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Becoming a Refugee: Reflections on Self-Understandings of Displacement from the Syrian Case

  • Wendy Pearlman (a1)
Abstract

International law, government policy, and a range of academic disciplines all demonstrate different approaches to the task of defining who is a refugee. Yet how do refugees define themselves? When, how, and why do they come to identify with this term, or not? This essay offers reflections on these questions based on interviews with hundreds of displaced Syrians in the Middle East and Europe from 2012 to 2018. Syrian experiences illustrate how individuals’ self-understandings as refugees evolve over time as a contingent process not necessarily coterminous with actual physical displacement. I trace how these self-understandings are generated as shifts in three indicative relationships: displaced persons’ relationships to their expectations of return to their homeland; their relationships to their pre-flight lives; and their relationships to the word “refugee” itself. This focus on the bottom-up, organic development of a new subjectivity suggests how one's self-definition as a refugee might be less a quality or state that exists synonymously with forced migration than it is an identity that comes into existence gradually over time. That is, it is the product of a process of “becoming” more than “being.”

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References
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1 See “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” UNHCR Operational Portal, last modified August 29, 2018, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria; Philip Connor, “Most displaced Syrians are in the Middle East, and about a million are in Europe,” Pew Research Center, January 29, 2018, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/01/29/where-displaced-syrians-have-resettled/.

2 See “Syria Emergency,” UNHCR, last modified April 19, 2018, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/syria-emergency.html.

3 See “The world's 5 biggest refugee crises,” Mercy Corps, last modified July 5, 2018, https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/worlds-5-biggest-refugee-crises.

4 See Malley, William, What is a refugee? (London: Hurst, 2016).

5 Karatani, Rieko, “How History Separated Refugee and Migrant Regimes: In Search of Their Institutional Origins,” International Journal of Refugee Law 17, Issue 3 (2005): 517-41.

6 Hamlin, Rebecca, “International Law and Administrative Insulation: A Comparison of Refugee Status Determination Regimes in the United State, Canada, and Australia,” Law and Social Inquiry 37, Issue 3 (March 2012): 933-68.

7 FitzGerald, David Scott and Arar, Rawan, “The Sociology of Refugee Migration,” Annual Review of Sociology 44 (2018), pp. 8.13-8.14.

8 Skran, Claudena and Daughtry, Carla N., “The Study of Refugees Before ‘Refugee Studies,’Refugee Survey Quarterly 26, Issue 3 (2007): 15-35.

9 See, inter alia, Essam El-Hinnawi, “Environmental Refugees,” UN Environment Programme, Nairobi, Kenya, 1985; Westing, Arthur H., “Environmental refugees: a growing category of displaced persons,” Environmental Conservation 19, no. 3 (Autumn 1992): 201-07; Myers, Norman, “Environmental refugees in a globally warmed world,” BioScience 43, no. 11 (December 1993): 752-61.

10 For overview, see Chatty, Dawn, “Anthropology and Forced Migration,” in The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, eds. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Elena, Loescher, Gil, Long, Katy, and Sigona, Nando (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

11 See Pearlman, Wendy, “Contingency and Agency in a Turning Point Protest: March 18, 2011 in Daraa, Syria,” in Microfoundations of the Arab Uprisings: Mapping Interactions between Regimes and Protesters, eds. Jasper, James and Volpi, Frederic (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), 111-34.

12 For an early press release on refugee outflows from Daraa, see “Syria: Doubling of Refugees fleeing to Jordan,” UNHCR, last modified August 28, 2012, http://www.unhcr.org/503ca1c99.html.

13 Interview in Gaziantep, Turkey on January 12, 2016.

14 Interview in Marburg, Germany on July 1, 2018.

15 Conversation in Gothenburg, Sweden on June 11, 2017.

16 Interview in Berlin, Germany on August 8, 2017.

17 Interview in Berlin, Germany on July 23, 2016, cited in Pearlman, Wendy, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled (New York: Custom House, 2017), 272.

18 See Der Spiegel Staff, “Is There Truth to Refugee Rape Reports?” Spiegel Online, January 17, 2018, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/is-there-truth-to-refugee-sex-offense-reports-a-1186734.html.

19 Interview in Berlin, Germany on July 23, 2016.

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Review of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 2151-3481
  • EISSN: 2329-3225
  • URL: /core/journals/review-of-middle-east-studies
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