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Who counts as a refugee?
Who counts as a refugee?

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5 Citizenship, identity and belonging

5.1 Post-structuralist perspectives: the production of social meaning

With the onset of the Second World War, because they came from Germany, Wolja and Lotte became ‘enemy aliens’ overnight, an identification they resisted. By contrast, both Victor and Françoise were viewed as ‘asylum seekers’. In all cases, their status derived from their country of origin. The discussion of gender and sexuality in Section 4 reveals a tension around the idea of citizenship as a status reflecting ‘human rights’ rather than rights that flow from membership of a nation. In Section 5, we will explore further such contested ideas about citizenship by considering how post-structuralist and postcolonial theoretical perspectives help us to think about the relationships between citizenship, identity and belonging.

A post-structuralist theoretical perspective focuses our attention on ways in which social meanings are produced, and the consequences of those meanings in this instance for refugees and asylum seekers. It also alerts us to look for alternative or counter discourses.

Activity 3

Table 2 includes a list of terms used in discussions of migration.

Table 2: Migration terminology
AlienUsed in earliest legislation (1828, 1838 and 1905) to describe those ‘outside’ the nation
RefugeeSomeone forced to flee their country of origin because of war, famine or persecution
Convention refugeeSomeone whose circumstances meet the criteria of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention
Asylum seekerUsed since the 1990s for people seeking refugee status, whose claim has not yet been recognised
Forced migrantUsed to describe all those forced to flee, for whatever reason and whatever their legal status
Displaced personSomeone who has fled from their home, but remains within the same national territory
ExileThe condition of being forced to live away from one's ‘home’
Exceptional leave to remain (ELR)Until April 2003, a status granted to people whose claim for refugee status was not recognised, but who were allowed to stay in the UK on humanitarian grounds
Humanitarian protectionReplaced ELR on 1 April 2003
ImmigrantSomeone who has moved to live in another country, whether as a refugee, or to seek work, for family, emotional or any other reasons
Economic migrantSomeone who migrates to seek work
AgentSomeone who helps an asylum seeker to get into another country, for a financial payment
TraffickerSomeone who exploits an asylum seeker, for continued financial gain – for example, by forcing them into prostitution or illegal work
  • Do the definitions provided reflect the social meanings that are produced when these terms are used in the media and social policy?

  • How might people identified through these terms resist such meanings?


  • Although some of these words signify particular legal statuses and rights, they are also discursive categories; that is, they carry meanings that help to locate people in a symbolic chain of associations in which they are categorised as more or less deserving. They may also help to construct people's sense of identity and belonging.

  • In public, media and political discussion, the very words ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ carry silent adjectives with them – ‘genuine’ and ‘bogus’.

  • Most asylum seekers are assumed to be ‘economic migrants’, used in the media as a term of abuse for people who have tried to use the asylum procedures to seek a better life, even though many of them have left places ravaged by war or famine.

  • Categorising very diverse peoples as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘refugees’ focuses on their common experiences of suffering and exile, while ignoring the impact of other social divisions in their lives. This can homogenise them and reinforce stereotypes.

We saw from our personal stories that there are huge differences in people's experiences, and in the meanings of those experiences. Moreover, although personal lives reflect the bigger societal picture of power, inequality and difference, there is always an ‘excess’. That is, individuals can also resist these identifications and see themselves, for example, as people with basic human rights.

Both social policy and the media play a role in the construction of discourses of refugees and asylum seekers as ‘other’ and often use terms such as ‘asylum seeker’, ‘refugee’ and ‘immigrant’ interchangeably: ‘In its report … of William Hague's speech on asylum policy, the Times referred to “asylum seekers” in its first paragraph; “immigrants” in its second; and “refugees” in its third’ (Moss, 2001, p. 48, original emphasis). Moss describes this ‘confusion over the language’ as reflecting ‘our confusion over the issue itself’. However, a post-structural perspective suggests that such use of language reflects not confusion but important meanings which set up chains of connections. For example, such interchangeable use of terms strengthens the association between asylum seekers and ‘undesirable’ or ‘illegal’ immigrants.


So I have a new name – refugee

Strange that a name should take away from me

My past, my personality and hope

Strange refuge this.

So many seem to share this name – refugee

Yet we share so many differences.

I find no comfort in my new name

I long to share my past, restore my pride,

To show, I too, in time, will offer more

Than I have borrowed.

For now the comfort that I seek

Resides in the old yet new name

I would choose – friend.

‘Refugee’, a poem written in 2002 by Ruvimbo Bungwe, aged 9, from Zimbabwe (Source: Teichmann, 2002)

This ‘war of words’ is important because ‘beyond simple terminology, words constitute the strategic weapons taken up by politicians, association activists, social workers and intellectuals, who give them a new content according to actions and reactions’ (Kastoryano, 2002, p. 15). Thus supporters of the rights of asylum seekers and refugees often use the term ‘refugee’ much more widely than its narrow legal definition. In the library of The Guardian newspaper:

Everyone gets put into a file called ‘refugees’, with the exception of high-profile individuals in well publicised cases who are seeking political asylum in the UK. The library has decided that the term ‘asylum seeker’ is bogus, rather than the bona fides of the claimant. Refugee organisations have drawn the same conclusion. There has been no obvious rush to rename themselves: the Asylum Seeker Council would not have quite the same ring to it.

(Moss, 2001, p. 48, emphasis added)