The Refugee Identity Crisis
What is identity? One of the seven fundamental human needs according to Dr. Kenneth Acha is the need for identity, esteem, respect, and recognition. Who are you? What does it mean to be who you are? Who is a refugee?
Identity is the distinguishing character or personality of an individual. Identity can be divided into two categories. One being self-categorisation in social identity theory and identification in self-identity. What do these actually mean? A social identity is a person’s knowledge that they belong to a social category or group. This can be professional, country of origin or a set of moral values. Everyone has a personal identity. But, refugees often find a conflict between the identity they have left behind and the one that lies before them. The boundary between the self and the ‘other’ becomes further exacerbated when refugees are immersed in a space of strong national identity.
How do refugees negotiate their new and old identities? How do they experience identity rupture? How do they rebuild and restore their self and social identities? Do refugees inevitably lose some of their identity through assimilating into their country of refuge? Refugees have lost their home, the familiarity of daily life. They have lost their jobs. Their language. And often their families. This can create internal conflicts of identity for a person.
Nostalgia and identity can be combined. Sveltana Boym identifies two distinct forms of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective.’ Restorative nostalgia builds the present on the past. Reflective nostalgia separates the past from the present. Architect, Eva Jiřičná, moved to London temporarily, on a work placement. She was unable to return to Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union invaded in 1968. Jiřičná claimed asylum in the UK. Jiřičná was an asylum-seeker who adopts this reflective nostalgia. She said in an interview in the Guardian, ‘Never in my life have I been too involved with the past. I’m always trying to think about what’s next. Not only with my work but with everything that I do. I don’t worry about yesterday?’
Are refugees able to reflect on the past? Or must they step into their ‘new’ identity?
Assimilation and Citizenship
In Britain, you can claim Refugee Status. This means the right to remain for five years. This includes the right to work and claim benefits. After five years of Refugee Status, you can apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain. After a year of this, you can apply for British citizenship. According to UNHCR statistics, at the end of 2019 there were 133,094 refugees. Of all applications received from 2016 to 2018, 36% resulted in a grant of asylum. Successful appeals increased by between 12 and 20 % each year from 2012 to 2018. Changes in grant rates following appeal are in part the result of changes in the success rate of appeals. The share of concluded appeals that were successful increased from a low of 19% in 2004 to a high of 45% in 2015.
Does the British citizenship test lead to refugees who choose to be naturalised to reject their identity? There seem to be certain requirements to allow for social cohesion expected by the British government. The sense of proving historical and cultural awareness of British heritage, shows the need for assimilation. This causes conflicts with identity. A sense of commonality is deemed necessary, as ‘despite everything we’re all British’ as seen in Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities.’ The citizenship ceremony promotes themes of national identity through emotional actions. This includes a pledge of allegiance. This shows the rejection of past national identities and an embrace of another.
Refugees and Labels
Refugees tend to prefer different labels associated with different identities. Is refugeehood something people like to be labelled as? How has its meaning changed over the years? Do different displaced persons have different understandings of refugeehood?
In The Jewish Writings, Arendt has written ‘we don’t like to be called “refugees.”’ This is because of the changing definition of the term “refugee.” The term is also seen as politically charged. Arendt writes, ‘Lacking the courage to fight for a change of our social and legal status, we have decided instead, so many of us, to try a change of identity.’ She continues. ‘A man who wants to lose his self discovers, indeed, the possibilities of human existence, which are infinite, as infinite as is creation. But the recovering of a new personality is as difficult – and as hopeless – as a new creation of the world.’ A label such as ‘refugee’ reflects the ‘need to manage globalised processes and patterns of migration and forced migration in particular’ argues Zetter. Refugees are met with the looming question mark on their identity.
Ugandan Asians prefer to be called “expellees” rather than “refugees” because they had British passports. Many of the expellees were citizens of the United Kingdom already. During the 1970s, Hutus from Burundi were in exile in Tanzania. Anthropologist Liisa Malkki found that, Hutus living in the camp preferred to be called refugees. This was because their exile had significance to them. It meant that they had been wronged by the Tutsis and they could envision a collective return. On the other hand, Hutus living in the towns preferred not to be called refugees. They wanted to assimilate into their new environments. They didn’t want to be seen as different. National identity and historical consciousness here were constructed through the process of everyday life.
Identity in physical landscape
Identity is also associated with place. What happens when refugees with no legal identity live in a place with no legal foundation? Do they continue to base their identity on their country of origin? Do they form an identity connected to their host country? Refugees living in the same areas leads to a revival of a sense of community. Today’s refugees have been housed in the camps outside cities and in social housing. They will naturally develop a sense of community because of their shared culture, religion, ethnicity, and the experience of becoming a refugee. Yet, this will perpetuate the divide between natives and refugees that currently exists. Often identity has been carved out through this shared experience and the collective ‘other.’
This can also show the interconnectivity on a refugee’s journey. Focusing on places can show common displacement experiences. Cyprus, located on the Mediterranean Sea, has over the last hundred years been a place of transit (Jewish refugees), displacement (Greek-Cypriot refugees), and temporary safety (Syrian refugees). A place like Valivade was used as a shelter for both faraway Polish refugees and Sindh refugees. Professor Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyah suggests that paying careful attention to the spaces refugees occupy can help us understand better displacement and hosting.
Second Generation Refugees
Second generation refugees / immigrants are divided between their parents’ culture and the culture they have grown up in. Having been brought up in these developed countries. This can create the feeling of being from nowhere and both places at the same time. Causing a lack of a grounded sense of belonging. This assimilation and citizenship approach has led to biculturalism.
In an era of hostility towards refugees, of closed borders and pushbacks, it is important to show the conflicts refugees face themselves when having left their country of origin behind. Refugees intend to create a new life through agency, determination, and strength. The conflict of identity can create a significant divide within themselves and outwardly. The issue of identity leads refugees to being pulled in several different directions. Refugee identities are complex. Formed by internal feelings, beliefs, ethnic and cultural traditions. And by external factors, such as resettlement practices, forced migrant policies, cultural traditions and the economic, political and social conditions of his/her new host country. Refugees are confronted with the complicated process of identity reformulation because of this physical displacement. Identity can be resolved through a process of trans culturalism. Adopting elements of the new culture integrated with aspects of their traditional culture.
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Elena is a History student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this piece as part of her
Oxford University Micro Internship programme.