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Books on the Refugee Experience

recommended by Shahram Khosravi

'Illegal' Traveller by Shahram Khosravi

'Illegal' Traveller
by Shahram Khosravi


To understand what makes integration fail or succeed we need to know why migrants moved in the first place, says Shahram Khosravi, Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University and author of Young and Defiant in Tehran and 'Illegal' Traveller.

Interview by John Turnbull

'Illegal' Traveller by Shahram Khosravi

'Illegal' Traveller
by Shahram Khosravi

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The original title of Sayad’s book, in French, is The Double Absence. In Sayad’s and your experience, why does this phrase become important in the migrant’s life?

The title of the book is telling a lot about the book itself. It’s about suffering from a double absence. It’s about a double exclusion. It’s exclusion in the host country, it’s exclusion in the home country. This double absence means not having a place in either society. I use the phrase myself because after a long time not being back home, you forget things, and you are not involved in conversation back home. Sometimes people let you come in, but you don’t follow the conversation. You don’t follow the conversation in the host country either. So you are outside in both countries.

When you are not at home, memories vanish. Absence leads to ignorance. Milan Kundera’s book Ignorance is about exactly this. This ignorance causes exclusion. I think it’s also very important to link the absence to Eva Hoffman’s book. The absence is linguistic, too. For myself I lack words. I lack vocabularies for vegetables, insects… I don’t know the words in Persian. I don’t know them in Swedish. I don’t know them in English. They are lost somewhere, absence everywhere.

Sayad distinguishes between the words, in English, “emigration” and “immigration”. What is the distinction and why is it important?

His perspective is not from the host country, looking at people coming in. Usually in migration studies we reduce migration to immigration. They come here. Sayad links immigration with emigration and why people migrate. The causes of migration are very important for knowing about the consequences of migration. To know why integration fails or succeeds you should look at why people move, which is not usual.

“‘Refugeeness’ is sometimes viewed like an illness. Today, people coming from Libya are treated like sick people.”

He believes that immigration cannot be separated from emigration. Through looking at the causes of migration in the home country he comes to something interesting, which is often overlooked, namely, colonialism and the role of colonialism in international migration.

He was Algerian himself, and he writes about Algerian immigrants in France. He tells how a traditional system of production and how infrastructure back in his homeland was destroyed by the colonial power. Immigration became the only way for people to survive.

Sayad describes his commitment, in trying to tell a migrant’s complete story, as one of “active solidarity” with those he studied. How does solidarity function alongside his “scientific” approach to migration?

He himself was an immigrant from Algeria to France. This distinction between researcher or writer and people he writes about is not clear. He is one of them. There is no distinction between anthropologist and informants, between scholar/researcher and the object of the study. This makes it more interesting. You can feel that solidarity because he sees himself as one of those he studies. He writes about himself in some ways. He writes about his own experience of being an immigrant in Europe.

How does Sayad help us see migrants in a new light, as something other than potential workers inside the host country?

He gives a human face to people not regarded as humans. Usually they are regarded as refugees or undocumented immigrants. So he gives this background through looking at colonialism, history, and why these people were forced to leave their country. He goes beyond all these policies, laws, legislations, formal documentation and looks at individuals – people – behind all these categorisations and terminologies and theories.

It links to the previous question about solidarity. Sayad reminds me of Frantz Fanon’s book Black Skin, White Masks, especially in Sayad’s last chapter. It’s brilliant, how he writes about colonialism and racism and how people suffer from this.

The title makes me think, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, of the levitical custom of just treatment toward the “resident alien”. Thousands of years later we are still talking about the rights of strangers and aliens. For Benhabib does the debate have such an eternal frame?

She follows the old discussions of Jacques Derrida and Immanuel Kant, and you can see traces in the Old Testament of the concept of cities of refuge and how to treat a stranger. There is a long history of discussions. We still are discussing this today. It’s very interesting this dialect between the need for hospitality which we have discussed all these years and at the same time increasing hostility. There is some connection between them. I borrow the idea from Derrida, who writes about elements of hostility in hospitality. There is some violence in hospitality.

I’m interested in the idea of violence in hospitality. Can we say that the person who gives hospitality has some sort of power over the guest, who is not in his own home?

