World Refugee Day 2013: Moving beyond trauma, honoring resilience

Contemporary public discourses of “the refugee” conjure images of sprawling, squalid camps, of huddled passengers on flimsy boats, of malnourished bodies and hollow eyes. Everyone knows “the refugee” is dispossessed and disempowered, trapped  in limbo and confined to the margins of the global system of nation-states.

But today we are celebrating World Refugee Day, and as such, it is an appropriate occasion to re-consider and to challenge such figurations of “the refugee”. Part of doing so involves recognizing the ways in which dominant discourses consistently cast refugees in the role of voiceless victims. Such representations are made by media, by government officials, and even by the advocacy groups making claims on refugees’ behalf. The bureaucratic label of “refugee” might appear obvious, objective, and even benevolent. Precisely for this reason, it is important to take a critical view of this label and reflect on its wider implications. The following considers how stereotyped conceptions of “the refugee” as traumatized victim can impact the lived experiences of refugees who have resettled in third countries.

Representations of the Refugee: From Hero to Victim

As Pupavac (2006) has noted, refugees have not always been viewed in the victim role. For much of the Cold War, those who fled the Communist bloc were seen as political heroes. Unlike contemporary refugees, their lives were viewed through a political paradigm – not a trauma paradigm. On the one hand, this might be expected, especially as refugees today are much more likely to be the firsthand victims of intense violence than were their predecessors. The post-Cold War era has witnessed a proliferation of local conflicts, frequently based on identity struggles, ethnic rivalries, competition for resources, and problems of state development (Castles 2003). These conflicts have led to more violence directed at civilians and in many cases civilian populations have even been targeted as a tactic of warfare (Van Hear, et al. 2002).

Even so, the changing nature of conflict is not a sufficient explanation for the dramatic shift in public conceptions of “the refugee”. In framing this discussion, it must also be recognized that a drastically more restrictive asylum regime in the global North has made it increasingly difficult for asylum seekers today to prove the risk of persecution as stipulated by the 1951 Convention for the granting of asylum. For contemporary asylum seekers, evidence of traumatization provides one way to substantiate claims of persecution. In this way, experiences of trauma have become the “currency” or “symbolic capital” with which asylum seekers enter exchanges for material resources in receiving countries. In the process of refugee status determination, their complicated narratives are reduced to a core “case” of traumatization, which is then used by health professionals to recast social suffering in medical terms. As Kleinman & Kleinman explore, in order to gain access to public assistance, the person who experiences trauma must first become a passive and innocent “victim,” unable to represent himself – and thus available for representation. Subsequently, he or she is labeled as a “patient” and thereby transformed from someone who has experienced trauma to someone who is a victim of political violence, to someone who has a disease.

The problem with viewing refugees as traumatized medical “patients” is that this perspective has the potential to isolate and pathologize experiences of suffering. There is an inherent tension here, because on the one hand, labeling refugees as “patients” can result in more resources and services for those refugees who can use cultural expectations of their trauma to access benefits. Examples of this include a refugee in the UK based claims for a new washing machine on PTSD, claiming that anxiety resulted in persistent night sweats and the need to wash the bed sheets every day (Pupavac 2006). Another UK-based refugee leveraged his PTSD diagnosis to apply for relocation from a flat to a home with a garden based on the psychologically beneficial effects of gardening (Pupavac 2006). The danger is that labels like “victim” and “patient” can become master statuses, defining an individual beyond any other form of identity (Marlowe 2009). The idea that refugees are by and large the helpless victims of past traumas obscures the particularity of individuals’ varied experiences as refugees and is ultimately disempowering. Conceiving of “the refugee” as a helpless victim and helpless victim only “abstracts individual experiences of displacement from the political, social and historical context while putting in their stead a depoliticized, dehistoricized and universalized figuration of the refugee as mute victim” (Rajaram 2002).

