Blog post by Basem Mahmud* who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Free University Berlin. His dissertation was entitled ‘A Grounded Theory Approach to Understanding Emotions and Belonging in Forced Migration’. Currently, he is a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow at the University of Granada, and visiting researcher at the Migration Research Center (MiReKoc) at Koç University in Istanbul where he is conducting research about refugees in the global economy. 

You do not know what that means; [when] you do not have the nationality! Even though I had many opportunities to travel, I did not ask for asylum, because I have the Syrian passport of which I dreamed for 27 years! I got it when I was 27 years old. I do not want to ask for asylum and get another one. I always said to the Syrians who were laughing at me and saying that it is emotional and utopian; you do not know this feeling. I ate and drank based on whether I have nationality or not; I learned to draw whether I have nationality or not. I studied and did my homework based on that. You do not know! You do not know what it means that a person goes with all his will to ask for asylum; he submits his passport and gets a travel document instead of it to live with dignity! 

– Oula describing the essential role which ‘the stateless’ played in her life[i]

In a totalitarian regime, all subjects – even citizens – are deprived of most of their rights. This condition is determinant for their life, and existence in the world. Therefore, legal recognition becomes the primary objective after fleeing home.  In this article, I examine the views of forced migrants, based on my research with Syrian refugees and asylum seekers in Germany and Turkey, to answer the following question: How do forced migrants weigh the advantages and disadvantages of securing recognition in order to make informed decisions during their mobility and settlement? I combine the results of my research in Berlin for my Ph.D. (in sociology) with this research I am conducting currently in Istanbul under the Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship.

Legal status is one of the four dimensions necessary for asylum seekers to say I can start a new life here, which I refer to as ‘the new life hope in the place’. The other three dimensions are dignity-recognition, empathic emotions (such as sympathy, empathy and compassion), and material satisfaction.[ii] Asylum seekers weigh all of their decisions and establish their relationships with places based on these four dimensions. As such, their relationship with a place providing them only with the affective elements (empathic emotions and dignity-recognition) will be temporary because they cannot remain there for a long time without the instrumental elements (legal status and material satisfaction). On the contrary, if a place provides only the instrumental, their relationship with it will be rational-conditional, meaning they will stay because it seems to be the best option for the moment. Only when they find both the affective and the instrumental elements in the place, can a feeling of belonging in this place develop. If they do not find any of these elements, they will view this as a ‘non-place’. A place should provide hope whether it is based only on the presence of the affective, the instrumental, or both.

The affective dimensions are, mostly, experienced through the social interactions that the forced migrant establishes in the place. In the case of the instrumental, the forced migrant obtains information even before starting the journey which affects his ‘migration decision making’.[iii] This information includes waiting-time, material aids during and after the application of asylum, and the nature and length of the legal status. This also includes the consequences of the legal status; whether they are allowed to bring their family members or not and the bureaucratic procedures. This shapes their decision on where to move; whether Turkey, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. Moreover, the same could be said about movement inside the country among different cities. E.g. they may choose the easiest or fastest province or city in granting the legal status. 

The moment when their application is accepted is critical because it is very important for their entire future. It is usually described as the essential moment of feeling relief, comfort, and happiness. Now the asylum seeker becomes a refugee and takes a new step by starting to plan for his new life in the place. Of course, this is not the end; it is a long process that does not end until obtaining citizenship. With each step, the same feelings are repeated as a result of the increased stability, empowerment, and protection toward ending the uncertainty which has accompanied him since losing ‘home.’ As one participant’s reaction demonstrates:

He [his employer] said: you received a letter; maybe it is your residence permit. I went there; they gave me the residence permit. I went back to the restaurant, I sat there, and I started crying. I said to myself; thank God.

A forced migrant’s legal status directly affects their engagement in what I call ‘constructing home practices’, by which I mean; learning a language, constructing familiarity with the new place, comparing different cultures/societies/states based on individual and collective experiences of migration, remembering and restoring feeling at home by mental imagery activities, and bodily movement, buying, cooking, and eating traditional food, seeking social relations, engaging in group activities, making life plans ‘here’: job, education, family, and citizenship. That is, legal status determines their access to many of these practices. An uncertain future not only causes psychological harm but also negatively affects their relationship with the place.

The experience of Akram shows how this uncertainty affects everyday life in a very destructive manner, such that the person cannot even make plans for simple things that are essential for building home:

Yes, I did it. When I came here, I didn’t even think about buying the necessary things for my home because I was always afraid of deportation. I received a message from the lawyer telling me that I have won the lawsuit, then I went directly to the school, and after three months, I was able to communicate a little in German. That was because I thought that I had won the lawsuit, but after that, I received the third rejection of my application, and then I stayed one entire month without visiting the school …

All of this raises questions about the public debate on integration, temporary protection, and the prospect of returning home when the situation improves in the home country. The question is not only whether refugees want to return or not, but there is a need for more reflection and insight into the impacts of those declarations and presumptions on the prospect of a return home, on the forced migrant’s feeling of durable safety and thus his constructing home practices. Raising questions such as: should I construct a home if I should leave soon? Is not better to avoid the negative effect of losing home again by dealing with the new place as temporary and not making a great emotional investment?

The refugees and asylum seekers I met mostly preferred to talk about what integration is not rather than defining what it is. Even when they gave a specific definition, they quickly moved to what it is not. This avoidance of a definition could be a kind of protest or resistance to discourses about integration that fail to understand their everyday lives. 

Research on integration should pay more attention to the everyday lives of forced migrants, rather than searching for extreme cases of integration; those who are either totally isolated or fully assimilated. In addition, more thought should be given to helping refugees and asylum seekers establish more contact with locals rather than portraying them as people who seek to live in isolation or ‘parallel communities.’ While this may be true in instances where there is a high perception of discrimination (maybe among second- or third-generation migrants), the more significant and immediate problem is still the lack of local knowledge and ability to establish such contacts. 

