How do different refugees living in protracted displacement imagine and negotiate processes of resettlement, one of the ‘durable solutions’ supposedly available for refugees (the others being ‘local integration’ and ‘repatriation’)? As explored in this piece by Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza, narratives of resettlement are used as tools of power, resistance and hope by and for refugees. Drawing on her multisited research, Marcia explores how Colombian and Palestinian refugees’ resettlement expectations are constructed, both by themselves, and by international aid providers. In so doing, and in line with the approach underpinning the Refugee Hosts project, she traces how mainstream humanitarian narratives and structures can exacerbate imbalances of power between humanitarian agencies and refugees.

 If you find this piece of interest, you can read more about the resettlement programme in Chile and Brazil here and here, and a range of Refugee Hosts posts on refugees’ experiences and narratives of life in camps and cities in the global South and of resettlement to different countries, and on the roles played by humanitarian agencies, listed at the end of this article.

 Expectations and the Politics of Resettlement: Colombian and Palestinian refugees in Chile and Brazil[i]

By Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza (Queen Mary University of London)

In Mogi das Cruces, a small city two hours from Sao Paulo in Brazil, Rabah received me in his shop with his Brazilian wife and their toddler. We sat on top of rugs piled up in his shop. Rabah took his time for every answer and his tone was soft. But his tone changed when he remembered his last days at the Rwaished refugee camp in Jordan. His frustration over living, and waiting, in the camp for five years, as well as the lack of clear information received about his possible resettlement, shaped Rabah’s expectations pre-departure:

“I was sitting there, waiting every day. Seeing how my friends were taken to other countries and I was still there. . . . One day, they called us for a meeting and that day I couldn’t take it anymore and I took the chair and broke it on the floor. I was so angry because of waiting! . . . So when that lady [UNHCR officer] came to a meeting to talk about vegetables and cleaning, I told her, “We need neither vegetables nor cleaning, we just need to get out of here! I don’t want to die here! I am going mad.” I didn’t want to argue with her. I was nervous, angry. . . . I broke the chair and I felt sad because of that. After that, she came back and told me about the opportunity of Denmark and sent me to go to the Italian hospital in Jordan to take the medical exams. When they sent you there it meant that you may go soon. She left me dreaming, living again! I knew about Denmark because I had a friend resettled there. That night I couldn’t sleep thinking about going there, dreaming. I was so happy! . . . When the group from Denmark came to the camp they didn’t know about us [Palestinians]; they had come for the Kurds. Why did she lie to me? They told me that just to calm me down?!”

Rabah, Palestinian Refugee in Brazil

Rabah is one of the 108 Palestinian refugees resettled to Brazil from the Rwaished camp. They were the last group in the camp, and they witnessed with resignation the resettlement of others. Rabah’s experience is not different from the 117 Palestinians resettled in Chile and even has some commonalities with the Colombian refugees resettled in Chile and Brazil (as I explore here).

From interviews with both Colombian and Palestinian refugees, I identified four key factors in the construction of refugees’ expectations pre-departure: the emergency that framed their resettlement decision, the lack of clear information provided in the first country of asylum or in the refugee camp, the information given by family and friends resettled in other countries, and the time spent in the places in neighbouring countries to which they were first displaced.

The refugee studies literature has largely referred to the different range of expectations that refugees develop about their resettlement experience (Marete 2012). In addition, the UNHCR and service providers have recognized that one of the biggest challenges of resettlement is what they refer to as ‘unrealistic expectations’ (Van Selm 2013). Less reference has been made to the expectations constructed by the organisations running the resettlement programmes.

In a recent book chapter, I explore the expectations constructed by both the resettled refugees and the different actors involved in the program in Chile and Brazil, and how unfulfilled expectations affected their relationship. I do so by identifying and discussing the tensions among actors (refugees, UNHCR, NGOs, and governments) and by asking how the power relationships that emerged between them affected refugees’ resettlement experience.

