The human behind the refugee category and the industry behind refugees’ representation

The human behind the refugee category and the industry behind refugees’ representation

Marcia Vera Espinoza

We question refugees’ motivations, scrutinize their stories, generalize their persecution, feel sorry for their plight, and invisiblize their individuality among the numbers that frame their displacement. The category that gives refugees international protection is the same that singles them out as a member of what seems to be a homogeneous group: refugees. By using this category in this way we generalize about their lives, we claim to understand their needs and we aim to find ‘solutions’ for them. Refugees’ representations are a product of the same migration industry that facilitates, restricts and frames their displacement. Media, politicians, international organizations, practitioners and academics, we all contribute to binary narratives about refugees. By doing so, we form understandings of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ refugees, those that wait to be resettled or the ones that cross borders and seek asylum. There are ‘victims’ or ‘heroes’, those people that are deemed worthy of our solidarity or those that are flagship of human strength and resilience. There are also the ones we fear. And to a greater extent, there are those refugees whose stories we don’t know. In this brief text I review some of those common narratives and where and by whom they are produced, as well as some of the understandings refugees themselves have about the category that frames their experiences.

First, there is a geographical narrowness in the narratives we create. The geopolitical superiority of traditional receiving countries and regions such as Europe and the US in the refugee regime, translates to a ‘refugee crisis’ that happens only when it reaches their borders. And then, among the photos of caravans or boats full of people, we will get a few stories about some refugees among the crowds. While 85% of the world refugees are hosted by developing regions, we know less about those refugees and the countries that host them. This omission fuels the myth of ‘invasion’ affecting countries of the global north and overshadows many experiences in Southern regions (exceptions can be found in the Southern Responses to Displacement’ blog series as well as in the large body of research produced in these regions). Some do make it to the international media, such as the Venezuelan displacement or the hardships of the Rohingya refugees, but only when the numbers are large enough to frame their displacement as a ‘crisis’ worth of international attention.

Second, the homogenization of refugees’ experiences also relates to the obsession to frame them in terms of numbers. Jeff Crisp, researcher at the University of Oxford and former senior staff at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), constantly questions on twitter why advocacy on behalf of refugees and displaced people consists of announcing ‘record’ and ‘unprecedented’ numbers, asking for evidence showing effective public mobilisation or increased political support as a result of it. Historian Benjamin Thomas White argues that the numbers used are usually incorrect and that while this narrative may indeed be useful to increase donations or resettlement spaces, it can also create the contrary effect. One of the hypotheses he outlines is that the idea of ‘unprecedented scale’ can lead to paralysis rather than to action, and is ‘likely to feed a more general anti-immigrant political discourse’. Beyond these possible counter-effects, the quantification of refugees and their framing in relation to ‘crisis’ contributes to generalizations, hiding the complexities of refugees’ displacement and oversimplifying their motivations, journeys and experiences, contributing to binary narratives (see this interview with researcher Gabriella Sanchez about complexity on displacement and smuggling).

Third, there are certain expectations about who refugees should be and how they should behave once their status is recognized by a host state. In my own research with resettled refugees in Latin America I explore how the organizations involved in resettlement in Chile and Brazil (governments, UNHCR and implementing NGOs) created a set of expectations regarding refugees. I argue that in the case of Chile and Brazil, depending on refugee compliance in what was expected from them, their ‘refugeeness’ made them either ‘universal victims’ worthy of help and protection (Rajaram 2002) or ‘ungrateful subjects’ who were used to being assisted due to a perceived ‘refugee mentality’ and were unwilling to integrate (see Moulin 2012).

Fourth, the prominence of certain refugee voices over other ones is also a direct result of our own academic research projects that produce some over-researched groups and leave some under-researched refugees. Naohiko Omata (2019) explores how some groups of refugees that may be numerically smaller and therefore less relevant in policy contexts are ‘under the radar’, while others are over-researched by academics, but also by international organizations and media alike. I explore this in my own research when facing a fatigue among Palestinian refugees, who were constant objects of study in comparison with the underrepresented voice of Colombian refugees (see Vera Espinoza forthcoming). Among Palestinian refugees, those that spoke better Spanish and Portuguese, or those that had stable jobs, became the success stories that the NGOs and UNHCR wanted to portray, being the preferred contacts given to media and researchers. While these stories are relevant, the focus on success overshadows other stories that show refugees’ experiences of marginalization as a result of the intersection of their refugee status with age, race, gender or disability, among other axes of exclusion.

