Since 2015, several European countries have witnessed an unprecedented involvement of citizens in forms of refugee support which have been gradually identified in public discourse as a newly emerging ‘culture of welcome’. While acts of solidarity are not a new phenomenon, these emerging mobilisations, often enacted by people with no activist background, hint at an inherent tension between the official stance on the ‘refugee crisis’ and the grassroots responses to it.
The experiences of ordinary people hosting refugees in their homes, often with the intermediary role either of NGOs or of local authorities, shows that no matter how micro or widespread, these emerging housing arrangements make for a ‘social lab’ in which broader societal issues can be fruitfully revisited. Interestingly, refugee hospitality initiatives relocate forms of pro-refugee support from the public arena into the intimate space of the domestic. In doing so, they shed light on emerging practices of ‘domestic humanitarianism’, understood not just as an impulse to offer care tied to specific notions of ‘responsible citizen’, but as a mode of helping that takes place inside the home. At the same time, they evoke the contentious reconfiguration of the mainstream views and boundaries of home – who is entitled to belong in a place and call it home – at the domestic, community and national levels.
Around 9.30am on Thursday 13 May I checked my phone for messages, as I was about to start making preparations for Eid dinner later that evening. One of the No Evictions Network activists had posted a photo of an immigration enforcement van in Kenmure Street in Pollokshields and said that he was going to investigate what was happening, and asked others in the network to come down to support him. As more and more members of the network arrived, it transpired that immigration officers had raided the home of two men, Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh, and put them in the van. The immigration van couldn’t leave because it was surrounded by activists, and one of them had got under the van (and would stay there for eight hours to ensure it wouldn’t go anywhere). Activists reported that Police Scotland were helping immigration officials by trying to persuade the activists to disperse. In solidarity, thousands of Pollokshields locals as well as people from across the city gathered to prevent this immigration raid. The two men, both migrants from India, were eventually released.
Throughout the day I was reading news reports and comments on social media about how friendly and welcoming the people of Glasgow are to newcomers, as if that was enough explanation for the overwhelming solidarity against this particular immigration raid. Whilst Glasgow has a reputation for being friendly, it also has a history of racism going back to the days of empire and the attacks on black seamen in 1919. I also read reports crediting the release of the two men to the actions of individual activists.
This is mistaken.
The territorial realization of the Israeli state produced a new category of stateless people: Palestinian refugees. Those expelled from their homes, villages and land during the onset of the Nakba (catastrophe): a large scale ethnic cleansing process executed in 1947-48 Palestine, has resulted in the creation of one of the largest and longest standing protracted refugee communities world-wide today. The unresolved question of Palestinian displacement raises important considerations in, what scholars of redress have named, an era of settler colonial reparations. One line of inquiry that remains relevant for thinking about the future of redress to Palestinian displacement is the following: How did an Indigenous Palestinian society with historical ties to land come to be internationally governed as refugees external to the land? Further, how might we think about the history of redress and humanitarianism in the early years of Palestinian displacement as one tied to a broader genealogy of race and settler colonial formations in Palestine?
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.