Perspectives from research

Research has shown that approximately 15% of survivors of traumatic events are permanently affected. Among those refugees who do not suffer long-term effects, there is often considerably resistance toward discourses of victimization and traumatization. This is clear in the response of a Sudenese refugee in Australia, who was asked to participate in a research project examining the trauma his community had experienced:

“If you already know that [we] are traumatized, why do you have to do the research? You have already answered your question, so I do not think that I will participate. […] As a refugee, we are concerned about how refugees are portrayed. One of these problems is that people assume refugees are traumatized people. And actually this assumption has become one of the factors that has led to some of us not getting work because employers think: ‘Why should I employ people who are traumatized?’” (Marlowe 2009, p.187)

Considering this example, it is possible to analytically link the label of “trauma victim” to a wider public perception in the global North of refugees as incapable of working and dependent on social welfare. When refugees are viewed as necessarily psychologically traumatized or “ill”, they are also excused from normal expectations of performance, which extends to expectations for economic engagement and contributes to the discourse that constructs refugees as burdens on society. For all of the refugees in Morrice’s (2011) study on learning and identity in the UK, the identity of “asylum seeker” was associated with vulnerability and shame, in large part because of the perception that refugees and asylum seekers are either unwilling or unable to provide for themselves. Patricia, from Zimbabwe, explains:

“It’s funny, British people are not very friendly to asylum seekers so it’s not something you just lay on the table. […] Like I said I never got any [state] benefit I don’t even know why. But people have the impression that asylum seekers get all these benefits and they don’t go to work and they get all this free housing…it’s embarrassing, I still feel that. I don’t tell anybody.” (Morrice 2011, p.111)

Likewise, Alan, an Iranian refugee and civil engineer, was very cautious about making friends in the United Kingdom because he thought people would look down on or pity him if he revealed his status as a refugee. In discussions he only ever identified himself as a ‘student,’ eschewing the ‘refugee’ label altogether. Patricia echoes this sentiment, and only self-identifies as a refugee on official forms:

“Everywhere else, no no. I never tell anyone unless I have to do because otherwise people start to look at you differently. They start looking at you as if you are someone who is benefitting from the state and not giving anything, you know?”(Morrice 2011, p.113).

When refugees are collectively understood by the general public to be psychologically damaged, focus can easily shift from humanitarian obligations to the economic effects of granting asylum. This is one dimension of the anxieties present in “developed” countries about accepting refugees. When the label “refugee” is associated primarily with “trauma” and psychological illness, it can communicate an “image of marginality, dishonesty, a threat, unwelcomed”, which conveys “undesirable images of destitution and an unwelcome burden” (Zetter 2007, p.184-5).


As the above displays, even those labels assigned to refugees with benevolent intent can have pernicious effects on the development of refugees’ personal identities and on their social relations in countries of resettlement. This is not to say that experiences of trauma should not be acknowledged and validated where they exist. However, it is also important to work to uncover the locations of power within the process of labeling someone as “traumatized” and to consider the broader implications of such labels. Most importantly, no one group of people can or should be painted with such a large brush. We must recognize that many refugees are actively working to escape the identities ascribed to them and to move beyond the label of “trauma victim”. As a Sudanese man in Australia expresses:

“We need to get rid of that thinking that our people are traumatized. We were traumatized, yes this is true and that is fine. But that does not mean that we are. We are something different and we can provide. We can offer. We can contribute.” (Marlowe 2009, p.189, emphasis own).

On World Refugee Day – and every day – we must recognize the tremendous strength, courage and determination that refugees display in building their new lives. We must honor the resilience that allows so many to move beyond suffering and find hope for a better life. Above all, we must challenge representations of “the refugee” as a helpless, voiceless victim.

Further Reading

Castles, S. (2003) “Towards a Sociology of Forced Migration and Social Transformation”, Sociology,  37(1), pp. 13-34.

Morrice, L. (2011) Being a Refugee: Learning and Identity, Staffordshire: Trentham Books Limited.

Pupavac, V. (2006) Refugees in the “Sick Role”: Stereotyping Refugees and Eroding Refugee Rights, Research paper 128, UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service, Geneva.

Kleinman, A. & Kleinman, J. (1996) “The Appeal of Experience; The Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times”, Daedalus 125(1), pp. 1-23.

Marlowe, J.M. (2009) “Beyond the Discourse of Trauma: Shifting the Focus on Sudanese Refugees”, Journal of Refugee Studies, 23(2), pp. 183-198.

Rajaram, P.K. (2002) “Humanitarianism and Representations of the Refugee”, Journal of Refugee Studies, 15(3), pp. 247-264.

Van Hear, N., Nyberg-Sørenson, N. & Engberg-Pedersen, P. (eds.) (2002) The Migration-Development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options. Geneva: IOM Migration Research Series.

Zetter, R. (1991) ‘Labelling Refugees: Forming and Transforming a Bureaucratic Identity’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 4(1), pp. 39-62.

Zetter, R. (2007) ‘More Labels, Fewer Refugees: Remaking the Refugee Label in an Era of Globalization’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(2), pp. 172-192.

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