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  • Writer's pictureMelvyn Tang

Refugees Are Not A Problem Set

Melvyn Tang

The refugee crisis in Europe has long been an issue in the political sphere. In both policy-making and public opinion, the term ‘refugee’ for the most part carries negative connotations – of illegality, terrorism, crime, and poverty. But where in this narrative do refugees themselves fit in?

What is it that really separates the status of those without a country to call home and those with? The simple answer is political agency, which is broadly understood as the ability to make political decisions. Refugees have very little say in this regard, particularly in issues that involve themselves like migration policies, border controls, and so on. Why does this situation occur? And what does the existence of refugees tell us about how the world is structured, and about agency itself?

Representation and Perception

Let’s begin with what a refugee is first. This term describes those forced to leave their home country, fleeing war, persecution, or violence – specifically issues where people are in danger due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or status. A government’s failure to protect their own people in this way renders them an enigma in the eyes of the law and civil rights. Once citizenship is lost willingly or not, the political identity and belonging that it grants also disappears leaving refugees ‘stateless.’ Political agency is gone, and the confines of the state no longer bound refugees – they become instead seen as external liabilities to be dealt with.

Here, the rhetoric surrounding refugees becomes blurred, especially in mainstream political debate and popular media. Really, there are only two circumstances in which refugees are talked about: either as threats to the stability of their respective host countries or as innocent victims. The first, we see in ongoing political narratives which peaked during the Brexit campaigns conflating refugees with illegal migration. Take, for example, a UKIP conference speech in 2013 which blamed domestic unemployment and deficit on immigrant crime waves and migrants taking advantage of welfare. This political reframing of refugees as migrants not only blurs how applicable international laws on refugee intake are but reduces their journeys to ones of solely economic self-interest. This is a huge assumption to make, especially considering the numerous first-hand interviews that show more nuanced and mostly politically driven factors causing refugee crises. For example, an interview of an Afghan refugee tells the story of his family’s flight from the Taliban – political persecution resulting in job insecurity and social isolation highlight a multitude of drivers that cannot be defined in just economic terms.

On the flip side, popular media often capitalizes on the refugee struggle, framing them as nothing more than one-dimensional helpless victims. In particular, films documenting refugee lives are positioned as “truth-telling” devices, implicitly or explicitly held to a higher standard of authenticity than other forms of media. Prominent examples include Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow and Matthew Firpo’s Refuge. Yes, both films draw attention to the often-untold human aspects of refugee life – Human Flow begins with scenes of Iraqi refugees boarding dinghies and huddled around campfires. “We left four years ago… missiles were coming from Jobar falling like rain,” a woman says before the camera zooms in on her tear-stricken face. Likewise, Refuge features heart-wrenching interviews with 11 Arabic-speaking refugees. But neither documentary provides context for who these people are; the thousands of people featured remain unnamed, background-less, reduced to nothing but their stories for a mainly Western audience. One must remember that refugee voices remain stuck in power hierarchies even in films that, again, remove them from their political agency. Refugee lives are shown as a fragmented, emotional snapshot that may be accurate but only serve the purpose of the film. In this way, power hierarchies that continue to ‘other’ refugees are reproduced, representing only a specific perspective on refugee lives, not a holistic presentation at all.


Refugee Identity

Film critic and scholar Bill Nichols stated that “the relationship between filmmaker and subject can be similar to that between a benevolent, or perhaps not so benevolent, dictator and his subjects” which I think also holds true for that of politicians and their subjects. Would these narratives be different if refugees themselves stood at the helm? Why is it assumed that refugees are unable to represent themselves and that others need to speak for them? Without asking these questions, the refugee’s right to be seen as human remains completely dependent on others, whether that is in politics or popular media.

So, what is the solution? The task of pushing refugee issues into the public and political spheres has focused on objective representation of the refugee experience, but this itself assumes one single homogenous identity – simply not the case for the huge range of incomes, skillsets, cultural, ethnic, and historical backgrounds that make up the refugee population. Instead, we need to look at refugees in context as part of the wider bracket of the global poor.

Is poverty caused by the global system not working well enough? In that case for refugees, we would need things like better immigration plans as mentioned in the UK Home Secretary’s 2021 speech; improved movement of capital to provide more opportunities for reintegration into society, and so on. And yet, reintegration remains a difficult thing; the tighter border controls many European nations have adopted to incentivize ‘legal’ migration have done little to deter those still making dangerous ocean journeys, even less so to help refugees regain citizenship shown by the population of 24.6 million that remain stateless.

Instead, perhaps poverty is caused by the international system itself as university lecturer Phil Cole argues. In particular, the exploitative legacies of colonialism are central to the modern concept of statehood, shaping the political identities of the ‘us’ and the ‘other’ which legitimize existing power hierarchies. The interesting contradiction is that while holding little status politically, refugees make up important components of global networks through informal economies, for example, subsistence farming and local trade. As such, it is only through critical analysis of how the world is structured that we can make progress in truly representing refugees and the global poor. Gaining a more holistic understanding of the world beyond borders can give us a much better starting point to seeing how refugees are a part of our lives, not an external ‘other’ to be solved.


Melvyn Tang is a student at the University of Warwick (UK) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China), with a background in History, Politics, and Sustainable Development. Growing up throughout a unique time in West-China relations, Melvyn is passionate about cultural diversity and the intersections between inequality and global development.


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 02 — June 2022


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