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.
What we found, however, were a set of recurring discursive patterns mirroring the public discourse – stereotyping, biased perceptions, ‘us’ vs. ‘them’, scapegoating, and discrimination – which were, if anything, more energetic in the private context. ‘We hate them’, fumed one participant, describing her Syrian neighbours’ apparent disregard for her apartment building’s rules and Turkey’s embattled norms of secular dress, and her circle exchanged approving looks.
What can explain this hostility for those ‘we’ deem as ‘different’ from ourselves? How deep is the declared lack of ‘compassion’ for the vulnerable? To what extent are expressions of contempt literal reflections of reality, or attempts to overdramatise narratives of imaginaries shaped mainly by fear of the ‘other’?
Everyday conversations in private settings enable a flow of emotions which we express as we feel them. Yet the intensity of the expression may not always reflect the sincerity of the intention. Especially if, as in the case cited above, it comes from a woman who we know is, like ‘us’, actually compassionate, decent, law-abiding. Indeed, our research suggests that the tropes in the stereotyping and exclusion may have their source in the speakers’ anxieties about the spaces and relationships on which their lives are focused. Hence, Syrian women were criticised as ‘dirty’, threatening the home’s hygiene, as ‘greedy’ and ‘materialistic’, straining generosity, as ‘immoral’, tempting Turkish husbands to take an (illegal) additional Syrian wife, as ‘too fertile’, effortlessly replacing sons lost to national service and foreign interventions, as ‘disrespectful’ of their seniors, contrasting with (idealised) Turkish youth, and – perhaps most often – as ‘noisy’, advertising rather than minimising their disturbing presence. But underneath the noisy prejudice lay, perhaps, an anxiety about powerlessness: ‘It does not matter whether you’re a guest or a refugee’, declared someone triumphantly, ‘you have to observe us and abide by our rules. We don’t have to live in accordance with your rules’.
When we have limited contact and difficulty in communicating with ‘others’ whom our societies have identified as a source of concern, our real individual neighbours can easily become faceless instances of a category; a blank canvas onto which we give ourselves permission to paint our least palatable emotions. Granted, suspicions remain, and are not helped by the persistence of the language barrier (on both sides) and the intersecting uncertainties in forced migration contexts. Yet if we carefully study these smears on the canvas, we may come to see how the fear of those who create and perpetuate fear can be healed and, perhaps, common ground discovered on which actual relationships could be built.
Blog post by Saime Ozcurumez, Bilkent University, Turkey
Read the full article: Ozcurumez, Saime & Mete, Hatice. The afraid create the fear: perceptions of refugees by ‘gün’ groups in Turkey. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1723311
When migrants move abroad and start their life in a different location, they may keep their loyalties and links to their place of origin and combine them with newly built connections to their new location. Such transnationalism, though it is a well-known phenomenon, is perceived as problematic from the state point of view as it is difficult to predict the loyalty of such migrants (if they are loyal to their new state or the state of origin).
However, it also brings many dilemmas for individual migrants. One of these dilemmas is how to answer to question, 'who am I'. New identities developed in a new place need to be combined with existing ones. This is extremely difficult in the case of national identities which are built on an opposition of ‘us’ and ‘them’. If I define myself as a member of particular nation in opposition to other nations, how do I develop a new identity related to a foreign land where a foreign national lives? How do I solve a conflict of loyalties between my old and new national identity? My Identities article, 'Game of labels: identification of highly skilled migrants', calls the process of building new hybrid identities ‘a game of labels’.
Game of labels is a game played by migrants who try to avoid conflicting identifications. They can do it by playing with the scale of place. The place where we live can be understood as home, street, neighbourhood, city, country or even continent. Some scales are more important to us than others, and usually the national scale is the key for a person’s identification (Lewicka 2012). However, it is often not the case for ethnic, racial or religious minorities. It is also not the case of highly skilled migrants who live in Opole and Wrocław, two cities located in southwest Poland. Mahi, from India, who for several years has lived and worked in Wrocław, says about her Polish city:
This is where I found myself, where I developed myself, where I became a mature person. For me this is home. I know that even if I move to another country, another city in the future, Wroclaw will still be my home because I know everything there is to know here.
Mahi has developed a strong belonging to Wrocław and not to Poland. This may have happened because she needed to combine a new identity rooted in a new place with her former identity of being Indian. She explains:
For me saying that I’m Indian is not a complete truth. I know I am not just Indian… I’m also a Wroclawian [Wrocławianka].
My Identities article argues that migrants avoid combining two national identities and instead use a ‘game of labels’. The most important rule in the game is to not combine two different national identities. Therefore, instead of calling themselves Polish, they express their new identification through different scale labels: city level (they call themselves Wrocławianin – inhabitants of Wrocław) or supranational – European, human. Coming to a new country, migrants not only learn a new national habitus but also build belonging to a new neighbourhood, new city and sometimes a new continent. Interestingly, by obtaining these identities, they join the groups that include both migrants and members of the hosting society. Both Poles and migrants may be citizens of Wrocław. Both Poles and migrants can claim to be Europeans. Membership in cross-national groups, above national or local groups, lets migrants overcome their exclusion, which appears when national identity is discussed.