The use of the word ‘refugee’ becomes more significant when used to categorize forced migrants in personal or intimate spheres of interactions.[iv] Its meanings create a sense of border maintenance or even discrimination that threatens feelings of belonging. It seems that the use of the word ‘refugees’ is tolerated in the economic or political spheres. Still, its use in intimate spheres may enhance the perception of exclusion or discrimination, while the forced migrant tries to advance in his home construction process. For many forced migrants, this word presents a kind of obstacle that traps him as an eternal ‘refugee.’ As a result, many of them try to replace it with a new term; newcomer. This resonates with their view on integration. 

When I in my research asked How do you understand integration?, the answers revolved around two different fields; personal or intimate (e.g. tradition, values, religion) and the public, economic, and political  (e.g. learning language, mutual recognition and respect, citizenship and political participation, having work and pay taxes, accepting ‘the Other’). The first is non-negotiable, whereas the second is negotiable. Therefore, they may accept their ‘second status of citizenship,’ de facto by which I mean having less political rights and taking jobs which locals do not like to do. However, they largely do not tolerate any transgression into their personal sphere due to this status, as one of them explained above; “I am not a refugee everywhere and all the time. I am also a colleague, friend, guest, and so on”. Thus, interventions in this sphere in the name of integration is met with strong defensive reactions, which may interrupt the home building process; this constitutes a real threat to the new-life hope in the place because it affects their perception of recognition-dignity and empathic emotions in the place.

Migration policy may contribute to enhancing feelings of injustice, especially those related to border controls, forcing people to risk their lives at sea. A more compassionate migration policy does not necessarily mean opening the borders. Most refugees demonstrate an understanding of the challenges that are inherent in balancing different needs and priorities in migration policies. Based on the views of the research participants, the most relevant alternatives (those which enhance forced migrants’ subjective well-being and help to foster engagement in practices of constructing home) toward adopting better migration policies, can be summarized as follows:

  1. Taking more seriously those procedures which guarantee that those who are given asylum deserve it, strengthening security in the host country and the forced migrant’s safety during movement. 
  2. Considering the various levels of forced migrants’ professional skills, expertise, or education in planning for integration. 
  3. Coordinating refugee distribution among European countries (always considering family reunification). 
  4. Giving more attention to unaccompanied minors. 
  5. Encouraging the use of words like ‘newcomer’ (as opposed to refugee). 
  6. Designing ways to encourage interaction between refugees and locals, and avoiding the formation of ghettos.
  7. Improving the living conditions in the camps. 
  8. Reducing waiting times, especially after applying for asylum or family reunification. 
  9. Fighting discrimination earnestly. 

Integration and temporary residence permits/protection for the refugee seem to be in contradiction if we consider the view of forced migrants. Home-building is a process requiring hard work and great emotional immersion and investment in the new place that is seen as a place capable of providing the possibility of starting a new life. If the feeling of home is essential for integration, then reminding refugees that their ‘visit’ may end soon will likely negatively affect their engagement in practices of constructing home as well as their well-being in the new place, as my research shows when analyzing differences between asylum seekers and refugees. 

All of this indicates the need for a review of migration policy and its procedures in dealing with refugees. The findings point out the importance of shortening waiting times, but also to extend the duration of residency permits. Permanent residency permits facilitate feelings of stability, safety, welcome, and more engagement in constructing home practices, compared to a one-year period of temporary protection. Furthermore, and aside from the issue of time, limitations on geographical movement seem to negatively affect peoples’ capacity for agency over their own life. Those participants who were obligated to remain in a small village or a place where they felt that they were not welcome, considered this time of their life to be ‘lost’ since they were unable to advance toward the home-building process due to restrictions of movement inside the destination country. Therefore, it is also necessary to consider the possibility of facilitating their movement to a place of their choosing as early as possible, which would positively affect their well-being and engagement in constructing home practices.

To summarise, a migration policy that aims to integrate refugees should enhance forced migrants’ feeling of belonging and this cannot emerge without considering the four elements of the new-life hope among them guarantee the legal recognition as soon as possible. 

*Basem Mahmud:

[i] Syria is a country that has a large number of stateless people.

[ii] With dignity-recognition I refer to human dignity and social dignity. The first, dignity, is about the principle that every human being has an inherent and inalienable value, and is therefore worthy of respect. While the second, recognition – though related to the first — is about recognition and is thus reflected in behavior, social interactions, and perception.

[iii] I distinguish between escaping and migrating during the forced migration context. The difference between these two experiences is articulated in three dimensions; time, distance, and objective. In escaping, the individual believes that soon he will be able to go back to his home (time). He moves as close as possible to home (distance). His objective is to start a new life at home (there is no migration plan). In migrating, the individual believes that he will not be able to go back home, at least for the next few years. Any place becomes a possibility. Distance from home is not important. His objective is to start a new life far from home and he therefore makes a migration plan. This view challenges the dominant idea or the illusion that talking about asylum seekers’ decisions of migration is a contradiction, and may have a negative effect on their reception in the destination country. I argue that though they were obligated to flee home, they make various decisions afterwards; how, where, when, and with whom we start the journey and stay to start a new life. Once there, nothing could affect them more negatively than portraying them as passive people without decisions! 

[iv] This view seems to be contrary to the plans of NGOs, activists, and other stake-holders. These plans usually focus on mobilizing people and gaining support and therefore portraying refugees and asylum seekers as people who need help and protection. I would say that this could coincide with the view of the asylum seekers, but not in the case of refugees who indeed want to convert the new place into a home.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.