You don’t have hospitality without conditions. All forms of hospitality are conditional. Even in the theory of Immanuel Kant he says that hospitality is conditional. We do not let in everyone. If they do something wrong we deport them. If we don’t like them we deport them. And who decides about these conditions is interesting. In the relationship between host and guest, the guest should follow the host. The relationship between host and guest is embedded in the concept of hospitality.

In your work you write about border fetishes. What does Benhabib contribute to our thinking about boundaries in the world?

In her theory what’s interesting is how your rights as a human being are territorialised. So if you are not territorialised – if you don’t have a state, if you don’t have citizenship, if you are not a member in a political community – you don’t have access to your rights. I think this is her contribution, how human rights are reduced to citizen rights. So if you are not a citizen, you do not have human rights.

This is the paradox that first of all Hannah Arendt wrote about. The paradox of human rights is that they are for people who need them, but the people who need them don’t have access to them.

The idea is central in Benhabib’s book. It is interesting to link her work to Kafka’s short story “Before the Law,” in which the law is a door protected by a gatekeeper. The person who needs the law does not have access to it. You can find similar examples in Benhabib’s books. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is a right to nationality but there is no obligation for states to offer membership to non-citizens. This is the paradox in human rights that we have today.

Benhabib points to the acceleration in global migration in the latter half of the 20th century. What changes, to Benhabib, need to occur in migration policy and in thinking about migration, and how urgent are such changes?

If you look at the number of migrations, it has doubled during the last three decades. Today according to the United Nations you have almost 200 million migrants in the world. Thirty years ago we had only 100 million. We are talking about 3% of all the people in the world. We need, as she says, a new way to look at this question. We need a new perspective.

What is happening is that people die every day. We have an average of two persons a day who die on the way to Europe. I think that the rate is almost the same between Mexico and the United States. We have an increasing number of stateless people, we have an increasing number of undocumented migrants. So we need a new policy, we need a new way to look at citizenship and membership and social citizenship.

Benhabib refers to a “right of hospitality,” which I have usually thought of as custom or tradition. For Benhabib is hospitality a human right that states can fulfil?

She takes it from Immanuel Kant’s Cosmopolitanism and how the right of hospitality is not about kindness and generosity. It’s about a right. It’s a right of all human beings to receive hospitality from others, as strangers, just because of this simple reason that we all share the same Earth. We all live on this globe.

Hospitality, kindness, is a right to come in and to be treated properly. You can also think about hospitality in more metaphorical terms – be hospitable in your language, be hospitable in your culture, be hospitable in your religion. For example, English for me is a very hospitable language. You can speak in very different forms, and people understand what you say. But if you make a very minor mistake in Swedish people don’t understand what you say. So it’s not a hospitable language.

In an interview Hoffman says that “every immigrant becomes a kind of amateur anthropologist”. How does her work reflect the powers of observation that a migrant develops?

Migration is about going to a foreign land, as anthropologists do. Migrants go to a new place, new language, new culture. You are an outsider there. As an outsider, you see things an insider does not see, because he or she who is an insider takes things for granted. It makes you like an anthropologist, because you try to understand the new culture. You see similarities, and you see differences. As an immigrant you try to get in the minds of people like an anthropologist does.

VS Naipaul, who left Trinidad and Tobago for the UK, makes the idea of centre and periphery a strong component in his writing. What does Hoffman say about losing a centre, and can a migrant find the centre again?

Dislocation is the norm. Not being in one place is the norm of our time. There is no centre. She says that we are in the centre and periphery at the same time. It depends on how we look at the world. If you are in Tehran, if you are in Stockholm, or if you are in New York, centre and periphery differ. Each centre is a periphery for others. I think she lost one centre in Poland but found another in New York. She’s a very successful journalist and writer.

Does it represent betrayal for Hoffman, having left her place of origin, to think and to write about her life in a new language?

I don’t know, actually. Migration is about a sense of guilt generally. Migration is about a sense of guilt, to leave people behind in poverty, in armed-conflict situations, and how you can help them, sending money, or writing in that language and not forgetting your cultural background.

Language is very central for Eva Hoffman. The title Lost in Translation concerns how she was lost in translation – not translation literally from Polish into English but translation from Polish culture into North American culture. The second part of the title is Life in a New Language, which is about how to find a new centre, how to find a new language, how to express yourself in a new culture. It’s a very interesting question about the relationship between language, culture and selfhood, which is very complicated.

