The World and Its Refugees

By Guest

A little more than a week ago, June 20th, was World Refugee Day. The occasion seeks to raise awareness of, and funds for, the continued international work to support those displaced from their home countries. It furthermore is an opportunity to show solidarity with people who may still suffer from the consequences of persecution and the challenges of exile and exclusion.

However, the universal context of such a campaign raises questions about the transcendental nature of refugee identity and experience, and the possible existence of a global “refugee community.”

On this point, my own experiences in meeting and working with refugees (mostly limited to the Syrian context) support Liisa Mallki’s conclusion that:

“the term refugee has analytical usefulness not as a label for a special, generalizable ‘kind’ or ‘type’ of person or situation, but only as a broad legal or descriptive rubric that includes within it a world of different socioeconomic statuses, personal histories, and psychological or spiritual situations.”

Indeed, beyond the essential characteristics that qualify and legally define an individual as a refugee (outlined in Article 1 of the 1951 Convention), there are no generalizable – and simultaneously meaningful – attributes ascribable to the more than 15 million individuals represented by the category. “Refugee experience” – if Barry Stein’s term is to have any useful application – should, therefore, be considered in relation to the historical and political causality of specific refugee situations.

As such, it is difficult to conceive of refugees as a “community” in either the traditional or “imagined” sense. In fact, what tend to unite refugees are the kinds of institutions that seek to register and/or assist them (host states, humanitarian agencies, NGOs, etc.). My interactions with refugees over past years have highlighted the challenges of reclaiming and representing individual refugee personalities, especially in times of emergency. I recall how back in summer 2011, I was involved in supporting the UNHCR “Our Lives, Our Vision” photography course run by instructor Magda Sakaan.

The project provided Iraqi and Palestinian refugee children in the Syrian city of Aleppo with photography training, and culminated in an exhibition as a celebration of their individuality and creativity. It was rewarding to observe how the children actively engaged with the task, and with one another, and much of beauty was in the agency ascribed to refugees as the narrators of their own unique experiences.

Of course, the violence that Syria has suffered since then has meant that individual stories are often subsumed within the alarming statistics (some 4.25 million IDPs and more than 1.6 million refugees according to UNHCR). As I wonder what might have become of our young and promising participants – struggling to survive in Syria or displaced once again? – it is difficult to contemplate how many new lives and visions have been interrupted, if not completely destroyed. The task – for both refugees and those who seek to support them – is to locate the place of the individual within a situation of continuing mass displacement. Indeed, one refugee of Zatari camp in Jordan told me recently, “We ask ourselves here in on a daily basis are we still human and what remains of our humanity?”

Thomas McGee is a doctoral researcher at Exeter University. He works on humanitarian assistance, with particular focus on Syria. He is currently a supporter of Relief and Reconciliation for Syria, an INGO working on the Syrian-Lebanese border.