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Corporate media, humanitarian agencies and NGOs evoke the imagery of helpless, passive victims when describing refugees to appeal to Western societies for compassion while demonstrating self-affirmation to guard the status quo, rather than depicting them as people with abilities, agency and knowledge facing extraordinary circumstances that need to be addressed.

With looming refugee and forced migration crises in the Mediterranean, Kenya, Myanmar, Syria, Burundi and elsewhere hitting international headlines, public attention is rightfully drawn to those people immediately affected by war, poverty, and persecution. For many, internally-displaced persons (IDPs), refugees, and asylum-seekers are above all unfortunate souls, devastated, and stripped of their humanity by seemingly never-ending civil wars, dictatorships and economic stagnation at home. Yet, maybe counter-intuitively, ritualistic demonstrations of compassion in Western media and the political scene do a disservice to refugee advocacy, as they inadvertently – and falsely - reduce refugee-ness to a state of inaction and passivity, and refugee camps to fairly hopeless and “nondescript places”, as Edward Said famously remarked [1].

In the immediate aftermath of the preventable deaths of hundreds of Arab and African migrants in the Mediterranean earlier in April this year, analysts and media outlets again invoked this sense of despair, hopelessness and victimhood on the part of those people risking the perilous journey to Europe, and eventually paying with their lives for the dream of a better and safe life.


The implicit message of these various representations was – quite rightly - Europe’s moral and legal obligation to save those drowning right on her doorstep and in visual range of her shores. Understandably, well-meaning human rights activists, leftist politicians, and humanitarian agencies have used the same imagery to create awareness in Western media, civil society and public discourse. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), for instance, speaks of “warehousing” refugees. Not only have the lines between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’, between ‘asylum-seeker’ and ‘displaced person’ become increasingly irrelevant in popular parlance to a point of indistinguishability, but these groups are also imagined to share a common, inevitably fate.

While these strategic portrayals of ‘essential victims’ are ironically driven by commendable intentions to stir debates and at best provoke policy responses, it is also clear that they nurture and prolong a problematic ‘refugee-victim’ narrative. Here, refugees – or (forced) migrants in general - feature as helpless, indistinct crowds who are being heaved by the coastguard from overloaded rubber boats on the verge of sinking onto the safety of navy vessels, or as destitute and empty-eyed bodies in uninhabitable places, abandoned and sacrificed. Having said this, unspeakable stories of pain and devastation are not a fiction, but they exist to the millions and very much deserve to be told. Yet, by harping on scenarios of trauma and loss, discourse practice ironically thwarts the ‘empowerment’ language of humanitarian actors. Naturally, the short-term benefits of proliferating such images with their metaphorical power must be weighed critically against the potentially damaging repercussions for popular beliefs and attitudes towards (forced) migrants at large. In the words of renowned scholar Jennifer Hyndman, “the popularity and sympathy for displaced peoples on the part of Western governments lies precisely in their location ‘over there’” [2].


In this regard, the changing use of language is symptomatic. By talking about ‘migrants’, ‘immigrants’ – rather than “people who migrate” – or “refugees” – as opposed to “people who seek refuge” - we are semantically setting “us” apart from a collective “them” without discernibly referring to actual people. Admittedly, this is also a pragmatic choice. It would therefore make little sense to now replace those terms, also due to the lack of meaningful alternatives. However, by branding these people, the hierarchical global power structures of exclusion and naming that spawn xenophobia and racism are internalized, reinforced, and cement ‘othering’ as a troubling social norm. Obviously, everyone who participates in this discourse is complicit to a degree. Further, this apparent separate-ness of refugees from “us” – both in law and imagination – portrays “them” as somehow not-quite-as-human, and as a life form, which defies the very standards we hold so dearly for ourselves.

In this dichotomization between “refugees” and “people” finally lies the crux: an ostensible incompatibility of suffering and human agency. Many people, especially in Western societies, experience cognitive dissonance. They find it hard to reconcile images of young Eritreans, Rohingya or Syrians escaping violence, oppression and brutal civil wars with a seemingly contrary notion of those very individuals using Facebook, Twitter, and handling expensive smartphones. Usually, these people are surprised to hear that refugees spend time in bars, coffee houses, make-shift cinemas, or ‘Hotels’ – all in a refugee camp – rather than in a nondescript place of suffering. In a 2013 article, the Daily Mail thus called Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan “the world’s most depressing ‘city’”. Needless to say, I am not suggesting that refugee camps are particularly liveable places. Anyone who has visited or worked in a camp knows that they are not. Refugee camps are uncomfortable, harsh places in which modern ‘biopolitics’ fully unfold in the form of controls, surveillance, head counts, and food distributions. Nonetheless, this biopolitical governance is a far cry from totalitarian rule, and the gaze of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is not ubiquitous. Camp inhabitants – certainly depending on social and cultural background - engage in extensive socio-economic activities, such as trade, business, marriage, discussions, quarrels, and – of course - watching and playing football and other sports. As straightforward and familiar as this sounds to practitioners and academics of forced migration, many others seem unaware.