You can see some nostalgia or some sadness in how she writes about the loss of unity of her Polish self. It’s like Edward Said talks about exile – not being at home anywhere. It’s about lostness, it’s about disorientation in the world.

In the United States we often hear the word “assimilation” directed toward the latest wave of Latino migrants – that they have not assimilated sufficiently in American society. Do you hear such terminology as well?

We don’t use the word “assimilation” here [in Sweden], we use “integration”. I think it’s a much better word. What it’s about is participation in society – political participation, social participation. All these immigrants participate in American society in different ways. They work, they pay taxes, they consume. Their kids go to school, they go to churches, etc. So they participate. But what we demand from them is that they have to behave like us.

So this is what we mean by “assimilation”. They should be like us in religion, in way of life, etc. I’m afraid that even we in Europe are going toward that policy.

Rhacel Salazar Parreñas writes of Filipina domestic workers and their presence around the world, with a focus on Rome and Los Angeles. How did you discover this book and why is it important to you?

Last year for the first time 50% of all migrants in the world were women. In some places – for example, in Europe – we have more than that. We have 51% of migrants who are women. Women are a very powerful and important part of migration today, which has been overlooked in migration studies. It’s important to look at this trend of feminisation of migration. This is the term that is used. This is a very good book to understand the role of women. It’s also good for looking at the role they play in globalisation, the position they have in this post-industrial era, in which we have more and more demand on a female labour force by the middle-class families in global cities.

Women in the rich world have more rights, they work more. They are not housewives anymore. They don’t have time. And men don’t have time either, to cook and clean. So who does these jobs? – women from Asia. [Filipinas] are working in more than 130 countries – the largest female labour migration – from LA to Dubai.

What is important in relation to the gender aspect is that usually they leave their own family. They leave their own kids to come to Rome or Los Angeles or Dubai to cook for other people’s kids, to take care of other people’s kids, when at the same time their own kids miss their own mothers. It’s a very tragic thing.

Transnational families are increasing. Kids and husbands are back at home, and these female labourers work in other places sending back money. In the Philippines these women are recognised by the state as national heroes, because they go abroad and send money back home.

What does the book say about women’s experience of migration and how this experience differs from that of men?

You have cases of trafficking, sexual abuses, but we have also a change in demand. We don’t need a cheap labour force for factories anymore. We are not in the Europe of the 1960s. We don’t need that kind of labour force. We need people who can cook for us, clean for us, and take care of our kids. The demand from factories is decreasing, and the demand for labour in the service sector is increasing.

This maybe answers your question about the difference between male and female. Among migrants to Italy, men work in the agricultural industry. But female immigrants to Italy usually work as babysitters or as housekeepers.

Parreñas writes about Filipina domestic workers who have emigrated as “servants of global capitalism”. And you mention their role as heroes in the Philippines. Is migration in this case a life strategy or imperative?

Usually in migrant studies people make a distinction between voluntary migration and forced migration. Forced migration is when there is no agency, there is no choice. And one extreme case of forced migration is slavery. But if we disregard slavery, even in the harshest situations, people make a choice. People make a choice to migrate or not.

For me this kind of distinction is not very clear, what we mean by force, what we mean by choice. If I am jobless and I’m offered a job in another part of Sweden, but my family is here, do I have a choice? Or think about all these computer engineers in American companies who are sent to different parts of the world. If they don’t go to Tokyo, or don’t want to go to New Delhi, they lose their job. Is there any choice there? Nobody put a gun to their head and said, “You have to go”.

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Notions of choice and force are not as clear as we think they are. All the choices are formed by age, class, resources, gender, sexuality. It depends on how much money I have, my network, what kind of education I have, if I’m a man or woman, etc.

She talks, as other authors you select do, about looking at migrants as subjects rather than victims. Is this a new development in thinking about migration and can it translate into policy?

We are talking about “refugeeness”. We created a model of a refugee which became the model for the refugee. We imagine the refugee or the undocumented migrant in a particular way, as a particular sort of human being. Have you ever seen any picture of a refugee who is well-dressed and happy? No. We always see them in misery. Refugees are identified with misery and problems. We look at them in mass as victims, voiceless, faceless, without agency, without history, without background, without choice, so it affects how we treat them and restricts their ability to integrate and to make a new life in the new country.

