Who is a refugee?

The term refugee has extensive historical roots, and how it is used has evolved over time and across a broad range of academic disciplines and social policies. The term refugee has also been used across a range of academic disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, geography, history, psychology and international relations. The study of forced migration — also sometimes referred to as refugee studies — involves working across academic disciplines or using a multi-disciplinary approach. The founder of Refugee Studies was Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond who founded the first research centre on forced migration — the Refugee Studies Programme (now Refugee Studies Centre) at the University of Oxford in 1982 (see Key Thinker Box 2.1) utilizing a multi-disciplinary approach.

The term refugee was first used in 1573 in France during the late 17th century to describe how people fleeing persecution were granted asylum and assisted (Zolberg et al., 1989:5). The first refugees were Huguenots fleeing France who arrived in England in 1685 after being persecuted on the basis of their religion. As will be seen later in this chapter, religion is now one of the five causes recognized within the 1951 Refugee Convention. In ordinary usage, the term refugee has been used to describe and signify somebody who is in flight, escaping oppression or persecution and is seeking freedom, safety and refuge. As Goodwin-Gill explains:

Implicit in the ordinary meaning of the word ‘refugee’ lies an assumption that the person concerned is worthy of being, and ought to be, assisted, and, if necessary, protected from the causes and consequences of flight.

(Goodwin-Gill, 1996:3)

In times of unlimited immigration the distinction between who is a refugee and who is migrating for different reasons is less important than it has become in the late 20th and beginning of the 21st century (Zolberg et al., 1989). In the contemporary world, strict criteria are applied to make the distinction between refugees and other migrants. Today there is little agreement in public discourse around who is deserving of protection, asylum and support and who is undeserving (Sales, 2002). It is not coincidental that these debates have emerged alongside restrictive immigration policies. Disagreement about who is a refugee continue, but when life and liberty are at stake, accurate decision making is critical for those in need of protection from persecution.

Perceptions play an important role in this. As the anthropologist Lisa Malkki (see Key Thinker Box 2.2) suggests:

Asylum states and international agencies dealing with refugees . . . tend to share the premise that refugees are necessarily ‘a problem'. Not just ‘ordinary people’.

(Malkki, 1995:8)

Malkki highlights how literature about refugees often locates this ‘problem’ within the bodies and minds of people classified as refugees rather than a broader understanding of the circumstances that have caused displacement or the oppression and violence that produce refugees in the first instance. Locating the problem of displacement of individuals in this way results in descriptions being very polarized (Zetter, 2007; see Key Thinker Box 2.4). How refugees are seen and defined is important, and a range of often binary and opposite descriptions have been applied to describe them. As shown in Table 2.1, throughout history these have included:

Table 2.1 Positive and Negative Labels of Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Positive labels

Negative labels











Movers and shakers


Autonomous agents


Agents of development


Agents of democracy'




Champions of change


A resource

A threat



Refugees are sometimes described as being capable, autonomous agents who are assets to the societies they inhabit. Equally they are also often referred to as vulnerable, powerless burdens on society' who might pose a national threat to the countries they reach and within which they' are able to find refuge. In many' cases, mobility is often considered as being both positive (due to any enhancement in status involved and benefits to both the society they' migrate to and their families in countries of origin due to remittances returned) or as overtly negative, requiring controlling measures, mechanisms to deter new arrivals and closure of borders. As can be seen, binary thinking outlined in other chapters dominates descriptions and perceptions of those forced to migrate.

For writers such as Turton (2003), the way in which refugees are portrayed and perceived becomes important when, for example, they need to access

‘Refugee’ or ‘asylum seeker’? 29 services. Someone perceived as being a ‘vulnerable victim’ might be able to access to services, resources, advice or assistance whereas someone perceived as being a ‘capable survivor’ might not gain similar access. Turton (2003) proposed that refugees and asylum seekers should be considered as ‘ordinary people’ who have been through extraordinary circumstances, bypassing such binary conceptions and the range of polar opposites outlined earlier.

