A Re-Introduction to Forced Migration


Section 1: On Forced Migration, International Policy, and Existing Outside of the Law

Section 2: Labels and Media Framing: “Refugee” and “Migrant”

Section 3: The Marketing of Refugees: Humanitarian Photography and the Politics of Donation

Section 4: A Re-Introduction to Forced Migration: When the Facts Change…

On Forced Migration, International Policy, and Existing Outside of the Law

Photo source: Refugee status under international law © Prazis/Fotolia

“…The standard for judging performance on responses to forced migration has become not the protection of the rights guaranteed under the Geneva Convention, but the ‘achievements of immigration officials in driving down the numbers of applications,’” (Patrick Hönig, 138).

How do countries define and respond to migration? How do some people come to be labeled “illegal” or “unauthorized?” How do laws and customs inform and influence our notions of categorization, and how are individuals rendered unequally deserving of rights and privileges merely on the basis of where they happen to have been born? Laws related to refugees, asylum seekers, and other forced migrants are united in their disarray; migration policies and attitudes are generally dependent on the country in question. Even widely recognized international laws and definitions (most often delineated by the United Nations) are not universally adhered to. Well known global policies, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention, contain procedural ambiguities or are increasingly inapplicable to today’s forced migrants, giving individual countries the freedom to treat and respond to displaced peoples in accordance with the attitudes of their leaders. This section aims to interrogate the problematic nature of current international migration laws; and to understand (but not justify) the seeming ‘need’ to exclude certain individuals by looking at Giorgio Agamben’s theories of homo sacer and the state of exception. 

In broad terms, the law’s existence is dependent on entities that the law applies to; that which the law intuitively divides into groups of lawful and unlawful, legal and illegal. The process of applying for asylum— wherein applicants must prove they have been persecuted in a way that meets the requirements of the receiving nation— serves to reproduce this binary, casting the majority applicants outside of legal status and legitimacy when their claims are rejected. Further, in having a “‘well founded fear of persecution’ as a condition asylum seekers have to meet in order to be counted as legitimate, the refugee protection regime de-legitimizes the majority of migratory movements,” (Maribel Casas-Cortez et. al., “New Keywords”) ultimately discrediting reasons for migration such as climate change, economic turmoil, or, in the United States, gender-based and gang violence.  Thus, perhaps migration law itself can be seen as reliant upon and a reproduction of a system of necessary exclusion that is perpetuated by the current structure of nation-states and sovereignty.

Start here: history and definitions

Past, present and future: interrogating the 1951 Convention and looking beyond

“The seemingly neutral and objective category of ‘refugee’ is in fact being constantly formed, transformed and reformed in response to shift in political allegiances or interests on the part of refugee-receiving countries and the evolution of policy and law,” (Heaven Crawley and Dimitri Skleparis, “Refugees, migrants, neither, both,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (2017), 51)

All things Agamben: understanding exclusionary migration laws with philosophy

Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher whose theories of biopower, sovereignty, and nation-states give us a framework through which to analyze exclusion and existing outside of the law in the context of forced migration. The following sources summarize a couple of his main ideas and relate them to displacement and international migration law. 

Compiled by Kaiya John (Summer 2020)

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Labels and Media Framing: “Refugee” and “Migrant”

“Refugee” and “migrant” are socially (and legally) constructed categories rather than “natural” states of being for human beings. The legal category of refugee was created under the 1951 Geneva Convention, with the purpose of granting international protection to those fleeing persecution. In popular understanding, a refugee is someone who was forced to flee, whereas a migrant is someone who crosses national state’s borders, for example to improve their economic situation. Yet if we take a closer look, we realize these two categories are not radically different after all. In this section I show the importance of these labels’ effects on our thinking, and question whether or not the distinction between refugee and migrant is natural.

The Words We Use

Patrick Bahner, interview with Elisabeth Wehling, “How Words Influence Our Thinking,” Goethe Institut, October 2016 

“Does whether we talk about “refugees” or “people who have fled their homes” alter the discourse? How do words and phrasing shape our thinking? What is the significance of language in political debates?”

“We live and die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them right.”

Elisabeth Wehling and Rebecca Solnit both underline the significance of words in political and media discourse. Wehling explains that when we use the term “refugee” we are “ignoring their reason for fleeing, both linguistically and conceptually.” “People who have fled their homes” on the other hand conjures a different image, perhaps one that can evoke compassion.

