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Refugee status: The interdependence of production and destruction

By Ieva Barzdzlute, Leila Benarous, Melissa Crane, Lucille Corby, Mollie Eadsforth, Elisabeth McCormick, Henry Jay McWhirter, and Zara Raffeeq

‘For asylum seekers, this is the predicament of Being, as well as not Being-in-the-world, a reflection of the existential journey.’ (Sophia Rainbird, 2014: 475)

The process of acquiring refugee status affects the identities and experiences of displaced people in both productive and destructive ways. We argue, using anthropological literature, that these effects, which arise through official asylum processes, are interrelated; no one case of acquiring refugee status is wholly productive or destructive. We will use the work of Sophia Rainbird, Laura DeLuca and Heath Cabot to formulate our argument, and then refer to the work of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit (GMIAU) to contextualise our discussion. Our aim is to challenge the homogenous category of ‘refugee’ and therefore to allow an understanding of how a wide range of individuals are involved in determining outcomes for refugees.

A significant concern for individuals during the process of acquiring refugee status is the loss of former identifying features and personal narratives. The narratives of displacement show how individuals may experience this sense of a loss when attempting to achieve legitimacy. Cabot, who works within the Athens Refugee Centre, discusses the adaptation of these narratives by the asylum seekers who seek to appeal to those who would grant recognition. In the refugee process in Greece there are certain aspects of displacement that are perceived as more worthy, and thus those seeking refugee status will adopt these ideas into their own narratives (Cabot, 2013). Although they remain aware of the reality of their displacement, the lack of recognition by the state and the wider public is internalised and lead to a feeling of loss and invalidation of the asylum seekers’ ‘real’ experiences.

This is highlighted by Rainbird in her work in East Anglia. She discusses how the loss of the ‘real’ stories caused an existential crisis among asylum seekers. In the displacement stories they subsequently tell, there is frequently a dead figure who is portrayed as static and has no identity. This symbolises the death of their former identity (Rainbird, 2014). These two examples show that, whilst the reality of their displacement is not lost to the asylum seekers, the lack of recognition it receives in any sphere is akin to its destruction.

Narrative is a fundamental tool in the construction of future identities for asylum seekers, and as such must be carefully negotiated. In the work of Rainbird the asylum seekers use narratives to reassert their agency within a fundamentally objectifying system. They thereby begin constructing their future identity. Within the context of their liminal situation, they are able to begin to control their existential crisis by acquiring a new sense of self. The system itself works to eventually legitimise the identity they constructed (Rainbird, 2014).

Similarly, in the work of DeLuca, she discusses refugees from the Sudanese civil war and their use of the system to provide for themselves. The dramatic images of refugees from the war – barefoot, thin, dressed in dirty clothes in conjunction with the labels ‘Lost Girls’ and ‘Lost Boys’ – are subversively employed by refugees to access resources and funding. ‘Learning how to work within—and at times manipulate—the dominant neoliberal system has been key to their survival’ (DeLuca 2008: 18). In both of these cases, the process of becoming a refugee prompts the asylum seekers to produce a future self, either through agentive narratives or through a unique employment of agency within a disadvantageous system.

It is crucial to recognise that these two processes of destruction and production are not mutually exclusive but rather are inextricably linked. Our discussion has previously separated these two categories, but within the lived experiences of the asylum seekers this is not the case. One such individual is Mahmud, an elderly Sudanese man who adapted his displacement story to better suit the specific situation of the Greek asylum system (Cabot, 2013). He produces his story to ensure a more secure future, but in so doing, part of the reality of his past is destroyed through the lack of recognition.

A similar case is that of Feryad, an asylum seeker from Iraq living in Norfolk. His use of a confrontational and heroic story of displacement shows both the destruction and production inherent in this situation. The former is present in the figure of the dead Iraqi man, of whom only his shoes remained intact. The latter, however, is present in the purpose of the story itself. Its agentive nature allows Feryad to affect his situation and begin to envisage a future self: ‘the self has become its own story which has not ended’ (Rainbird 2014: 472). These individuals link us to the wider issue of asylum claims.

The GMIAU is a voluntary organisation that supports people during their involvement in the asylum and immigration processes. In the case of those applying for refugee status in the UK, they must provide their story of displacement. This must be compelling enough to be accepted, for if they are refused, though another claim is possible, the material must be significantly different from that previously presented. This group appears similar to the group that Cabot worked with, as they provide support, but the asylum seekers cannot escape this process of destruction and production, for their narrative must be performed in the correct manner.

To conclude, the process of becoming a recognised refugee is inevitably both destructive and productive in nature. Rainbird, Cabot and DeLuca all show that these two processes are present in all that occurs from the moment of displacement to the finalisation of any claims. The former identity and reality of their displacement are frequently lost or clouded, but in its place a new individual is produced, recognised within their new society. The loss of these specific identities produce a largely homogenous group within the discourses of the public sphere, but we hope that this discussion has shown that the homogeneity is produced by the process, and is not inherent in the displaced. 


Cabot, Heath (2013). ‘The social aesthetics of eligibility: NGO aid and indeterminacy in the Greek asylum process’. American Ethnologist 40(3): 452-466.

DeLuca, Laura (2008). ‘Sudanese Refugees and New Humanitarianism’. Anthropology News 49(5): 17-18.

Rainbird, S. (2014). ‘Asserting Existence: Agentive Narratives Arising From the Restraints of Seeking Asylum in East Anglia, Britain’. Ethos: Journal of the Society for Psychological Anthropology 42(4): 460-478.