We define a set of critical concepts that are grounded in refugee histories and experiences. We theorize these concepts to expand on their everyday uses and imbue them with refugee meanings and knowledge.
The word asylum denotes a sanctuary, a refuge, but it is also a sanitarium, a holding place for the mentally ill. These definitions can be applied, on the one hand, to the ways in which former colonial empires have granted asylum to immigrants and refugees and have welcomed them to their shores. On the other hand, for refugees and immigrants, the word asylum connotes something more sinister, that it may not be a sanctuary but a sanitarium. Postcolonial women writers like Zimbabwe writer Tsitsi Dangarembga have explored the theme of displacement and madness in their work. For Dangarembga, the postcolonial female subject exhibits a raft of nervous conditions, which is aptly the title of her book, as a result of colonialism and patriarchy. Vietnamese French writer Linda Le also delves into the state of madness, looking at how the refugee is made mad by the precarious conditions of her living within the borders of the metropole. Madness, as writers have shown, depicts not the unhinging of one’s mental state but expresses the rage that one feels in being displaced.
Though the crime is very old, the term “genocide” was first articulated in 1944 and adopted by the United Nations in 1948. The historical and political contexts out of which the term was born shaped the definition of “genocide” and accounted for the omission of mass killing of social and political groups from the categories of genocidal acts, thus limiting its applicability in history. State sponsored mass killings under Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot of political groups and “class enemies” (former soldiers and civilian officials, intellectuals, landowners, artists, and urbanites whom the regime consider to be a political threat) as such could not be considered as crimes of genocide under the Convention.
The term is also constrained by the focus on inter-ethnic violence, compelling Francois Ponchaud (1978) to coin the term “autogenocide” to address intra-group, co-ethnic violence of the Cambodian genocidal experience. While it compensates for the definitional shortcomings and captures the particularities of this form of genocidal violence that renders reconciliation and healing even more problematic, the implied self-manufactured nature of historical trauma obfuscates the roles and responsibilities of external actors.
Baggage for the refugee carries material and symbolic meaning. Combined with the physical luggage that refugees put together in their haste to escape violence, baggage represents the different forms of content that people try to fill and carry. For example, war is a baggage that refugees always have to carry. The refugee also becomes baggage for the nation-state. Baggage also simultaneously functions as trauma and resilience/survival. To be sure, baggage is ephemeral; it can be lost through movement without the possibility of retrieval. Yet, traces of the baggage and its contents remain. The baggage does not have to be full in order for it to be loaded, or visible for its impact to be felt. Baggage is also culturally specific so that it may signal the “missingness” in history and knowledge formation or represent the presence of refugee epistemologies.
In respect to contemporary media, refugees are both current and signal a form of currency; constantly featured in the headlines, refugees have a use-value in embodying suffering for today’s newsreader. The image of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi who was found dead on a Turkish beach is a symbolic, current iteration of this, even though the spectacle of the injured other has a long colonial lineage. For refugee imagery asks that you remember the pity the refugees at the same time that you fear them, that you see them as both human and inhuman. The currency of such images traffics in a liberal humanitarian impulse and privilege: on seeing the other as other even as you try to put yourself in the other’s place. This form of looking is colonial in nature, rooted in a desire to see the body of the other as broken and in need of help, but also profoundly outside of time.
How does Critical Refugees Studies redefine “empire”? Consider the following lines: “No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark.” So begins the now iconic 2015 poem “Home”* by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. For Critical Refugees Studies “empire” is that shark. Refugee experiences, epistemologies, and expressions make that shark unmistakable. This includes not only the mouth that is the home one has left, but also the rest of that shark’s body that is fed by that mouth.
Later her poem articulates the question “look at what they’ve done to their own countries,/ what will they do to ours?” As the question is set up in the poem, it is likely spoken by a racist xenophobe.
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look at what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?
Critical Refugee Studies makes it possible for us to consider what it might mean for the dash after “savage” to indicate a break, a shift to another interiority. That is to say, what would it mean if the refugee asked that question? This very interrogation is precisely what may be happening through this poem that strategically centers the refugee. Recognizing this perspective would mean that the refugee would be recognized as a critical subject, and not just an object, not just a “running… beaten… raped… starved… pitied… dirty… savage” object of empire’s latest mission to shape the world in its image.
Shire's poem has been documented at the following sites, among others: https://genius.com/Warsan-shire-home-annotated; http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/; https://qz.com/897871/warsan-shires-poem-captures-the-reality-of-life-for-refugees-no-one-leaves-home-unless-home-is-the-mouth-of-a-shark/; https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/16/poets-speak-out-for-refugees-. Thanks to Lan Duong for first calling my attention to Shire's poem.