  • Immigrant Alphabet, Al-Bustan (digital exhibition)
    • Immigrant: “someone who migrates from one country to another to start a new page of their life”
    • Refugee: “someone who is running away legally or illegally to better themselves or their family”

This exhibition humanizes the terms used to talk about the movement of persons across national borders by keeping their definitions of immigrant and refugee in simple language that touches the heart of the issue— at the end of the day, a refugee and an immigrant are just two people who have left their home and who are hoping for a better situation elsewhere.

Media Framing

Here I bring to your attention how framing further influences our thinking on refugees and migrants through examples in the international press from Canada to Cyprus. Frames have a selective function, so they make us look at a topic from a certain angle. In their study, Lawlor and Tolley investigate which frames the Canadian media uses to talk about refugees and immigrants. For example, they found that the frame of ‘validity’ is more often applied to refugees than migrants, and that for economic framing the opposite was true. They come to the conclusion that “differences in the volume, framing, and tone of media coverage suggest that immigrants and refugees were perceived as substantively different from one another.” But are refugees and immigrants that different from each other? The lines are definitely blurred.

New Systems of Exclusion

Finally, I wanted to take a critical look at the distinction between “migrant” and “refugee.” It has become increasingly harder to access the status of refugee, all the while the number of refugees around the world has not been declining (see: Counting Forced Migrants: Methods, Impact, and Improvements). Supposedly refugees are “forced” to migrate whereas migrants do so “voluntarily.” In their paper, Erdal and Oeppen look at the significance of describing migration as forced or voluntary. They think about what makes an action voluntary— for example, if there are no good alternatives, then in which respect is an immigrant’s decision to leave their country really voluntary? 

While these questions are important, I believe the best way to understand the depth and complexity of the factors that motivate people to leave or to stay in their home is to hear it from those who have experienced it. There are many sources written by people who have fled their homes themselves in the sections Finding Voice through Theatre: Forced Migration and Self-Expression and Literature of Displacement

Compiled by Naima Nader (Winter 2021)

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The Marketing of Refugees: Humanitarian Photography and the Politics of Donation

Imagine that you are scrolling through Facebook and happen upon, as I did, the following advertisement from the International Rescue Committee:

Maybe you stop and donate— $20, presumably, to provide food to 27 kids. You, alone, have the power to feed an entire third grade class. Or, more likely, you keep scrolling on to the next posts, likely passing by a few other donation campaigns on your feed. You might scroll past those too, perhaps starting to feel guilty about your privilege and inaction or just increasingly numb to the harsh inequities of the world.

Either way, how likely is it that you stopped to reflect on the ad itself—the stories it tells, and more importantly, those it doesn’t? Who made the ad? Why was this photo, in particular, selected? Who is the child? Why is the child starving in the first place, and how did they become a refugee? In what ways is the ad oriented around you, the potential donor, rather than the individuals whose story is on display?

And regardless of what you chose when you arrived at that first ad, you probably didn’t pause to ask why you made the decision you made. If you were one who kept scrolling, read this article to ease your conscience: Why Don’t You Donate for Syrian Refugees? Blame Bad Marketing (Published 2017). As the article alludes, humanitarian issues—such as forced migration—have become marketable and, in cases, lucrative causes advertised to consumers, or donors. Countless strategies are used to try to get you—the consumer—to “see the problem, to see you are the [solution], see the way to stop it and how you can make a significant impact, and the way to stop it must be easy and not break routine (Kennedy, 2010)” (Picture This, 43). 

However, when instances of human suffering and vulnerability are molded to capitalist models and standards in order to obtain relief, the consequences are vast and deeply problematic. With such focus on the donor, the individuals and causes at hand (not to mention the forces that contributed to the current issue) are decentralized; the image of the suffering, helpless ‘other’ is commodified; colonial legacies of white saviorism and paternalism are reinforced. Indicative of the power imbalances deep within and resulting from the aid system, current donation campaign strategies are also complicit in perpetuating and simultaneously ignoring the fact that Westerners want to feel good about saving the distant other but not open our borders to them.