With much less emphasis on individual causes and taking a far more structural stance, the political theorist Aristide Zolberg argued that the creation of nation-states was in itself a ‘refugee-generating process’ (1989:228) with refugees being ‘a by-product of social change’ (1989:262). According to Zolberg, persecution was directed against groups — religious, national or social groups - who had gained these characteristics simply by being born. For Zolberg. historical processes involved in transformation of empires into nation-states resulted in refugees who could be delineated into three sociological types:

  • 1 The activist — dissenters whose actions contribute to the conflict that ultimately forces them to flee
  • 2 The target — individuals who, through membership of a particular social group, are singled out for violent action
  • 3 The victim — those who are randomly caught in the crossfire or are exposed to generalized violence

The first and second type are considered part of international refugee law, although the third type — the victim - only sees protection within regional mechanisms as outlined in later text.

Points for Discussion — Labelling

  • • Can you think of any other terms that have been applied to refugees or asylum seekers?
  • • Are they positive or negative?
  • • Why do you think those labels exist?

Key Thinker Box 2.1 Barbara Harrell-Bond —

Imposing Aid

Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond OBE founded the first research centre on forced migration - the Refugee Studies Programme (now Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford in 1982.

Her 1986 seminal text - Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees — exposed the shortcomings of the aid regime and delivery of aid for refugees through voluntary, national and international agencies. Widely considered to be essential reading — and essential learning — this book provoked strong reactions at the time of publication. Harrell-Bond asked why there was ‘no tradition of independent, critical research in the field of refugee assistance’ (1986:xi), pointing out that agencies involved were aware of the same mistakes being repeated over and over again in setting up and implementing aid to refugees. The way in which refugees were viewed as a temporary phenomenon means aid was delivered under emergency relief and subsequent structures rather than adoption of a developmental approach.

Imposing Aid focused on an emergency assistance programme for Ugandan refugees in southern Sudan which aimed to promote economic independent for refugees. Harrell-Bond and her team initially observed the emergency programme. They then conducted a random sample of 10,675 refugees across 2,017 households who were then assisted by UNHCR and NGOs across 22 different settlements and 3 transit camps. As today, most refugees lived outside the official relief system, and interviews were also conducted with 3,814 refugee households who had selfsettled in the district and were not receiving official assistance. Some 200 children’s drawings of ‘refugee life’ were collected, and more than 100 hours of refugee ‘voices’ recorded. At the time of the fieldwork for this study — March 1982 to September 1983 - participatory methods and attempts to capture the creative energies of participants of aid were not prevalent in the delivery of aid.

Key findings were that the assistance programme was based on equity of distribution of material support. Harrell-Bond argued that treating all refugees as equal actually exacerbated economic differences, with the more vulnerable groups becoming more impoverished by the lack of nuanced support mechanisms. Harrell-Bond also argued that the ver}' concept of ‘refugee’ was an artificial category that suited donors and the aid industry more than the people in receipt of such aid. The convenience — for the delivery of aid - of hosting refugees in ‘camps’ where refugees are visible was part of this critique as was the prevailing approach of the time that refugees themselves were to blame for the failures of aid programmes and their own economic dependence on future aid. A reversal of this thinking - that the often utilised phrase ‘dependency syndrome’ was the fault of refugees themselves - was proposed by Harrell-Bond, who suggested that the actual fault lay in the way in which aid was managed and delivered by humanitarian agencies.

Subsequent work by Harrell-Bond has focussed on protests against UNHCR by refugees and details of the interactions between refugees and their ‘helpers’ within humanitarian aid structures. By continuing to carry out independent, critical research into the lives of refugees — and continually encouraging others to do the same — Harrell-Bond has shaped the study of forced migration (Harrell-Bond, 2002, 2008a, 2008b).

