How ‘refugee’ became a bad word and how to reclaim it

The international refugee system, under the leadership of the UNHCR, is in crisis. It’s time for either a drastic restructuring or alternative where refugees are part of policymaking.

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October 28, 2015
Syrian children look out of a hole in their tent in Al Zaatari refugee camp, in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, September 19, 2015. The United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien visited Jordan's vast Zaatari refugee camp on Saturday (September 19), REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

“I don’t want to be a called a refugee. Yes, I’ve left my home in Syria, and I live in a tent in Lebanon. But please don’t call me a refugee.”

This is what I was told by a Syrian man during a visit to one a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The UNHCR here labels these spaces “informal tented settlement,” so not to horrify the Lebanese state, which does not recognize refugee status.

This is not the first time I’ve heard someone strongly reject the term “refugee.” And that rejection is understandable and rational.

The refugee is trapped in a paradox of dependency on a system of aid, and a rejection of the refugee label. They need the goods and aid to survive, which the label allows them, but at the same time it is not enough for them to grow and live. There is a fine line between survival and living, and the aid system seems to be either unwilling or unable to comprehend this nuance. The refugee is discontented by the ideas, concepts, and actions of the aid system, and while they scrutinize and condemn, they are forced to sallow its bitter pill. It is and would be naturally frustrating for anyone in this circumstance.

The term “refugee” today comes with a lot of baggage. A refugee is associated with squalor, with victimhood, with weakness, with no agency.  The refugee is perceived in general as a one-dimensional character, and is treated as such, forced into a dehumanizing process of impersonal registration, with their fates governed by linguistic technicalities and absolutist categorizations. Refugees are often packaged in a one-size fits all brand (Refugee™), and if they slightly diverge from the brand, they are unceremoniously cut off from opportunities, access, and goods that sometimes are bestowed by this brand. 

And even the privileged “non-refugee” views the “refugee” under this paradigm. We’ve all heard negative comments, in one way or another, about the refugees and migrants who have headed to Europe. They tend to go like this: “How can they have a smart phone? Aren’t they a refugee?” “Why are they going to Europe, when they are perfectly safe from warfare in Lebanon, Turkey, or Jordan?” “Why aren’t they satisfied with the bare minimum? Why do they ask for more?”    

That is the legacy of the international aid and relief system in which the UN refugee agency reigns supreme. 

The aid and relief systems that allegedly ‘save’ refugees are defined and shaped by individuals who are disconnected from the realities facing people who are refugees. That is obviously problematic. To use an imperfect analogy: It is like having a women’s rights organization led by men, who then have the power to define concepts, ideas, and actions related to feminism. 

There are terms that are often flung about to justify this system’s characteristics: “neutrality,” “objectivity,” “impartiality,” etc. — but these abstracts forget that we all are biased in one way or another, and we all come with our respective ideologies, beliefs, and sentiments. We are not neutral animals. This is also complemented by the sheer monopoly of a liberalized, Western-centric understanding of humanitarianism, whose foundations lie in the ‘civilizing mission’ of the still-lingering colonial era. That malaise did not end with ‘de-colonization,’ it remains alive in sophisticated and subtle ways, embedded within the very core and operative mechanics of the international aid and relief system. 

Come to Lebanon and see the UNHCR office here. It is the physical representation of this dilemma. The building looks like a fortress, guarded and encircled by concrete walls. The higher you go in the building, the more apparent the demographic shift — locals on the bottom, doing menial jobs, while the foreigners — often white — are on top, determining policy and action (filtered and translated by a local, of course). And in front, you will see a group of refugees (in this case, Sudanese and a handful of Syrians) who have been camping out at the gates, protesting the lack of access, ill-treatment, and marginalization, while facing rain and the thuggish harassment of the native guards.  

But ask the highers-up in UNHCR, and some will say that the refugees are asking for too much and that there is not enough money. They sympathize but “let’s be realistic,” they might say.    

It is not simply about the lack of funds, the “outrageous” demands of the refugee, or a naïve sense of idealism that has created a crisis within the international aid system. Something deeper is amiss.

But all is not lost. “Refugee” is and should not be a bad word. Refugees are human beings who are going through extraordinary and difficult situations, and they deserve supreme solidarity and impactful action not blunted by traditional politics or by the concerns of nation-state donors (who also play a key role in creating ‘refugeeness’ with their various military, economic, and social policies). 

The term’s salvation ultimately lies in self-determination. 

A refugee must be able to play an important role in deciding their fates. The solution to these dilemmas requires an uprising of sorts — or at the most extreme, a downfall of the regime as it were. It is more vital that UNHCR be radically restructured and redefined in a manner in which the refugee defines and plays a role in their own salvation. And if that cannot happen, then perhaps it is time to develop and establish an international refugee body that is representative of, voiced by, and acts for the refugees as an alternative to the UNHCR. 

Anything far short of that is not realistic of the situation faced by millions on the ground, at sea, and everywhere else in between. 

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