To uphold this mirage, the dangerous passage of people over the Mediterranean or into a neighbouring country is discursively reproduced as an inner ‘cleansing process’ in which the individual becomes a suffering refugee, at last ‘worthy’ of victimhood attributes. In an almost religious manner, visibly suffering refugees hereby become the pure embodiment of human life and self-sacrifice. Consequently, a true refugee is one who acts accordingly and suffers permanently. This is alarming. The Dutch sociologist Jan van Dijk notes that so-called ‘victims’ easily lose the compassion and empathy of others once they behave “in an un-victim-like way by not exhibiting the passive behaviour deemed normal for victims” [3].


While academics in the field of (forced) migration are more often than not aware of these complexities, public perceptions are often sceptical of narratives that recognize refugees as people ‘like you and I’ who find themselves in dire circumstances. At first glance, the difference between the two narratives seems marginal. However, acknowledging forced migrants as people with knowledge, abilities, and strength does not delegitimize their claim for asylum and refuge, on the contrary, it will make their case the more pressing if they are seen as who they are, rather than who they are expected to be. This perspective challenges predominant notions of passivity and inertia which are prolific in most media and inform political action. UNHCR’s 2015 World Refugee Day slogan “Ordinary people living through extraordinary times” could mean a step in the right direction. Despite this positive potential, the aim of such strategies cannot be the uncritical celebration of ‘same-ness’ (“like you and I”), as it echoes a liberal, Eurocentric discourse that seeks to minimize ‘difference’ without addressing the historically-produced, unequal power positions of “us” and “them” with respect to socio-economy, politics, culture, and race.

Especially humanitarian and human rights organizations face a nearly insoluble dilemma. By trying to appeal to donors for – beyond doubt – very important emergency operations and legal protection, these actors are compelled to think and act strategically and depict refugees as passive aid recipients – photographed in a sea of white UNHCR tents - in order to justify and ensure the provision of life-supporting materials and food from donor countries. Reminiscent of the bloated bellies of starving children on NGO posters in the West, this ‘white-tent-effect’ visualizes refugees as a class of have-nots and quite virtually as ‘living dead’. Of course, these analytical observations do not deny that people who were forcibly displaced are in urgent need for emergency assistance and that they face unimaginable life choices. On the contrary, people who have lost homes, jobs, relatives, and their everyday lives should be taken seriously, not as “bare life” - as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued [4] – but as active and informed members of a global political community.

In the end, the almost ritualized visual references to refugee victimhood are more about demonstrating the West’s (often inconsequential) compassion and self-affirmation rather than spurring meaningful change in popular attitude or policy. Sitting in a popular café in Kakuma refugee camp in North-western Kenya with Elias, an independent journalist and Ethiopian refugee, I cannot help but notice two prominently placed warning signs that declare “This is a no open defecation zone!” and “Wash your hands before and after you eat!”. Elias turns to me smiling and asks “who do these people think we are?” [5].

* Hanno Brankamp was an Attaché at the British Institute in Eastern Africa (BIEA) in Nairobi and has worked for the UNHCR in Tanzania. He holds an MLitt. in International Security from the University of St Andrews (UK), and a B.A. in Area Studies (Africa) from Humboldt University in Berlin (Germany). His PhD research focuses on refugees in East Africa, security in refugee camps, and vigilantism. Follow him on Twitter @SpreeLumumba.


[1] Edward W. Said, After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 21.
[2] Jennifer Hyndman (2000): Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), p. 27.
[3] Jan van Dijk (2009): ‘Free the Victim: A Critique of the Western Conception of Victimhood‘, In: International Review of Victimology, 16, p.15.
[4] Giorgio Agamben (1998): Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, (Stanford: Stanford University Press).
[5] Interview, Kakuma, 18.03.2015.

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