesser human as epitomised by the prison-like conditions in most centres where migrants go through unpleasant living conditions yet they did not commit a crime but just to seek a safe haven in a host country. The lengthy bureaucratic process preventing persons from being released has also been criticised for feeding into the propaganda of treating refugees like criminals. According to the Global Detention Project website estimates, people placed in United Kingdom immigration-related detention often suffer serious mental health deterioration, including increased post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.[4] The study revealed significant numbers of indefinite detainees developing mental health problems, self-harming, or attempting suicide. This supports the fact that refugees are treated with contempt as if in need of much needed salvation which can only be granted after all necessary checks have been carried out and the case certified as a genuine asylum claim.

3.2 Media images

Media images and reporting of refugees has been entirely negative choosing to focus on the pictures of refugees in dire situations and rarely is the success story depicted in the mainstream media. The starving child appeal is used as a marketing gimmick by humanitarian agents Chambers (1990). The assumption shared by both the host government and international humanitarian agencies is that refugees constitute a problem, a burden rather than economic opportunity. Bond (1985) avers that agencies vary in the degree of dignity with which they transmit images of refugees, but all rely on a public which will respond to media portrayal of extreme human suffering and starvation.


[1] http://www.ifrc.org/PageFiles/95530/The-Sphere-Project-Handbook-20111.pdf (last accessed 23/ 04/2015)

[2] http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49da0e466.html 1951 Refugee Convention (last accessed 13/05/2015)

[3] http://www.irinnews.org/report/82607/syria-iraqi-refugees-selling-some-of-their-food-rations (last accessed 11/04/2015)

[4] http://www.globaldetentionproject.org (last accessed 09/04/2015)

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Discuss the refugee discourse and the politics of salvation
University of Sussex  (Global Studies)
Refugees, Displacement and Humanitarian Responses
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Tafadzwa Chivanga (Author), 2015, Discuss the refugee discourse and the politics of salvation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/353654


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