The Complexities of the Label “Refugee”

Today, Europe is experiencing a refugee crisis unlike any other. The world moves with an uncertainty as those in war zones attempt to escape, only to be held in camps that barely even offer bare necessities.

Refugees have become framed as those fleeing a war zone, waiting to go home, and causing problematic extra costs on every nation-state they enter. But immigration under refugee status is much more complex than that, as refugees are not as homogeneous as they may seem from an onlooker perspective of refugee camps.

The UN defines a refugee as someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group”.


A key element to mention is the difference between a refugee and an asylum seeker; a refugee has been given asylum whereas an asylum seeker is waiting to receive refugee status. Therefore, an asylum seeker is attempting to gain entry to the country and access to services whereas a refugee holds these privileges. An asylum seeker can gain this status after a processed application. To be granted asylum is to become a refugee. Refugee status also differentiates the responsibilities of the nation-state under international regulations and laws.

One can’t simply just walk into an airport and expect to be offered refugee status immediately, it is infinitely complex. And, importantly, people who are without recognized refugee status are not refugees – they are without citizenship and largely unprotected by nation states.

Beyond that, asylum seekers must have their refugee claim processed and approved. The definition of a refugee above is a textbook definition and may be prone to interpretation and alteration. Those asylum seekers who cannot communicate or establish their persecution as legitimate face difficulty. It is in this way that citizenship becomes stratified beyond the mere legal categories of citizenship.

Image result for refugees at airport

For women, it can be more difficult to get refugee status as their persecution may be interpreted as not political, or they may have more intricate situations that require legal help they do not have access to. For example, in “Women Asylum Seekers in the UK”, Ceneda explains the story of a Kenyan woman denied asylum. The refusal letters state-

they could not possibly have been tortured, raped or sexually assaulted…such forms of torture were said to be the result of ‘misbehavior’ from individuals who happened to be police officers or prison wardens.

It’s these miscommunications that make women’s situations often brushed under the rug in refugee claims.

Lydia Morris termed civic stratification to assist people in describing citizenship and how it is not equally distributed in today’s world. Civic stratification essentially means that there are rungs to citizenship, and each rung denotes access to different rights. At the top is the fully fledged citizen and at the bottom is an illegal immigrant with virtually no rights under the nation-state. Within each legal rung is also the more specific individual situations that impact an individual’s rights, like the gender example I employed above.

With civic stratification, it can be seen that the refugee crisis is not as clear-cut as it’s often perceived.

Image result for refugees

When we talk about refugees, we are not talking about a homogeneous group of people packed into camps. We are talking about a diverse and multi skilled group of brave people escaping persecution.

Making generalizations about this group is hurtful because it not only disregards the intricate stories of the individuals but it also disregards the complicated bureaucracy and policy around refugees and their access to rights.

Importantly, refugees were once citizens. They have been displaced not by choice and many of them want nothing more than the decency of a place, not a tent, to call home. A community cannot be called such where exclusion is rampant. The very word denotes a welcoming social atmosphere. What this means for politics and rights discussions about refugees is to be determined by politicians and scholars.

For the general public, knowing that refugees are people should be enough to initiate compassionate dialogue around the refugee crisis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s