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Unsettling of the Dominant Refugee Discourse(s)

Deepa Rajkumar ( is a writer and theatre artist based in Chennai.

In the dominant refugee discourse(s) the citizen is the normal, the insider, the one who belongs, while the refugee is the abnormal, the deviant, the outsider, the one who does not belong. Thus, the latter is not only a threat to the very existence and legitimacy of the state, but also, for this reason, dispensable for it and can be dispensed off by it.

Much has been said, written, and shown, even critically, about refugees, their deaths, and the hardships they face crossing borders. This includes the focus on (Muslim) refugees from Syria at Europe’s borders and within, on (Latino) refugees from Central and South America at the United States (US) border and within, and on (Muslim) Rohingya refugees from Myanmar at India’s border and within.

However, there is minimal examination of the underlying statist logic that encompasses modern human existence. This logic, finally, enables the very possibility for the production, characterisation, and categorisation of humans as refugees, severely limiting their available possibilities of movement, assistance, resettlement, and classification reassignment in order to lead a fuller and freer life. Implicated in these processes, besides states, are also organisations and people in their everyday activities and at times of crises, of stated refugee influx in the West and
in India.

Enabled by and enabling this statist logic are the dominant refugee discourses that, intermeshed with other dominant discourses, place the refugee as a singular, and abnormal figure. They are characterised solely by their displacement, as lacking of a state of belonging, and hence of knowledge, as being without agency, as victims, and as threats to the nation, state and its citizens.

Statist Logic

One of the only ways to contest and push against and beyond the statist dominant refugee discourses is by centring the multiple, divergent, and non-linear stories of people characterised as refugees, speaking in their own voices, so that they authoritatively own their stories and their renderings.

Long-standing and mostly unquestioned statist understandings and practices, assumed as natural and foundational, bind the state, its borders, citizens, and governance. Driven by (neo)colonisation and capitalism, the (nation) state, a modern and Western construct, has been universalised and normalised as the most basic territorialised unit of identifiable living. The state, thus, embodies a concentration of notional, legal, legitimated, centralised, and organisational (physical) power: administrative, penal and military. And, human beings are made to primarily belong, legitimated and protected only as citizens, subjected to the rules, norms, and (national) identity of this polity.

However, seeping into and emerging out of the state that professes some sense of enshrined equal citizenship are debilitating, violent, and marginalising biases, prejudices, and discriminations. These are based on state-specific dominant understandings and discourses of religion, region, race, class, gender, language, sexuality, ability, etc. Additionally, in certain states such as the US and India, there are particular categorisations such as indigeneity and caste. This creates systematic and systemic hierarchies within the state that—servicing mainly the dominant and privileged within it, eventually—is not just for most. States are also hierarchically organised based on the power they yield over other states—politically, economically, and militaristically—consolidating the centrality of the West and states like the US in world affairs.

Finally, general and state-specific statist logic permeates the lives of all people. Embedded into the individual, public, media, institutions, and government, and rules, norms, and policies at local, national, regional, and international levels, it lays out who people are and are not, where they can belong and cannot, what they can and cannot be, where and how they can live and cannot, and when, where and how they can move and cannot.

Thus, when the citizen is the normal, the insider, the one who belongs, the refugee is the abnormal, the deviant, the outsider, the one who does not belong. The deviant is the one who is unable or unwilling to adhere to the given rules, norms, and identity of the state. As such, they are not only a threat to the very existence and legitimacy of the state, but also, for this reason, dispensable to it, and able and allowed to be dispensed off by it. Paradoxically, in its very essence, in no state can all its formally designated citizens fit in, and so the deviant is constantly present. In every state, for the very possibility of the existence of the citizen, there has to simultaneously exist the non-citizen, its other. This already-present and always-created deviant is threatening and dispensable to the state not only of their origin, but also, as the dispensed off refugee, to the states of passage, refuge, and resettlement.