She also wrote about setting up refugee legal aid organisations in the 'South', not only working on this topic in theory but bridging into activism and practice on a regular basis. She co-founded or established several organisations and networks, promoting legal assistance for refugees around the world:

  • • International Research and Advisory Panel (IRAP), which became the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) — http://iasfm.org
  • • Refugee Law Project (RLP) from the School of Law, Makerere University, Uganda - www.refugeelawproject.org
  • • Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), Egypt -www.amerainternational.org
  • • Southern Refugee Legal Aid Network — https://srlanetwork.word-press.com
  • • Rights in Exile Programme, UK — www.refugeelegalaidinformation.org

A documentary in tribute to her life — ‘A Life Not Ordinary* — can be found here: https://vimeo.com/273494590.

A special issue of Forced Migration Review in tribute to her life can be found here: www.fmreview.org/sites/fmr/files/FMRdownloads/en/ ethics/Tribute-BarbaraHarrellBond.pdf

Key references — Barbara Harrell-Bond

Harrell-Bond, B. (1986) Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Harrell-Bond, B. (2002) Can Humanitarian Work with Refugees be Humane?

Human Rights Quarterly, 24, 51-85.

Harrell-Bond, B. (2008a) Building the Infrastructure for the Observance of Refugee Rights in the Global South, Refuge, 25(2), 12-28.

Harrell-Bond, B. (2008b) Protests Against UNHCR to Achieve Rights: Some Reflections, in Grabska, K. and Mehta, L. (Eds.), Forced Displacement: Why Rights Matter, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.

Key Thinker Box 2.2 Lisa Malkki — Purity and Exile

Lisa Malkki is an anthropologist and Professor at Stanford University. She is widely cited in forced migration studies as a result of her one-year field research between October 1985 and October 1986 in Tanzania, which looked at how political violence and exile produce a sense of historical consciousness and national identity among people who have been displaced. The resulting 1995 seminal text — Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania — explored how Hutu refugees from Burundi, driven into exile in Tanzania after the 1972 massacre constructed their histories in both refugee camps and in urban settings. She found that a key aspect of living in refugee camps involved the creation of an elaborate ‘mythico-history’ of the Hutu people wherein history was involved in everyday thought and social action. For those living in more urban settings she found identities related more closely to practical circumstances, day-to-day life and the ability' to lose the identity' of‘refugee’ and ‘adopt strategies of invisibility’ (1995:155). It also examined how essentialised categories of identity' such as ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ were produced in contexts of violence and exile and how ‘processes of making and unmaking’ identities evolved in both locations (1995:17).

This ethnography explores a number of key concepts that continue to be explored within refugee or forced migration studies, including how refugees occupy' a liminal position in the world, citing Turner’s 1967 explanation of being ‘betwixt and between’ during rites of passage. It also explored how refugees are often seen as threats to national security' (see also Douglas, 1996). For Malkki, states and international agencies framing refugees as a ‘problem’ relates to the political oppression or violence that created their displacement rather than being embodied within those classified as refugees. Refugees, she argued, thus become ‘idealized and generalized as a type of person’ (1995:9) rather than as ‘ordinary' people’ experiencing displacement.

Other and subsequent work by Malkki has explored the history of‘the refugee’, ‘refugee studies’ and the refugee camp as a device of power and control as well as the tendency to regard movement across borders with a focus on loss rather than transformation (1995a, 1995b). She has also focussed on how refugees are often depoliticised and dehistoricised by' international organisations within the humanitarian sector (1996).

These publications and her more recent work can be viewed at: https://profiles.Stanford.edu/liisa-malkki?tab=publications.

Key references — Lisa Malkki

Douglas, M. (1996) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Routledge, London.

Malkki, L. (1995a) Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the National Order of Things, Annual Review of Anthropology, 24, 495-523.

Malkki, L. (1995b) Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Malkki, L. (1996) Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism and Dehistori-cization, Cultural Anthropology, 11(3), 377-404.

Turner, V. (1967) The Forest of Symbols: Aspects ofNdembu Ritual, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

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