This leads to Agier’s research. How would you describe the contemporary refugee experience that Agier writes about?

I like his book very much, because it’s short and illustrates the situation of displaced people very well. Today we have 43 million people who are “forced displaced” in the world. Some of them are refugees, some of them are asylum seekers, some of them are stateless. The majority of them are internally displaced people.

The majority of these people are in poor countries. We have only a minority – I think it’s about 20% – of all refugees in the world in Europe. The majority of refugees and “forced displaced” people are in poor and developing countries. And it’s cheap to keep them there. It costs only $1 per day per person to keep one refugee alive in a refugee camp in Kenya or in Sudan. But it costs a lot of money when they come here. An asylum process in Canada costs $25,000, so it’s very cheap to keep all these people over there, to put them in a refugee camp.

This is why the situation of protracted refugees has become more important today. The average time of being a refugee – if it’s more than five years, it’s called “protracted”. In 1993 the average time of being a refugee was nine years. In 2006 it was 18 years. The time of being a refugee has doubled. We have a lot of people concentrated in refugee camps, without access to basic rights, without protection. They are raped and robbed, not only by bandits, but also by government soldiers. The choice is a life in hopelessness in these situations or to take a dangerous way to seek a future in the rich world. That is what this book is about.

Agier says that “refugees are not migrants”. What is the nature of this distinction and how does the distinction change refugees’ lives and sense of self?

When we talk about refugees we talk about a legal category. States which sign the Refugee Convention have obligations on them to protect. It’s a very specific and defined category. It’s based on the UN Refugee Convention from 1951, and it’s very clear who can be regarded as a refugee and who cannot.

In your own work you write about the concept of “refugeeness”. How do the refugee camps in Agier’s writing produce this condition?

Liisa Malkki, an American anthropologist, has a brilliant book about a refugee camp, Purity and Exile, about Hutu refugees in Tanzania. She writes about this in that book. She has a statement from a refugee who says, “We are educated to be refugees here”. Refugee camps train people to be refugees, to act like refugees. We created a model of the refugee which became a model for the refugee.

A refugee camp is a place we put people we don’t want to have here. So we put them over there. We don’t want refugees, so we put them in camps. In this book Agier describes the role and function of refugee camps brilliantly, how refugee camps are spaces but not places. They are “outside” not only in terms of place and space, but also in terms of time.

Imagine all these refugee camps in Kenya – there are hundreds of thousands refugees who have lived there more than 10 years. It’s like a small town, but it’s not recognised. It’s not mentioned on the map of Kenya. It’s not mentioned in the census. It’s not mentioned in official documents. So it’s outside our time. It’s not a place.

Does the outsider’s view of a refugee – a view of pity that extends to making humanitarian contributions on their behalf – do refugees harm?

It’s not hostile, but we look at the refugees as kids. We take the same approach with kids as with refugees. They don’t understand, they don’t know what to do, so we have to teach them. We have to teach them how to behave, how to do things. Of course it’s harmful. It’s harmful on the psychological level – that you reduce them, talking about adults who have their own history, their own life, and who survived a very dangerous journey, to treat them like kids. “Don’t do that, do this.” The same kind of violence people use against kids – when we try to make kids into better human beings sometimes we use violence, not physical violence always, but other kinds of violence – the same is true for refugees.

The approach is almost a pathological approach. “Refugeeness” is like an illness. It’s very interesting when today we have a lot of people coming from Libya – every day we have hundreds of them coming – and how they are treated like sick people. All these border guards have gloves and protection on their mouths. It’s a very telling example of how we look at them, like they carry something dangerous in their bodies.

In the Hollywood movie Men in Black, in the first scene of that movie when American border patrol harasses some Mexicans, a space alien comes out from the body of one of these border crossers. This is showing us the same thing, I guess.

Interview by John Turnbull

May 30, 2011

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Shahram Khosravi

Shahram Khosravi

Shahram Khosravi is Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. He is the author of Young and Defiant in Tehran and of 'Illegal' Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders

Shahram Khosravi

Shahram Khosravi

Shahram Khosravi is Professor of Social Anthropology at Stockholm University. He is the author of Young and Defiant in Tehran and of 'Illegal' Traveller: An Auto-Ethnography of Borders