HEADLINES

World: Challenging The ‘Refugee-Victim’ Narrative

By Hanno Brankamp, June 2, 2015. Pambazuka News, Issue 733

Refugee boy holds his sister outside the family tent

Big brother all smiles holds his baby sister outside the family tent at a refugee camp. Photo: Free Syria Hub.

“ORDINARY PEOPLE LIVING THROUGH EXTRAORDINARY TIMES”

While academics in the field of (forced) migration are more often than not aware of these complexities, public perceptions are often skeptical of narratives that recognize refugees as people ‘like you and I’ who find themselves in dire circumstances. At first glance, the difference between the two narratives seems marginal. However, acknowledging forced migrants as people with knowledge, abilities, and strength does not delegitimize their claim for asylum and refuge, on the contrary, it will make their case the more pressing if they are seen as who they are, rather than who they are expected to be. This perspective challenges predominant notions of passivity and inertia which are prolific in most media and inform political action. UNHCR’s 2015 World Refugee Day slogan “Ordinary people living through extraordinary times” could mean a step in the right direction. Despite this positive potential, the aim of such strategies cannot be the uncritical celebration of ‘same-ness’ (“like you and I”), as it echoes a liberal, Eurocentric discourse that seeks to minimize ‘difference’ without addressing the historically-produced, unequal power positions of “us” and “them” with respect to socio-economy, politics, culture, and race.  [end quote]

Article

In the immediate aftermath of the preventable deaths of hundreds of Arab and African migrants in the Mediterranean earlier in April this year.

Analysts and media outlets again invoked this sense of despair, hopelessness and victim-hood on the part of those people risking the perilous journey to Europe, and eventually paying with their lives for the dream of a better and safe life.

With looming refugee and forced migration crises in the Mediterranean, Kenya, Myanmar, Syria, Burundi and elsewhere hitting international headlines, public attention is rightfully drawn to those people immediately affected by war, poverty, and persecution. For many, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and asylum-seekers are above all unfortunate souls, devastated, and stripped of their humanity by seemingly never-ending civil wars, dictatorships and economic stagnation at home. Yet, maybe counter-intuitively, ritualistic demonstrations of compassion in Western media and the political scene do a disservice to refugee advocacy, as they inadvertently – and falsely – reduce refugee-ness to a state of inaction and passivity, and refugee camps to fairly hopeless and “nondescript places”, as Edward Said famously remarked [1].

In the immediate aftermath of the preventable deaths of hundreds of Arab and African migrants in the Mediterranean earlier in April this year, analysts and media outlets again invoked this sense of despair, hopelessness and victim-hood on the part of those people risking the perilous journey to Europe, and eventually paying with their lives for the dream of a better and safe life.

‘WAREHOUSING’ REFUGEES?

The implicit message of these various representations was – quite rightly – Europe’s moral and legal obligation to save those drowning right on her doorstep and in visual range of her shores. Understandably, well-meaning human rights activists, leftist politicians, and humanitarian agencies have used the same imagery to create awareness in Western media, civil society and public discourse. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), for instance, speaks of “warehousing” refugees. Not only have the lines between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’, between ‘asylum-seeker’ and ‘displaced person’ become increasingly irrelevant in popular parlance to a point of indistinguishably, but these groups are also imagined to share a common, inevitably fate.

While these strategic portrayals of ‘essential victims’ are ironically driven by commendable intentions to stir debates and at best provoke policy responses, it is also clear that they nurture and prolong a problematic ‘refugee-victim’ narrative. Here, refugees – or (forced) migrants in general – feature as helpless, indistinct crowds who are being heaved by the coastguard from overloaded rubber boats on the verge of sinking onto the safety of navy vessels, or as destitute and empty-eyed bodies in uninhabitable places, abandoned and sacrificed. Having said this, unspeakable stories of pain and devastation are not a fiction, but they exist to the millions and very much deserve to be told. Yet, by harping on scenarios of trauma and loss, discourse practice ironically thwarts the ‘empowerment’ language of humanitarian actors. Naturally, the short-term benefits of proliferating such images with their metaphorical power must be weighed critically against the potentially damaging repercussions for popular beliefs and attitudes towards (forced) migrants at large. In the words of renowned scholar Jennifer Hyndman, “the popularity and sympathy for displaced peoples on the part of Western governments lies precisely in their location ‘over there’” [2].

LANGUAGE AND BIOPOLITICS

[continued on web link]

“ORDINARY PEOPLE LIVING THROUGH EXTRAORDINARY TIMES”

[continued on web link]

To read the rest of this inspiring article by Hanno Brankamp on June 2, 2015 in Pambazuka News click on the link below.

Pambazuka – Challenging the ‘refugee-victim’ narrative.

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