Have you ever thought about the way that language is used to frame our understanding of ourselves and other people? It wasn’t many years ago that public transport systems moved from calling people ‘passengers’ to ‘customers’ – a transition that reflects the privatisation of these services, and the now primarily economic nature of the relationship between the service user and provider.
On a global scale, we principally use the language of nation-states to frame self and other. These are not empty frames, but full of meaning, rights and responsibilities. Nation-states ascribe citizenship, enact power, arrange economies, provide healthcare and education (to varying degrees), determine freedom and influence (consider the power of a British passport over, say, an Iranian one), and control the movement of goods and people.
But what happens when people challenge this nation-focused way of divvying up the world? How do we see the nationally non-compliant, and how does that influence how we ourselves are then framed?
Understanding fear of the ‘Other’, to know and to heal: perceptions of refugees in forced migration contexts
Othering processes are inherently complex, and in forced migration contexts, national public discourses tend to reverberate with anxieties over antagonism, discrimination and increasing tensions.
As an alternative to this public discourse, which ultimately tends to associate migrants and refugees with social threat, we might examine pockets of private and semi-private spaces from which quieter voices – women’s voices, perhaps – could catalyse more positive attitudes and better informed perceptions with a gender lens. One space where such voices might emerge is in all-women ‘gün’ (or ‘day’) groups. These are periodic, informal gatherings of relatives, friends and/or acquaintances, usually hosted in one member’s home, and are crucial spaces for women’s interaction and socialisation in Turkey. In fact, in my Identities article, co-authored with Hatice Mete, ‘The afraid create the fear: perceptions of refugees by “gün” groups in Turkey’, we analysed conversations from several of these groups in Mersin in order to investigate local women’s perceptions of forcibly displaced Syrians.
Pro-social identities and hospitality towards migrants: lessons from a small Southern Italian town that opened its doors to refugees
In the summer of 1998, 300 Kurdish refugees landed at the Ionian coast and received help from the local inhabitants of Riace, a small Calabrian town. Ever since, refugees have been hosted in houses that were abandoned by local emigrants looking for work abroad or elsewhere in Italy, and leaving behind an impoverished ‘ghost town’. Over time, local NGOs and the municipality have developed a comprehensive settlement programme for up to 400 refugees at a time. Refugees, in turn, bring new life into this once-dying town, and the settlement programme is combined with projects aimed at the socio-economic revival of the local community . Curious to find out whether the welcoming attitude towards refugees (Sasso 2012) was genuine and how the support for them was generated, the first author of the Identities article, 'Local identity and the reception of refugees: the example of Riace', decided to live in one of the abandoned houses for a period of 5 months.
Through the ethnographic fieldwork of the first author, we soon found out that there are various economic, demographic and political factors underpinning the success of Riace’s reception programme. The article being discussed aimed to examine how the people in Riace created and enact a local identity of hospitality. In the article, we analysed the type of ‘identity work’ that the Riace inhabitants and local leaders are involved in. Far-right politics and anti-immigration parties often present refugees as a threat to the local identity due to their different cultural or religious background, and a strong national identity regularly goes together with the rejection of newcomers (Bansak et al. 2016). Theoretically, social identities are often conceptualised in terms of group boundaries and processes of boundary drawing (‘who belongs to us’; Wimmer 2009), but they also deﬁne speciﬁc norms, values and beliefs of ‘who we are as a community’. The case of Riace shows that when the content of the local identity is pro-social and a community deﬁnes itself in terms of hospitality, community members are inclined to act, think and feel in that way (Reicher et al. 2010). In agreement with this ‘social identity perspective’, our research demonstrates that a strong local identity can go together with the inclusion, instead of the exclusion, of newcomers.
I am sitting in the office of a refugee support and advocacy organisation in north-England to interview a refugee about her experience. The focus of our conversation is not on why Faith fled her country or how the charity helped her integrate in the UK. Instead, we talk about how she started working as a caseworker for one of the main refugee third sector organisations. When Faith walks into the office, people might think she is a client waiting for an appointment. They might initially be surprised when she sits down on the other side of the desk as they fail to recognise her as the professional worker that she is.
Stories about refugees and employment tend to highlight the significant obstacles in accessing the labour market (Kone et al. 2019). Lack of recognition of qualifications and home country work experience, short-term interventions by job agencies and language barriers all contribute to unemployment and deskilling. Many professionals end up in manual jobs in factories, catering or care. Refugees are overrepresented in so-called ‘3D jobs’; those that are Dirty, Dangerous and Degrading. Or they find work in 'ethnic niches', segments of the labour market with an overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups, such as the taxi industry or Ethiopian and Afghan restaurants.
In my Identities article, ‘A window of opportunity? Refugee staff’s employment in migrant support and advocacy organizations’, I present the findings of my research into a very distinct employment 'niche' for refugees: the niche constituted by organisations that have asylum seekers and refugees as their client group. Based on interviews with refugee staff in the UK, the Netherlands and Austria, I argue that the concept of 'ethnic niche' fails to capture the particularities of the employment opportunities offered by the refugee third sector.