Refugee Label Obliterates Personal Identity

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When an individual is transformed into a ’refugee,’ great personal consequences follow in terms of the way in which the surrounding society regards this individual. Despite very different personalities and backgrounds, individuals are portrayed as a group of uniform people with a common destiny. In this way, they are reduced to individuals without identities.

By Rikke Nørgaard Andersen

The typical portrayal of refugees in the press and the media comes across through images of women and children driven to flee, starved and miserable – victims through and through. “Refugees cease to be specific people and become nothing but victims: universal man, universal woman, universal child, a universal family”, writes anthropologist Liisa Malkki (Malkki 1996) about the objectification that the category ‘refugee’ means to individuals. This is an identity that people take on involuntarily.

One recognises this characterisation when one considers the Danish debate on asylum seekers and the way in which refugees and asylum seekers are discussed. Everyone – politicians and various organisations – seems compelled to talk about refugees as if they constituted a uniform mass of identical individuals. But when do we listen to the refugees themselves – the people at the centre of it all? The fact that their faces are rarely seen and that their voices are seldom heard in the public debate means that these people become invisible. Discussions take place about them or on behalf of them; we do not talk with them. Thus they are excluded from influence on the conditions under which only they live. But how does the refugee label transform these individuals into universal identities? In the following, some of Liisa Malkki’s theories will be used to describe the consequences for individuals of the way in which refugees are cate-gorised.

The refugee is a pathological individual

The state of homelessness in which refugees find themselves fundamentally challenges ‘the national order of things,’ which is how Malkki describes the mindset that is the basis of nationalism today. She explains this employing the notion of a kind of meta-physics that is tied to a specific territory (Malkki 1992), which means that nations are founded on the perception that culture and identity are tied to a specific place. A nation is characterised by an unbreakable correlation between one physical territory and one cultural and national identity, which derives from and is tied to this territory, and by citizens with physical roots in a country. Refugees are in direct contrast to this order. The enforced ‘deportation’ tears away refugees’ roots and thereby also obliterates their cultural and national identity, which is connected to a certain place. The notion of the national order therefore by definition excludes the rootless refugees. Instead of understanding the refugees’ loss of a physical connection with their home countries as a consequence of social and political factors, it is perceived as a loss of identity and morals. Here Malkki cites a telling example of this perception on the basis of a psychological study of refugees in the 1950s:

“Homelessness is a serious threat to moral behavior. … At the moment the refugee crosses the frontiers of his own world, his whole moral outlook, his attitude toward the divine order of life changes. … [The refugees’] conduct makes it obvious that we are dealing with individuals who are basically amoral, without any sense of personal or social responsibility. … They become a menace, dangerous characters who will stop at nothing” (Cirtautas cited in Malkki 1992). The rootless refugee is portrayed as an individual without a sense of direction and whose condition is characterized by moral breakdown. Personal identity is obliterated and replaced by a categorization as a rootless, amoral refugee. The escape from the country of origin has torn the refugee’s roots away, and this is perceived as an inner pathological condition.

Life on standby in refugee camps

The metaphysics that is tied to a specific territory means that refugees are seen as a threat that challenges the national order. Refugee camps – tent camps in Africa as well as refugee camps in Denmark – can be understood as places where refugees’ behaviour is to be controlled. This control involves surveillance of and authority over space and movement. The camps resemble a state of emergency where residents are in a waiting position until their future has been determined. It is a state of emergency because their stay is temporary and because they have not yet been excluded from or included in a new country. They are nobodies, people without identity, temporary people that are ‘in between’ nations. There is no room to mix in the camps or to develop and influence the environment that surrounds the refugees; they simply have to wait and accept the state of affairs. No development takes place at all in the camps as if it was a space outside time. Life is put on hold.
However, if refugees are allowed to be members of society, they must – for instance in Denmark – go through a prolonged cultivation process during which they take a course on Danish social conditions, history and culture, all of which is thought to be a precondition of being able to function in Danish society. The pathological individual thereby goes through an intervention – a kind of cultural rehabilitation – as a basis on which to be a member of the new society.

Humanitarian organizations turn individuals into silent victims

The construction of the refugee as being pathological has the consequence that the individual loses the authority to express himself as an individual. This becomes visible through the way in which individuals are treated in the institutions in which they live and by the organizations that surround them. Here refugees are met with the perception that refugees form a kind of community, building on a common experience: the fact that they are on the run. This experience forms the basis of the understanding of the universal refugee as a helpless victim whom organizations must now help.

