Reflecting on her voluntary/volunteering work with refugees in Greece, in this piece Sarah El Sheikh highlights how people affected by displacement respond to and resist different narratives and policies developed about (and against) refugees. Echoing other contributions to our Representations of Displacement Series [ie. see here and here], Sarah argues that, in response to narratives that demonise refugees, counter-arguments that intend to evoke compassion are similarly dehumanising. These can sometimes idealise and homogenise refugees, leaving them devoid of their particular, messy and historically-situated experiences. We therefore urgently need to find alternative ways of representing refugees that do not dehumanise them through either of the processes of demonisation or idealisation.

Dehumanizing Refugees: between Demonization and Idealization

By Sarah El Sheikh 

Since 2011, the arrival of asylum-seekers across Europe has provoked pro-refugee and anti-refugee movements that draw on two opposite public sentiments that either idealize or demonize refugees.

On the one hand, fascist right-wing movements have increased their support base by regularly demonizing refugees, from associating them with terrorist groups, to arguing that they steal jobs. This rhetoric has wide appeal across the world: a global opinion poll conducted by Ipsos MORI on people from 22 countries (including Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan) showed that 60% think refugees are “terrorists pretending to be refugees”, and around 40% called for the closure of borders in the face of refugees.

On the other hand, many academics, politicians and activists argue this rhetoric is not only inhumane, but also erroneous on a factual level. However, in arguing against the demonization of refugees, an opposite rhetoric emerges that is also flawed: the idealization of refugees often strips them of their agency and humanity in a way similar to the demonizing rhetoric of anti-refugee movements.

For example, media agencies that assert compassion with those affected by the refugee crisis often portray refugees as innocent, helpless creatures. Miriam Ticktin discusses the risks of this humanitarianism rhetoric, which portrays refugees as ideally innocent individuals. Innocence in this case implies “purity, vulnerability and naïveté”, which in turn establishes a “hierarchical” relationship between “those who care and those who are cared for”. This hierarchy fails to acknowledge the facts that the ‘saved’ and the ‘savior’ might be equal;, that seeking refuge is a right, not a plea; and that standing by refugees is a responsibility, not a favour or act of ‘charity’.

While the rhetoric of idealization can mobilize public compassion with refugees (as opposed to demonization), the essence of this rhetoric is flawed. The notion of ‘innocence’ reduces the cost of being compassionate for the victim when he/she is an innocent and helpless (collective) creature, as opposed to if the victim is psychologically damaged. However, the journey people undertake to flee war is hard-hitting, full of violence and exploitation. It is a journey of plain loss. It defies common sense to assume that a person who went through such a journey has not had their innocence dented. It does not mean that the person is criminal, but rather that they do not view the world in a platonic way. They have seen the worst of its ugly faces.

On my last day of volunteering in one of the refugee camps in Greece, some of the women gathered for a farewell over tea. During this farewell gathering, the women I spoke to made it clear how the expectation of innocence and gratefulness frustrated them. Although it started with loose talk, it eventually escalated into a wet storm of tears and anger. I recall that, in this moment, the women did not sound angelically innocent as idealized portrayals might expect. I recall Alaa, young mother of two, carrying her toddler, when she yelled [translation is mine]:

“They think they are doing us a favor because they are considering admitting us to their countries! Syria has been very welcoming and our homes have been open to all neighboring countries whenever there was a disaster. And now we are too much for everyone?”

Alaa’s memory of when she was a host herself is compared to the ugly present she is living now, transiting in a refugee camp in Greece (a deserted factory on the outskirts of a Greek city), as she waits to hear from her potential future hosts (EU governments evaluating her case). This comparison before her past and her (liminal) present informs her self-representation as a refugee. She does not need a theoretical knowledge of a human rights-based approach to refugee protection to realize that she deserves better than this, especially when this is informed by her previous real-life experience of generously hosting refugees. She realizes that her recently acquired label – ‘refugee’ – imposes on her an expectation that she must be grateful for anything and everything offered to her by her prospective European hosts. But she is not.

I also recall Sett-Hanan in her green scarf and colored abaya, when she came out like a storm, firm and decisive, angry but not loud [translation is mine]:

“Now they think we are refugees, we should be grateful they picked us up from the war!? But they did not. No one did. We did it all by ourselves. We took the risk of crossing borders and seas on our own. We risked our children being drowned in the sea before our eyes like we saw other people drowning. We are here because we only had ourselves and no one else behind us”.

Now every single woman in the circle was crying, and even the kids on their mothers’ laps were crying too. It meant Hanan and Alaa did not only speak for themselves. Their anger spoke for everyone else. Theirs was not an angelic voice, not helpless and by far not a forever-grateful-for-anything voice. It was just a normal human voice preserving its agency and self-worth just enough to feel tired and angry. These women are tired of waiting, tired of bureaucracy, tired of borders, and sick of this label ‘refugee’, which assumes their previous life was a blank page. It was a legitimately angry and self-empowered voice of realization. I admired their self-realization and self-respect, that they recognize what they demand is a right, that they were not platonically innocent and grateful for just anything, that their self-worth was not affected by the poor hosting experience they are experiencing or by the alleged ‘savior-saved’ hierarchy. I admired how ungrateful they were.

Assuming refugees are ideal, passive and innocent creatures is an act of ripping refugees of their human agency.  Additionally, as Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argues in the Introduction to the Refugee Hosts Representations of Displacement Series, narratives of heroism and a focus on success stories puts pressure on the average refugee to act up to those standards, which is practically difficult for the average human being, especially given the loss and suffering refugees have often gone through.

Both portrayals – “demonization” and “idealisation” – imply that refugees are one collective population of homogenous people. Although primarily common sense, it is useful to recall that refugees are individual human beings. Every refugee has an individual story and a unique personality. Therefore, the antithesis of refugee demonization should not be refugee idealization, but rather humanization.

Academic research, including the ongoing Refugees Hosts research project, is challenging the humanitarian narrative that idealises refugees. However, it is not academic papers alone that (re)formulate public discourses, but rather alternative accessible mediums of communication such as media outlets, civic initiatives and political narratives. Through these mediums, there is a need to bring the ‘human face’ of refugees into the public conversation, and to focus on the suffering, the loss and the frustration instead of simply highlighting idealized success stories.


Read the introduction to the Representations of Displacement Series, written by Refugee Hosts Principal Investigator Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, for more.

If you have found this piece of interest, you may consider reading these additional items on the Refugee Hosts website: 

Blachnicka-Ciacek, D. (2017) ‘Refugees. Present/Absent.’ Escaping the Traps of Refugee (Mis)Representations.

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Hope, Resilience, Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Southern Turkey”

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) “Loss and Everyday Life on the Syrian-Turkish Border”

Ramakrishnan, K. and Stavinoha, L. (2017) Volunteers and Solidarity in Europe’s Refugee Response

Western, T. et al. (2017) ΤΣΣΣΣ ΤΣΣΣ ΤΣΣ ΣΣΣ – Summer in Athens: A Sounds Essay

Zaman, T. (2017) “Athens and the Struggle for a Mobile Commons”


Featured Image: An informal camp near Adana, Turkey. (c) Avicenna Hilfswerk e.V.




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