In this piece, Katharine T. Weatherhead reflects on the discursive implications of the term ‘welcoming’ when used in refugee-related research. In particular, she asks: does the term enable nuanced engagement with displacement as a series of overlapping, relational encounters, in turn disrupting traditional representations that depict refugees as a vulnerable ‘burdens’, and hosts as active citizens and aid providers? ‘Welcoming’ is one of a series of concepts that the Refugee Hosts project is exploring – alongside ‘hosting’, ”being with‘ refugees, ‘hospitality‘ and ‘hostility‘ – throughout our research with nine local communities in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
Thinking Through the Concept of ‘Welcoming’
By Katharine T. Weatherhead, PhD Candidate in Law, Queen Mary University of London
What is a welcoming community? This question was posed by Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh to participants of the Cultures, Migrations, Borders summer school on the island of Lesvos in July 2017. I wish to redirect the emphasis of this question in light of the issues raised by Refugee Hosts’ new Representations of Displacement blog series. In what follows, I consider ‘welcoming community’ as a concept, focussing on the ‘welcoming’ part. What does the term ‘welcome’ suggest? How does it direct our attention and what does it obscure from our field of vision? The purpose of these brief reflections on ‘welcoming’ and the ‘welcoming community’ is to offer a few ideas about what the concept does in the context of the Refugee Hosts research project.
It is at once about guests and hosts.
About guests, because they are the people to be welcomed; guests enter a novel terrain. About hosts, because they are the people doing the welcoming; hosts receive.
It is at once a moral stance and a power relation.
A moral stance, because it implies positive embrace; to welcome is to value. A power relation, because it always involves asymmetric social roles; the welcomer and the welcomee are in contrasting positions of power.
It is at once a beginning and an ending.
A beginning, because it suggests newness; it is about greeting during an encounter or event. An ending, because welcome elapses in time; it smooths the transition from unfamiliar to no-longer-so-unfamiliar.
‘Welcome’ is one way of conceptualising the relationship between newly displaced and hosting communities in refugee situations. As with all concepts, it directs attention to certain dynamics at the expense of others. We can use my above musings about ‘welcome’ to start thinking about its compatibility with the Refugee Hosts research project, which “aims to disrupt the assumption that citizens are hosts and aid providers while refugees are dependent recipients of aid,” and which seeks to examine various forms and spaces of encounter between refugees, hosts, and different communities.
On the one hand, the term ‘welcome’ is spacious enough to house some of the disruptive analysis prompted by such research. Notably, it does not pre-determine who the guests and hosts are, nor does it predetermine the ‘how’ of welcoming. There is no need for the guests to be refugees and the hosts to be citizens, as is often assumed in discussions of ‘integration’. The term directs attention to an abstract understanding of ‘reception’ which can encompass a diverse range of activities by a diverse range of people. It is thus suitably amorphous to accommodate multiple different encounters in the hosting of newly arrived refugees.
On the other hand, the term ‘welcome’ narrows one’s analytical vision. It envisages an element of support in the reception of new refugee arrivals. Support is certainly evidenced at the local level. However, the term gives a positive gloss to reception which may obscure areas of tension. I do not mean tension only in the sense of negative interactions, as in an ‘unwelcoming’ community. I also mean tension associated with contrasting positions of power held by welcomers and welcomees. If we think of new arrivals welcomed into a community, they are dependent on already established residents at least for the continuation of that welcome, whatever support it consists of materially and socially. Welcome always entails dependency. This feature is in danger of being overshadowed by the positive connotations of welcome, but it should concern researchers who question assumptions of refugees as dependent aid recipients in humanitarian encounters.
A further matter for consideration is how time can change the nature of welcome. Welcome, to my mind, designates a newness or an encounter bounded in time. It is not obvious how this matter of time relates to protracted displacement. The risk here is that research concentrates on early arrival and reception, to the neglect of the changing nature of welcome over time. When do welcomed guests become welcoming hosts? [ie see here] Do refugees always remain the object of welcome by people who have been in a space for longer, no matter how much those refugees can be viewed as hosts themselves? Paying attention to the temporal elements of welcome – as the Refugee Hosts project does – could help to unpack shifting experiences over the course of protracted displacement.
The connotations of ‘welcome’ are not only significant for how they might direct research; they are significant for how they might impact representations of displacement in public discourse. When transferred to the world of policy and practice, the term might promote the constructive reception of newly arrived refugees because it implies that positive embrace is valuable. It might, however, simultaneously reinforce stigmatisation around indefinitely protracted refugee situations because it risks enclosing positive embrace in a time-bound encounter during the initial period of arrival.
Comparing the likely consequences of related concepts on theory, policy and practice can help us to assess their desirability. In a contribution to the Refugee Hosts blog, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh mentions two. One is the concept of ‘being with’, developed by Jean-Luc Nancy. The idea of refugees ‘being with’ others in a space of displacement shares the appeal of ‘welcome’ because it does not pre-empt the who or the what of encounter. Furthermore, it does not carry the same time-bound connotation that ‘welcome’ carries, thus mitigating the risk of focusing only on initial arrival. However, the concept is so accommodating that it could run the risk of lacking substance – and policy relevance – in this research context. Because ‘being with’ is not primarily about ‘hosting,’ the concept less immediately draws attention to the main topic of the Refugee Hosts project. As a result (while Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues that Nancy’s concept of ‘being with’ can help us reflect on the nature of encounters and power dynamics characterising processes of ‘refugee-refugee relationality‘), the concept may not so easily gain traction in relevant public and policy discussions of displacement.
The second concept is ‘hostipitality’, as developed by Jacques Derrida. By acknowledging the potential for hostility that is embedded in hospitality, the concept does not risk putting a positive gloss on refugee reception in the way that ‘welcome’ does. Instead, it reminds us to be alert to tensions and power dynamics. The flipside is that the lens of hostipitality assumes an inescapable division, an ever-present gap, a constant fear among people and groups. Considering that there is much anti-refugee and anti-hosting sentiment across the world, foregrounding hostility alongside hospitality in discussions of refugee reception could add to harmful public discourse.
To pull together these reflections, I end by saying that the concept of ‘welcome’ can facilitate productive conversations. The Refugee Hosts project challenges us to rethink assumptions about the role of refugees in humanitarian situations. That it does so is testament to the researchers’ desire to critically unsettle notions of refugees as passive victims. It also demonstrates their appreciation of the reality of displacement today, where encounters take place in spaces shared by multiple refugee groups through what Fiddian-Qasmiyeh refers to as ‘overlapping displacement‘. Considering these aspects of the project, I expect that the research will curtail any risks posed by the term ‘welcoming’ and ‘welcoming community’ and will use it, if at all, as a touchpoint for thought-provoking analysis of displacement.
What does it bring to your mind?
Read more submissions to our Representations of Displacement series here.
Featured Image: ‘Refugees Welcome’ is sprayed onto a wall in Germany. ‘Welcome’ has entered mainstream public debates about refugees, yet its implications as a concept remain under-examined. (c) D. Bocquet