Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Author's Department

Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Document Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Forced Migration Post-graduate Student Conference

Publication Date



Refugee protest is some of the most desperate, dramatic and spectacular. Instances of self-immolation, slow public starvation, and riotous violence are not rare, but public response and research has been limited at best. Simultaneously, it can be quiet, unnoticed, isolated, lonely - late night solitary suicides and disappearance from institutional routine. Coping with the harsh conditions of life in exile, institutional and otherwise, is an inherent component of the refugee experience - and a component that, as trends toward restrictive asylum policy grow, increasingly incorporates protest. Resistance in exile has become a tool of refugee identity, a vehicle through which feelings of empowerment can be achieved, cultural values can be maintained, a sense of worth can be created, and, perhaps most importantly, a feeling of movement, some sense of forward momentum, can be realized in what are often prolonged, stifling, powerless situations of physical and emotional limbo. Even the act of becoming a refugee, one could argue, is itself an act of resistance - a counter measure to increasingly hostile and unbearable conditions. The debate around refugee issues rarely operates on a level at which refugees themselves are able to contribute. The Palais des Nations, once in the geographic heart of post-World War II refugee issues, is a distant location to many modern refugee crises. Policy decisions take place at high levels of government and through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices. Security and sustainability determinations are made not by those at risk, but through ‘investigative missions’, cost-benefit analysis, and political advantage - often weighted by interest in the security and maintenance of state agendas. The response from refugee communities has long been silence - not for lack of dissatisfaction, but for want of entry into the dialogue and the risks of challenging those forces in charge of their protection. I do not intend to suggest there have not been efforts to include refugee 'voice' in the creation of refugee policy, nor that the great majority of refugees are dissatisfied with their treatment, but rather to draw attention to the areas in which resistance has become visible - where refugees are organizing, cooperating, and demanding their perspective be heard. This paper will explore the recent history of 4 refugee resistance and protest, both as a phenomenon attracting little critical attention thus far, and as one that is fundamental to the success of future dialogue and refugee policy. Through resistance, refugees are demanding that dialogue change significantly, while drawing much needed attention to areas of the refugee experience often invisible or ignored. Contrary to the popular image of the refugee - barely clothed, wide eyed, and begging - so often seen in mainstream donation solicitations, a new vision of the refugee is emerging: human beings, demanding to be recognized as such, demanding the rights afforded them under international law, and demanding their voices be heard.

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