How does UNHCR narrate refugee stories through its official media? In this piece, Leonie Harsch adopts a critical approach, and builds on a number of important arguments put forward by researchers, to argue that the telling of ‘refugee stories’ by humanitarian organisations can sometimes result in exclusionary outcomes – this is especially the case when individual stories do not ‘fit’ into ‘popular’ tropes of the striving, ideal refugee. By contrast, and in line with Refugee Hosts’ approach, she argues that shifting toward a focus on ‘everyday encounters’, as well as ‘spaces and places, not faces’, may allow ‘refugee stories’ to be told in a way that moves beyond the flaws of the ‘humanitarian narrative’.

Giving Refugees a Voice? Looking Beyond ‘Refugee Stories’ 

By Leonie Harsch, Refugee Hosts local researcher (Lebanon)

Previous studies of humanitarian discourses have highlighted universalising patterns in depictions of refugees. Referring to representations from the 1990s, Malkki argued in a seminal paper that the figure of the refugee is discursively constructed as an “ahistorical, universal humanitarian subject” rather than a specific person. Through the lens of such discourses, refugees are perceived as victims who are essentially helpless. This leads, in turn, to the neglect and subsequent loss of refugees’ voice and agency.

However, such critiques seem to show impact. A seemingly individualised approach underpinning more recent humanitarian campaigns indicates a shift towards a new phase in the representation of refugees’ experiences. The public relations strategy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as a major refugee agency, can be considered as an exemplary case. With regards to media content production, the UNHCR Emergency Handbook notes that “[s]tories and images that focus on an individual are almost always more engaging and memorable than general stories or images of a crowd”. Furthermore, a UNHCR representative told me during an interview that they seek not to portray refugees as passive victims, but instead stress their resilience and capacity to contribute to host communities.

The ‘refugee stories’ told by the organisation illustrate this approach. Examples are found on the “Tracks” website, which is dedicated to accounts of individual experiences with displacement and responses to it. UNHCR’s “Refugee Storytelling Project” likewise exemplifies the development of UNHCR’s narratives of displacement towards a focus on individualised stories and refugees’ agency. Under the heading “Story Telling – Through the Eyes of Refugees”, this campaign was launched on YouTube in 2011. In a series of video clips, it features men and women of various age groups and geographical backgrounds who ‘tell their story’.

Screenshot of UNHCR’s ‘Tracks’ website, featuring individual stories.

At first sight, such ways of foregrounding individuality appear to counter the above-mentioned universalising and victimising depictions. However, the narrative pattern which is used as a foil for storytelling raises the question of ‘voice’. It is noticeable that the stories share a specific structure. They usually culminate in the refugees’ demonstration of resilience and, often with the help of UNHCR, reconstruction of the lives disturbed by displacement. So, despite the different social, political, and historical circumstances of the represented experiences, their narratives follow a recurring pattern. This observation suggests a certain dramaturgy of forced migration in UNHCR campaigns. The similarity in the narrative structure of refugees’ stories is indeed not coincidental, as UNHCR’s Chief of Content Production explained: narratives created by UNHCR intentionally distinguish four phases in the experience of displacement – the refugee’s life before displacement, the decision to leave, the challenges faced in the new place, and finally the refugee’s plans and hopes for the future. This shall emphasise their ability to cope with the situation. The strategy behind this storyline is based on the expectation that the public is more inclined to engage – which, not least, also translates as ‘to donate’ – if displacement is presented through a ‘positive’ and optimistic frame. Thus, in the discourse of UNHCR, the image of the resilient, self-reliant refugee has replaced the image of the helpless victim.

Screenshots summarising ‘Sahar’s story’ as presented by UNHCR’s Refugee Storytelling Project

Despite seemingly portraying individual experiences in such campaigns, it can be argued that the narrative authority is maintained by UNHCR. Although resulting in a form which is radically different from the figure of the ‘universal victim’, the procedures of selecting and framing stories may be understood as yet another way of generalising narratives of displacement, producing a figure of the refugee as ‘universal entrepreneur’. Rather than creating a platform for refugees to speak about their diverse individual experiences and perspectives, UNHCR renders these into a specific master narrative of what it means to be displaced.

The resulting humanitarian narrative shapes an epistemological framework which places the refugee in a position from which she has to demonstrate her ‘deservingness’ of reception and aid through mitigating the host’s burden by acting as a ‘good’ resilient refugee. With reference to Didier Fassin’s work, it can be noted that such approaches to engendering compassion imply that refugees should restitute the attention they receive through “mendin[g] their ways” in order to satisfy the expectations of donors. This, in turn, may reinforce already unequal power relations between the displaced person and the spectator of her story and potential benefactor. Not least, a focus on achievement may silence demands for the right to protection.

The underlying rationales behind the narratives of displacement produced by humanitarian organisations are complex, considering the funding structures and politics of humanitarian assistance, and the attempt to foreground individual perspectives must certainly be acknowledged in light of previous critiques. Yet, the current emphasis on resilience and associated agency, which individuals can be shown to either have or have not, reinforces the dualism in which the humanitarian refugee figure seems to be caught. This risks the exclusion of those experiences which resist or are not considered to fit into this frame. As this piece argues, disrupting unifying humanitarian narratives of displacement might require taking a step back and reconsidering the impetus to render refugees’ experiences into coherent ‘stories’ in the first place. In line with Fiddian-Qasmiyeh’s provocation hereshowing spaces and places rather than people’s faces – which can in this case be considered a metonym for the ‘personal story’ – could redirect the focus from the performance of individuals in the spotlight to the conditions of hosting. An emphasis on everyday encounters as explored by the Refugee Hosts Project may be one way of opening up opportunities to narrate displacement yet elude expectations of a (happy) ending.


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

Antonopoulou, A. (2017) ‘The Virtual Reality of the Refugee Experience’

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

El Sheikh, S. (2017) ‘Dehumanizing Refugees: Between Demonization and Idealization

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Introduction to the Representations of Displacement Series: Spaces and Places not Faces’

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh-Qasmiyeh, E. and Ager, A. (2017) ‘Photographing Religion and Displacement: UNHCR’s 30 Days of Faith’

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. and Ammann, O. (2017) ‘The Multiple Faces of Representation’

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2016) “Writing the Camp”




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