 Polish name for female inhabitant of Wrocław
Lewicka, M. 2012. Psychologia miejsca [Psychology of place]. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar.
Blog post by Agnieszka Bielewska, SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Poland
Read the full article: Bielewska, Agnieszka. Game of labels: identification of highly skilled migrants. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1522794
The education-migration nexus: unpacking the everyday lives of self-sponsored Cameroonian students in Flanders (Belgium)
As a young child watching most western soaps on the television, I thought that travelling to the West was the solution to all the problems of poverty. On arrival to Belgium, the imaginings of a stress-free life often do not align with the reality in the host country. As a Cameroonian, choosing to write on this topic stemmed from my observations and encounters when I just arrived in Belgium. Walking along the street on a fateful cold winter morning, I saw a familiar face, and I tried to greet and engage in a conversation as it’s the norm in Cameroon, but the friend was so busy that she did not notice me. On another occasion, our paths crossed again, but this time, after a class. In the course of our discussion, this friend expressed disdain that self-sponsored students were considered as economic migrants; meanwhile, they saw themselves as real students.
Among Cameroonians, the socio-cultural notion of 'bushfalling' is used to describe someone who has the intention to travel to the West, and a 'bushfaller' refers to someone who lives in the West. Travelling overseas or 'bushfalling' is an obsession for most young Cameroonians. Due to an increase in stringent migration policies as well as the rise in unemployment in Cameroon, the student route seems to be the most secure route to leave the country.
In our Identities article, ‘Bushfalling’: the ambiguities of role identities experienced by self-sponsored Cameroonian students in Flanders (Belgium), we argued that while in Europe, their dreams of a better life are challenged by the multiple role-identities they have to assume. Besides being ‘good immigrants’, they have to study hard not only to get their residence permits renewed but also as a way to fulfil their dreams of a bright future. Moreover, they have to support their families back in Cameroon – i.e. having their feet in two societies by engaging in transnational care (sending remittance and offering emotional support). These students creatively juggled, confirmed or questioned the multiple roles conferred to them as ‘bushfallers’.
Moreover, we acknowledged that there are commonalities between local and international students in combining work and studies. However, for international students, it is their migrant identities combined with transnational obligations that add to the conflicts they experience, putting the ‘student identity’ under extra pressure.
Due to the temporality of the student identity, the students regarded the nature of work as being a ‘brain waste’ and physically and mentally exhausting. Thus, they placed more emphasis on their student identity as an escape from the misery they felt being ‘the other’ or ‘out of place’ in Belgium. Moreover, they had specific plans regarding their next-step after obtaining their diplomas. Some of the plans were to remain in Belgium (and learn Dutch), move to another country (with favourable integration policies) or return to Cameroon.
The results of this study reveal that the desire for both education and migration options often go hand in hand.
Blog post by Presca E. Wanki and Ine Lietaert, University of Ghent, Belgium
Read the full article: Wanki, Presca E. & Lietaert, Ine. ‘Bushfalling’: the ambiguities of role identities experienced by self-sponsored Cameroonian students in Flanders (Belgium). Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1475975
In France and Belgium, residence permits issued to migrants from the global south married to French or Belgian citizens have consistently risen since the mid-1990s. These unions – depicted as a legal loophole that give migrants cover to secure residency, sometimes by taking advantage of unsuspecting citizens, and as fuel for ‘ethnic separatism’ when migrants marry citizens of migration background – have been targeted by law reforms in the 2000s designed to discourage them and hurdle consequent applications for temporary and permanent residence, and citizenship acquisitions.
My Identities article, ‘Family rights-claiming as act of citizenship: an intersectional perspective on the performance of intimate citizenship’, examines the enforcement of such provisions and its climate from the standpoint of French and Belgian citizens who want to marry or are already married to non-European migrants. Precisely, it draws on the experiences of national partners who, seeking legal help from non-governmental organisations (NGOs), participate in their advocacy actions. Some partners wish to overcome minute, intrusive and discretionary migration controls and administrative blockages for marrying or applying for residence, while others seek the annulment of their marriage claiming to have been cheated by their migrant partners. Although diametrically opposed, the intimate and administrative experiences of these partners erode the boundaries between their intimacy and citizenship.
I encountered such experiences while observing four NGOs with contrasting approaches to marriage migration. Two NGOs concerned with the administrative mistreatment of partners during marriage and migration formalities demand full respect of private and family rights. Another NGO, concerned with migratory abuse towards national partners, demand more state intervention to protect citizens. Interestingly, an NGO for each type exists both in Belgium and France. In fact, in both countries, bureaucratic practices and public discourses regarding mixed-immigration status unions have overlapping similarities, even though Belgian policies are more restrictive than French policies (e.g. Belgium requires its citizens to comply with the same conditions for migrants for family reunification – namely strict income, housing and social protection over five years – for their migrant spouse to obtain and maintain a residence permit).