The preceding pictures are from campaigns by well-known organizations: Save the Children, and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and Amnesty International. Watch the linked videos (by following the links under the pictures) and consider the following questions:

  • If you had to choose one, which campaign would you donate to? Why? 
  • How logistically easy was it to donate to each? To find out where your money will go (for example, who will it go to? What will it be used for? How much will just go towards funding more advertisements)?
  • What is the goal of each campaign? Would you classify each as donation-based or awareness-based? Both? How do you make the distinction, and does this matter? 
  • The existence of the us/them binary is often present in discourses surrounding and representation of forced migrants; oftentimes refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants are presented as ‘others’. Consider how each of the campaigns interacts with this ‘othering’ of the refugees they represent. Do they create or attempt to bridge the distance between viewers and the depicted individuals? How and why? What visual aspects contribute to this? 
  • Which of these do you think were the most successful campaigns? Is “success” only achieved by raising the most money? What are other possible measurements of success?
For more context, information, and insights, explore the following:

Source: @nowhitesaviors on instagram
A way forward?

The question remains: what is an ethical, unproblematic, and effective way to lessen the hardships refugees and forced migrants experience via solidarity and monetary contributions? Is there a way to reimagine a form of donating that is not inherently hierarchical or saviouristic?  Using what you have learned, think critically about the following projects and compare them to the ones from earlier (by clicking on the photos or following the links under the photos). Are they doing it ‘right’? What questions are you left with? 



Compiled by Kaiya John (Winter 2021)

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A Re-Introduction to Forced Migration: When the Facts Change…

…What do we do with our opinions? Even when our public discourse meets the bare minimum standard for avoiding overt xenophobia, forced migration is not always what we think. What is visible about forced migration and those who experience it is not always the full picture. Many of us still tend to think in the categories of “lawful” and “unlawful” movement, without asking why certain behaviors are considered unlawful — and if they should remain so. Furthermore, beyond the narrow canonical definition of what makes someone a refugee (generally fleeing war or genocide) families and individuals can be forced from their homes for any number of reasons. 

The books, articles, and film below — some produced by people who’ve experienced displacement themselves — discuss a selection of these scenarios, following families evicted from their homes, people sold into slavery, or experiencing confrontations at and with national borders, communities fleeing warming seas and rising ties, and rejecting the power of the citizen/non-citizen binary, and more. This collection is transnational, with an accent on the U.S.A., but is not possible to account for all the aspects of worldwide forced migration in a list of sources as short as this one. Instead, consider this a re-introduction to the topic — one that forces us to question the staid, flattening accounts of “deserving” and “undeserving” immigrants, in order to have a more nuanced conversation on movement, belonging, and the political demands of people who have experienced displacement. 

On borders: crossing them, and who gets to describe them

Noted theorists and activists Gloria Anzaldúa and Achille Mbembe weigh in on borders — both physical and internalized — while distinguished author Suketu Mehta provides a sharp critique of common assumptions about borders and migration in the U.S.A. Finally, then-undergraduate student Saúl A. assembles a multimedia, personal-political account of borders, family, trauma, and hope, and Elke Sasse collects footage shot by refugees crossing into Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, and Eritrea.

On money: two “non-standard” interpretations of what forced migration can look like and how to address the profit motives that fuel it 

American journalist Aryn Baker and American sociologist Matthew Desmond offer incisive analyses of the slow-building, deeply entrenched crises of evictions and what is known as “the new slavery,” tracing the webs of money and profit that tie together labor markets, rental income, and forced movement. 

On “deservingness:” the words we use and the judgments they carry

Dina Nayeri and Steine Ravn et al approach the expectation of gratitude placed on resettled refugees and migrants — Nayeri from personal experience and literature, and Ravn et al from European policy — and take to task the “othering” that happens in subtle ways to people newly arrived in Western societies. Academics Carol Farbotko and Heather Lazrus examine how Western categories of mobility (“refugee,” “migrant,” “climate refugee,” etc.) are projected onto people facing steep challenges like climate change in other cultural and political contexts, and illuminate some of what is missing from policy conversations. 

On belonging: losing and gaining homes, and making political demands 

Syrian journalist and graduate student Riham Alkousaa offers a searching reflection on what a “homeland” can look like, and where (or who) it can be, while journalist Jose Antonio Vargas chronicles his life as an undocumented person in the U.S.A. alongside a history of American immigration policy. Journalists Rachel Aviv and Rachel Wilkerson focus on individual human stories of transition from one place to another, and how Filipina care workers and Black Americans moving northward in the 20th century experience the trials of losing one home and building others. Lastly, author and academic Viet Thanh Nguyen assembles a standout group of refugee writers to define and reflect on “refugee lives” as they live and understand them, and theorists and activists Luis Fernández and Joel Olson argue for a way of understanding belonging apart from citizenship. 

Compiled by Matthew Brill-Carlat (Summer 2020)

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