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(2017-8) Why people want refugee status

By Amelia Kaye, Isobel Robins, Elle Mcqueen, Jacob Green, Ken-An Sara Isaac, Lise Albertsen, Tessa Bannister

The universal definition of refugee, as stated by the UN refugee agency, is ‘any person forced to flee from their country by violence or persecution’ (UNHCR 2017). The organisation states that ‘a refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group’ (ibid.). Refugees ‘cannot return home or are afraid to do so’ (ibid). Whilst this definition is comprehensive, it may hide the fact that refugees themselves contest the term and mobilise it in varying contexts. Through this entry we seek to focus on what this category actually means for refugees and the effect that refugee status can have on the lives of peoples who are prescribed such identities.

On the one hand, by studying refugee as a political status, through the work of Gabiam (2012) with Palestinian refugees in Syria, we can use anthropology to understand why some individuals desire refugee status. Her ethnographic case study demonstrates the ways that Palestinians preserve their refugee status by protesting the idea of the camps becoming permanent residencies, despite their long-term displacement since the late 1940s. This is because camps imply that they are only in Syria temporarily, which validates their claim to return to Palestine. Through maintaining their refugee status, Palestinians in the camps are able to be politically recognized, as it ‘serves as a reminder that the international community has yet to resolve their situation’ (ibid., 99). By remaining refugees, the Palestinian people regain a level of political relevance and historical rootedness. Studying this case through the anthropological lens enables us to appreciate why certain individuals pursue the status of refugee, not simply to gain humanitarian aid, but also to give their cause political legitimacy in the international arena.

We can explore this issue further through Feldman’s (2008) work with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. They also aim to make themselves and their cause visible through pursuing refugee status. Most refugees seek asylum in foreign countries because they have had to flee their homeland through fear. This is where the category fails for Palestinian refugees as their central demand is to return home. The camps in which they are placed are crucial for the refugees to exhibit their sense of displacement and their desire to go back to Palestine on the international stage. They ‘have been crucial spaces through which Palestinians have insisted on being visible – to themselves and to the outside world’ (ibid., 509).  This claim to visibility is made even more essential for the Palestinians as a contrast to the Israeli government’s aim to delegitimize their cause through reframing refugees as citizens. According to a Gazan man Feldman interviewed, ‘Israel wanted to replace the word “refugee” with the word “citizen” and settle them so that they could say to the United Nations that they solved the issue of the refugees’ (ibid.). This would negate their claim to the territory at the centre of their conflict, showing how important gaining and sustaining their refugee status remains to Palestinian people.

On the other hand, anthropology also helps show the problems with gaining refugee status. In Ticktin’s work (2011), it becomes clear why some people do not wish to gain refugee status in France. She discusses the manipulation and exploitation of those who gain papers, through being labelled refugees, in the workplace. They are placed at the bottom of the workforce hierarchy, in low paid jobs. Refugees and asylum seekers often found it more beneficial to participate in illegitimate forms of employment than work legally and be exploited (ibid.). She calls this ‘modern slavery’ (ibid., 161).  This ethnography highlights the issues that come with refugee status and illustrates that gaining papers and thus official refugee status is not always desirable. The anthropological theory of ‘matter out of place’ can be useful in analysing this case. Douglas (2013) argued that matter out of place, such as refugees being outside the ‘national order’ (Malkki 1992), is viewed negatively by those in close proximity to it, as it is a source of danger and uncertainty. The refugees in this case represent matter out of place—as indicated by their refugee status which elucidates the fact they are not where they belong. This is interesting to consider in light of the fact that, in Ticktin’s study, official refugees suffer greatly in the workplace, whilst undocumented migrants – who give no official indication of being out of place – enjoy better working conditions.

As the contrast between the experiences of Palestinian refugees and refugees and asylum seekers in France has shown, the label refugee has different benefits, drawbacks, and connotations in varying global contexts. In some cases, such as with the Palestinian fight to return home, refugee status is extremely valuable. However, as Ticktin (2011) has shown, being categorized as a refugee can lead to disempowering stereotypes and detrimental restrictions on work and individual living standards. This blog entry has shown how these categories not only vary, but are mobilised by refugees for various reasons in differing contexts. The anthropological analysis of refugees helps show that, further to the UN definition, there are important factors to consider regarding refugee status that do not focus on problems in homelands, but instead on the viewpoints of refugees concerning their status in the countries to which they are displaced. An application of anthropological theory, such as Douglas’ (2003) matter out of place, shows how anthropology can be useful in exploring such issues amongst refugees.


Douglas, M. (2003). Purity and danger: An analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo. London: Routledge.

Feldman, I. (2008). ‘Refusing Invisibility: Documentation and Memorialization in Palestinian Refugee Claims’. Journal of Refugee Studies, 21(4), pp.498-516.

Gabiam, N. (2012). ‘When “Humanitarianism” Becomes “Development”: The Politics of International Aid in Syria’s Palestinian Refugee Camps’, American Anthropologist, 114(1), pp. 95–107.

Malkki, L. (1992) ‘National Geographic: the Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees’, Cultural Anthropology, 7(1), pp. 24-44.

Ticktin, M. (2011). Casualties of care: Immigration and the politics of humanitarianism in France. California: University of California Press.

UNHCR (2017). ‘What is a Refugee’, USA for UNHCR [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 27 Nov 17].