In choosing to work with a particular NGO, national partners become aware of their own and/or their couple’s rights. NGOs give voice to their divergent grievances: in one case, to its own state’s unattended scrutiny and, in the other, about state lack of protection. The reformulation of personal and administrative injustice into rights claims led these partners to assert that they fully deserve the rights of citizenship on the basis of or despite their affective choice.
Thanks to these partners’ narratives, I show that citizenship is not just a matter of status and membership, but a practice rooted in individuals’ intimate and private experiences. To put this simply, citizenship is more what individuals do than what individuals have. I demonstrate how the national partners’ experiences of citizenship vary according to their gender and race. White women and partners with migration backgrounds, whether men or women, experience a deterioration of their supposed universal citizenship by the state apparatus. Nationals from migration backgrounds felt like second-class citizens suspected to an open migratory chain; their origin and their affective choice discredit their status and voice. When autochthonous white women are sometimes regarded as either naïve victims or criminals for choosing a black or Arab partner over, for instance, a white American or British partner, they are buried into the racial and social stigma that already affect their partners. Suspected of sham marriages or victims of migratory scam, their state asks them to repent for their inappropriate choice that puts in danger the whiteness of the nation.
Blog post by Laura Odasso, Collège de France, France
Read the full article: Odasso, Laura. Family rights-claiming as act of citizenship: an intersectional perspective on the performance of intimate citizenship. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1723309
Official classification, affirmative action and self-identification: Hui-Han biethnic college students in China
According to the 2000 census in China, 3.23 percent of married citizens are in an interethnic marriage, and 12 of the 56 officially recognised ethnic groups have an intermarriage rate higher than 50 percent, meaning more than half of married people in these 12 ethnic groups are in an interethnic marriage.
While these statistics suggest that the multiethnic population is not small in China, multiethnic identity options are not officially available in China. All Chinese citizens are registered at birth by their parents with only one official ethnic category, which must be the same as at least one of their parents. This exclusive ethnic identity is presented on the person’s ID card, largely influences their life chances in a wide range of domains, and can hardly be changed. How do people with mixed ethnic backgrounds deal with the limited and exclusive identity choices? Compared to the debates and social movements in western countries, why is the topic of multiethnic identity seldom brought up in China?
In my Identities article, 'Official classification, affirmative action, and self-identification: Hui-Han biethnic college students in China', I focus on a specific group of people in China who have multiethnic backgrounds – college students who have a Han parent and a Hui parent – and examine how they understand their ethnic identity. Han is the majority ethnic group that constitutes 91.5 percent of the national population. Hui is the fourth largest ethnic group, the largest Muslim group, and the most geographically dispersed minority ethnic group in China. Using interviews with 20 respondents, I investigate whether this group of people experience any discrepancy between their multiethnic backgrounds and their official, single ethnicity, and what their attitudes are towards institutionalising multiethnic identities.
Using an inductive analytical approach, I find that the sole ethnic categorisation principle and preferential policies for ethnic minorities shape the Hui-Han bi-ethnic college students’ ethnic self-identification. While the respondents in my research had very different levels of exposure to Hui culture in their upbringing (and six of them believed that there were no Hui characteristics in their upbringing or lifestyle), they were also registered as Hui by their parents. Most of them identified themselves more strongly as Hui than as multiethnic or Han, and they frequently referred to their ID card, household registration record and the practices of reporting Hui ethnicity on bureaucratic forms when explaining their self-identification.
I also find that college environment plays a role in shaping their experiences of their multiethnic background and official single ethnicity. Students from China’s special 'Minzu University' (university for ethnicities), where the student population is ethnically more diverse and ethnicity is a very salient topic, were more likely to feel frustrated about the discrepancy between their Hui official ethnicity and their multiethnic backgrounds, because they felt their peers and instructors expected them to behave like Hui. Students from regular, Han-dominated universities, on the other hand, tend to see ethnicity as a symbolic label and downplay its salience in their life.
At the end of the interviews, most respondents expressed negative attitudes institutionalising multiethnic identities in China. This may be surprising as they themselves come from multiethnic backgrounds, but is not surprising if we consider that most of them identify themselves more as Hui than as mixed. It is possible that the authoritarian political culture in China makes people more likely to accept official ethnic categories as objective facts. The fact that China has an overwhelming Han population also means that the issue of mixed-ness has not received as much attention as in the Anglophone West.
Blog post by Xiang Lu, New York University, USA
Read the full article: Xiang, Lu. Official classification, affirmative action, and self-identification: Hui-Han biethnic college students in China. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1757249