This universal refugee identity separates refugees from political, historical and cultural contexts and reduces their lives to the short story of being a refugee; they become ahistorical individuals. Their slates are wiped clean. In practice we see this when individuals are talked about as refugees in the press and the media. They are rarely referred to as former nurses, grocers, football players, students or anything else that might actually have defined them as people. They are transformed into full-time victims. In the Danish asylum camps, staff provide residents with a number, which is also an evident example of the objectifying perception of individuals that takes place. A new resident is just one more person in a series.

The humanitarian system’s victimization may seem understandable considering that an individual has been forced to flee and needs protection. However, problems arise when it turns into long-lasting crises where refugees live for years within humanitarian systems. It is difficult for people labelled as refugees to break out of the category into which they have been put, to become something other than helpless refugees and express views about the institutions under whose protection and control they live. The fact that they are separated from political and historical contexts limits their opportunities for influencing their surroundings and for involving themselves in these surroundings. “The idea of helplessness is vitally tied to silence among refugees: helpless victims need protection, need somebody to talk on their behalf (…). Their stories are almost disqualified in advance, while the language spoken within relief aid organizations, knowledge politics and ‘development’ claims that it provides reliable stories about refugees”, writes Malkki (1996). The representation of refugees as helpless people thus means that they are perceived as being incapable of presenting a true account of their lives, which is why others have to take care of their needs and speak on behalf of them. Helplessness and silence are tied together. Because of the way in which they victimize refugees, the organizations and institutions that surround refugees contribute to silencing refugees.

People are connected through history

How can this categorization, which means that citizens in Denmark find it hard to view refugees as anything but alien and invisible objects who are difficult to relate to as real people, be broken down. This is a state of affairs that makes it easier to send refugees back to countries plagued by war. Refugees are unconditionally talked about as the fundamental problem, while questions are rarely asked about the exclusive nature of society, although this might actually constitute the core of the problem.

Malkki argues that the notion of the conflict between the national order and rootless refugees should be challenged. Identity is not tied to a place and is not stable; it is flexible and can change; identity should therefore not be perceived as something that is eternally tied to one place; instead it should be understood through our movements and through the processes of which we are a part (Malkki 1992).

Challenging the perception of refugees as being outside time and as being universal individuals requires a different view of what ties people together. Malkki cites French philosopher Michel Foucault, who maintains that it is “more fruitful to tie people together by means of history and historicism than to do it by means of a human essence.” (Malkki 1996). Instead of understanding refugees as an ali-en, unique group of pathological individuals outside historical, cultural and political contexts, they should be viewed as people with a history and a destiny that any human being could be subjected to. When things like war, conflicts, economic conditions and catastrophes are high on the political agenda, then the consequences of these conditions – the flow of refugees – should also be high on the political agenda. By relating to and involving the refugees, we become aware that their destinies are a part of what the world produces.

Tying people together through their respective stories can remove the notion of a shared experience of being a refugee that ties together refugees in a common universal identity. The fact is that there is not just one experience; on the contrary, the label ‘refugee’ involves qualitatively different experiences, problems and personal stories. The generalizing refugee label can therefore not be used to understand experiences gained by people who have been driven to escape; it can only be used “as a broad legal or descriptive rubric that includes within it a world of different socioeconomic statuses, personal histories, and psychological or spiritual situations” (Malkki 1995). By advancing these stories, the perception of a unique bond between the refugee and the community of refugees is removed and is replaced by a bond between unique individuals with experiences, stories, interests and qualifications that tie people together across national borders and social layers.

Accentuating the personal identity of imagined refugees without an identity therefore requires that we do not talk about refugees, but that they become an active part of the discussion about the conditions that affect them. It is about giving them voices instead of simply letting the refugee label speak on their behalf. In a Danish perspective, society’s members can only see the faces of the asylum seekers and relate to them as something that is not just a category when they become a part of everyday life instead of being remote objects without an identity, isolated in asylum camps far away from established society.


Liisa Malkki:
– 1992: National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees
– 1995. Refugees and exile: From ”Refugee Studies” to the National Order of Things
– 1996: Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and De-historicization