Maps that depict refugee flight or migration have typically been extensions of maps of war and conflict which represent refugees as targets to be eradicated or objects of rescue. Although conflict zones have been the very sites that produce refugee displacement, their synonymous depictions dehumanize the refugee as devoid of connections to place and community. As an example, the majority of refugee mapping websites are data-driven, usually relying on data provided by the UNHCR, and they show refugee migration as spreading from the colonial peripheries to imperial centers such as Europe or North America. These maps further perpetuate the ideas about refugees as masses that emerge unconnected to militarized imperialist regimes who threaten the national security of benevolent nation-states. In critical refugee studies, we envision a refugee mapping process that unmaps the targets on refugees. We ask: how can we map refugee communities and resilience across different geopolitical boundaries? How can we map refugee presence without relying on the very humanitarian data that presents them as objects of rescue? We propose a refugee mapping project that centers refugee communities, stories, and collectivities that could be useful for refugees to find resources and to locate each other.
There are two major types of refugee camps: the refugee processing centers that focus on the rehabilitation of refugees bound for resettlement, and the closed camps or detention centers that warehouse rejected refugees for years and even decades in prison-like conditions. Refugee advocates have traditionally promoted three solutions to refugee outflows: repatriation, resettlement and permanent integration in first-asylum countries. However, refugee warehousing—the practice of keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility—has become a de facto fourth solution to dispose of unwanted refugees. In particular, a countless number of children had spent their entire lives in these closed camps.
Refugitude, a term advanced by Khatharya Um in her work on Cambodian diaspora (Um, 2015), connotes the state, conditions, and consciousness of being a refugee. It places refugee experiences and meaning making at the analytic center without dismissing the role of external forces and conditions in producing refugee dislocations. In so doing, it provides a conceptual and theoretical intervention to prevailing discourse in which the determination of refugeehood is made the sole purview of the state and collaborating agencies that establish not only the criteria for the label, but also how long a refugee group can avail themselves of that label; how refugees see themselves and their conditions has no bearing on that determination. The conditions and consciousness of being a refugee, however, often outlast the expiration of the politico-legal status; that very expiration itself is a denial of the persisting challenges facing the refugee individual, families, and communities.
Whereas the term “refugee” has been made synonymous with needs, refugitude rescues it from reductionist pejorative connotations with equal attention to hope and futurity. It replaces reductionism with attention to complexity of refugee lives, and binaries with juxtapositions and interstices as dynamic sites of negotiation and creation.
Many refugee families wrap their war memories in a shroud of silence and forgetting. For the parents, their silence is an effort to protect their children from the brutal realities of war and flight. However, within the space of the family, the past still breaks through in the sounds of nightmares, of sudden tears, and of mysterious illnesses. Just as parents use silence to cope with their traumatic memories, children also use silence to protect their parents from having to relive the terrors of wartime and its aftermath. In short, both the first and the second generation of refugees use silence as an attempt to shield family members from the painful grip of the past.
How does Critical Refugees Studies redefine “technology”? Technology can encompass an incredibly diverse range of fields and industries – everything from communications and food to weaponry and transportation to healthcare and business models. Amidst this diversity, it may nevertheless be possible to assert that “technology” describes manifestations of progress and development and the reproduction of the conditions of production, as captured in the saying (usu. attrib. to Ralph Waldo Emerson*): “Build a better mousetrap, and the world beats a path to your door.” This statement is premised upon a presumed good to the trapping of mice, along with a social, cultural, and economic system to sustain and reward that activity.
We might also invoke a quotation on technology from Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1983**): “Replicants are like any other machine: they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, they’re not my problem.” Critical Refugee Studies demands us to brush the ideas of progress and development and the reproduction of the conditions of production against the grain, to see the capacities for hazard as well as benefit that refugees make palpably evident.
New media has provided unprecedented visibility and rapid circulation of images of refugees, which is significant. Yet we should also remember that this visibility does not mean that refugee experiences, epistemologies, and expressions are a blanket validation, even celebration, of the wonders of technology. Instead, refugee experiences, epistemologies, and expressions occasion a call to recognize the shared impulses that led to, on one hand, the terrorizing chemical weapons of yellow rain*** and, on the other, to the means by which digital awareness of wartime atrocities – and their traumatic and generative aftermath – takes form and spreads in transformative ways.
For an evocative rendering of yellow rain, please see “Yellow Rain” in Mai Der Vang’s 2017 Walt Whitman Award-winning book Afterland [Minneapolis: Graywolf P, 2017] 17-18.
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