The deviant, in the first instance, is the one who is indigenous/tribal, migrant, dissident, or otherwise marginalised legally, medically, environmentally, socially, economically, politically. This is the one who, in their being, finds the state wanting and whom the state finds wanting, and the one who, for this reason, individually and/or collectively, even symbolically, threatens the state and is threatened by the state, and its idea and practice of what and who, constitutes its national identity, its economy, its legitimacy of law and dominant societal norms, and its power—national and international—over its people and others. It is this outsider who, when forced to leave their home to be able to live, becomes the refugee. In other instances, the deviant is also this refugee or asylum seeker, and, to different degrees, any other un/documented, over/staying foreigner: immigrant, migrant business person, professional, worker, student, tourist, diplomat, etc. Even on their best abiding behaviour, fulfilling all the rules of the (new) state, or being granted legal residency or citizenship, this deviant will not be able to fully ascribe to or be able to be fully recognised as ascribing to that state’s exclusive, racial, class, religious, linguistic, and/or sexual citizen identity. This would be true even when these states profess, constitutionally, tenements of liberalism: pluralism, multiculturalism, and secularism.

As such, statist logic(s), and ensuing ever-present statist practice(s), and discourse(s) are instrumental in displacing people internally and externally, within and from state territories. They also simultaneously and categorically reduce, render, and thus displace people as refugees. They are sought to be seen as innocent, cunning, lying, exploiting, and/or ungrateful victims, as lacking (of a state and its identity) and as threats (to the state, its identity and its citizens) vis-à-vis the naturalised, normalised, and centralised, nation-state entity, and its constructed and willed national identity, national interests, and citizens.

For the refugee to resettle, the state then has to be (further) unsettled and confronted.

Dominant Refugee Discourses

Dominant refugee discourses driven and enabled by statist logic authoritatively bind people performatively reproduced as refugees into binaries. It renders the citizen as a central agential subject, and the refugee an othered non-agential object through everyday policy and analytical practices. These practices are premised on the salience of particular territorialised discourses of the state, nation, and citizen that simultaneously weave through other similarly normalising and authoritative practices that reproduce dominant binarised categories of gender, race, nationality, religion, tribe, language, sexuality, ability, etc; to the effect that the dominant refugee and other intermeshed discourses and practices, based on and constructing borders of all kinds, seek to and do order and delineate human life itself.

As per the statist logic of inclusions and exclusions of the dominant refugee discourses, the citizen belongs to a nation, a state, a nation state, with rights and duties, within protection, within (state) boundaries, and with an (state/national) identity. On the other hand, the refugee, displaced and designated as not belonging to a nation state, is without rights, with duties, without protection, within (state) boundaries, and always outside (state) boundaries without an identity. And, a permanent solution to the refugee’s displacement, their unfortunate predicament, is that they have to be made to belong again, to a nation state of origin, of first (and subsequent) refuge, or of resettlement. The dominant understanding, acceptance, and practice of statist norms, and living—in nation states, in camps, in cities, towns, and villages, in humanitarian efforts, in everyday interactions with passports, and documents, and their lack—is made possible through the dominant discourse(s), and what they enable the speaking of, writing about, and doing for reproducing the refugee and the citizen.

Contesting the Dominant Logic

Statist dominant refugee discourses have no space/place for the refugee and their stories, except within the statist logic. It reproduces the refugee in the first place, and to which (displaced, marginalised, resisting, and/or threatening) they can never fully belong. In rendering them and their stories voiceless, unheard, and without authority, the discourses objectify and dehumanise the refugee.

Only original, non-conventional responses critically, ethically, and politically concerned with issues of voice, representation, authority, and agency, that centre the experiences, stories, analyses, and knowledges of people categorised as refugees, about and beyond, their experiences of displacement, can contest, push, and displace the confining, and violent (even fatal) limits imposed on their lives.

This person can then say that the refugee is not a refugee, but is violently and continuously made so and enacted upon as such in multiple, divergent, fragmented, situated, polyphonic, dialogical, and deconstructive ways, overcoming the author-function, and content, form, and limits of conventional responses. When the authority of the conventional author is not, and cannot, be present to tell the stories of the dominant refugee and other discourses, these discourses are displaced from their centrality, and authority.

Such a response is situated within increasingly visible and critical feminist, queer, postcolonial, post-structural, and decolonial/indigenous literature, and efforts in visual art, theatre, films, photography, activism, and academics that make visible the hidden and suppressed histories and stories of people from the margins. It lets people own their experiences and analyses, of their oppressions, struggles, negotiations, resistances, overcomings, and victories. It enables them to tell these stories in their own voices, in their own ways, and in their own forums, situating these in traditional or contemporary, individual or collective storytelling practices, directly or indirectly opposed to the dominant discourses.

Updated On : 4th Mar, 2019


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