The narratives of success or suffering also hide refugees’ daily life and other multiple identities and experiences that shape their individual existence. It shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but refugees have ambitions, insecurities, contradictions, family and sexual lives, Facebook and WhatsApp, needs and doubts like any of us. The main difference is that they had to leave their normal life due to persecution, among other reasons, and start a new one somewhere else. In the process of showing their experiences of exile and exploring how they can once again lead a ‘normal’ life, we tend to frame their experiences in relation to the extraordinary, to the extent that we forget about their intrinsic human normality.

Finally, we all tend to speak on behalf of refugees. I am not a refugee. As part of my research, and as a privileged migrant, I have shared mutual struggles with speaking a second language and negotiations of belonging with my interviewees. However, I have criticized my own attempts to speak on their behalf, as refugees themselves constantly remind us about their voice and of the limitations of our research. When I asked them what the refugee category meant to them, Colombian and Palestinian refugees in Chile and Brazil understood and related to the term in different ways. Most of the Colombian refugees in both countries didn’t disclose their refugee status as it affected their job applications, access to housing and they feared the perception it could generate (see Vera Espinoza, 2018). Natalia (all names in this text are pseudonyms), a Colombian refugee in Chile told me, “I don’t talk about my refugee status. Not even my close friends here know about it. Why would I tell them? So they feel pity for me? No, I don’t want that”. Daniela, a Colombian refugee resettled in Brazil said, “sometimes that word ‘refugee’ is like a trademark, that can be good or badly understood by the rest”.

On the other hand, Palestinian refugees had mixed opinions about the category. Some of them understood their refugee status as part of their constructed identity in exile and put it at the core of their demand for access to economic and social rights in the reception countries. Others, such as Nacira a Palestinian-Lebanese refugee in Brazil, considered the refugee status as transitory and linked to the assistance received. She told me “I don’t consider myself a refugee anymore, because I have applied to get the naturalization. I thought like this: I am doing everything in the same way as the Brazilians, I don’t have anything of refugee now. Because what is it to be a refugee? To me I stopped being a refugee when the UNHCR stopped being with us, when they abandoned us. I told myself that I am not going to be a refugee anymore because I never felt like a refugee here, just the first months”.

One agreement between both groups was the perception of when they would stop being a refugee, although they may never stop being perceived as foreigners in the reception countries, and this related to the idea of normality. As Marta told me, “leaving aside the documentation, you stop being a refugee when other people start seeing you really as a normal person”.

It is not simple to change narratives or to mobilize an entire migration industry to do so. However, we can start checking our own responsibility as researchers and the narratives about refugees that we develop and reproduce, as well as our own role in this industry. We can also do better and more to ask refugees directly what they need, how they perceive themselves and what they want to say. The post below from a group of Palestinian refugees that protested their resettlement in Brazil back in 2008-2009 tells us exactly that:

“There isn’t any advantage in being a refugee:

It is extremely humiliating to be considered an ‘effect of war’ and to need everything

It is extremely humiliating to be helped and have people demand a reward for such beautiful humanitarian acts all the time (beauty found exactly when political issues are supplanted by humanitarian aspects)

[…] Why is it that always and only when some people in high official positions say something, it is considered to be true? Why don’t they ask us directly? If anybody doesn’t know what we want, it is simple: come to us and ask.”

(Refugees for Dignity, Posted August 28, 2008. Full text translated from Portuguese in Moulin, 2012)

Mixed Migration Centre 2018, MMC interviews Gabriella Sanchez: “Complexities matter”, 13 December 2018.
Moulin, C., 2012. Ungrateful subjects? Refugee protest and the logic of gratitude. In P. Nyers & K. Rygiel, eds. Citizenship, Migrant Activism and the Politics of Movement. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, pp. 54–72.
Omata, Naohiko, 2019. ‘Over-researched’ and ‘under-researched’ refugees, Forced Migration Review (61) 15-18.
Rajaram, P.K., 2002. Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee. Journal of Refugee Studies, 15(3), pp.248–264.
Refugiados em Busca de Dignidade [Refugees for Dignity]. Blog available at
Vera Espinoza, M., (2018) The Limits and Opportunities of Regional Solidarity: Exploring Refugee Resettlement in Brazil and Chile. Global Policy, 9(1): 85-94.
Vera Espinoza, M. (forthcoming) Lessons from refugees: research ethics in the context of resettlement in South America. Migration and Society.


Marcia Vera Espinoza is a Lecturer in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Her research focuses on refugee and migrant inclusion, migration governance and immigration policies in Latin America. Her work has recently been published in Geopolitics, Global Policy, Forced Migration Review and Development Policy Review. Her co-edited book The Dynamics of Regional Migration Governance has been published by Edward Elgar in June 2019.

Image: M Vera Espinoza