Rabah’s tone also showed his disappointment when he reflected on some aspects of his life in Brazil. Similar reactions emerged in the interviews with Palestinian and Colombian refugees in both Chile and Brazil, as the expectations refugees generated pre-departure clashed with their experiences in the host countries; soon after arrival, they turned into complaints of unfulfilled promises. As the Palestinian groups in each country arrived roughly at the same time in 2007–2008, their post-arrival perceptions in Chile and Brazil seemed to be more similar than those of Colombian refugees, whose perceptions varied depending on their year of arrival and with whom they interacted in the organisations that facilitate their resettlement.

“Here it is different to what I thought it would be. Very different. . . . I thought that in this country I would have a good situation and that I could live fine. But when we arrived, finding a job was difficult and we worked so much for very little money.”

Rahal, Palestinian refugee in Chile

“We didn’t know how we were going to get here; we only knew that we will have some guarantees. . . . They told us many things, everything very pretty. Based on that we decided to accept [to go to Brazil].”

Daniela, Colombian refugee in Brazil

“They told me, “Look there in Brazil you are going to study Portuguese, you will find a house, you will have a job, everything.” And nothing [was accomplished]! Nothing!”

Mahfoud, Palestinian refugee in Brazil

Exploring how expectations were constructed and how they turned into unfulfilled promises shows that refugees are not static within their own experiences. Refugees’ expectations were also revealed as coping mechanisms and expressions of hope, particularly in the period of pre-departure, as suggested by Horst and Grabska (2015), but also as a negotiation tool of power and resistance against the bureaucracies of resettlement once in the host country. They were central to refugee claims and active forms of organization (see Moulin 2012). In all these forms, expectations were at the centre of the sometimes tense relationship between the resettlement program and the Palestinian and Colombian refugees in both countries.

Expectations, as shown in my chapter, are a ‘translocal’ expression of the refugee experience, as they were spatially developed in one or multiple places and they shaped the communication with the organizations involved pre- and post-resettlement. Finally, exploring refugees’ expectations reveals the pivotal role of information as an instrument of power that can produce ‘protracted uncertainty’ (Biehl 2015), by which limited knowledge, waiting, and instability marked the experience of refugees both in the first country of asylum and in the resettlement country.

During fieldwork in both research sites, I also interviewed twenty people directly involved in the resettlement program as staff (or former members) of the organizations both in Chile and Brazil.  While all of them expressed commitment to refugee protection and highlighted the well-intentioned aims of the resettlement program, some of the staff members held contradictory views about refugees. These representations of refugees affected and shaped their work, resulting in either a victim-saviour approach (Harrell-Bond 2002) or the need to overcome what they called ‘refugee mentality.’

“There was a change in the attitude of the [Palestinian] beneficiaries that I placed around the second half of 2009. Because Palestinians always had a refugee mentality, you know, that the “international community own us.”… So, at the beginning there was a constant asking and asking.”

Resettlement analyst, Ministry of the Interior, Chile

“You have that Colombian refugee that was so long in Venezuela; I don’t know . . . we usually said that those are the most likely to return or the ones that want to extend the financial assistance. Because when they are in the first country of asylum, they are being assisted as well, so they don’t want to stop being assisted. They are used to it.”

Resettlement coordinator of an implementing agency, Brazil

In both countries narratives also emerged about the ‘ungrateful subject’ (Moulin 2012), those refugees who appraised the ‘gift of humanitarian protection’ as insufficient, and rejected their position as being without equal access to rights and services in the host country. In this context, Colombian and Palestinian refugees who complained about unmet promises or who requested more attention from the organizations were deemed as ‘problematic,’ as ‘ungrateful,’ or as having the previously discussed refugee mentality.

The findings discussed in more detail in the chapter that this post is based upon, support the suggestion that the humanitarian structure of refugee protection has exacerbated the power imbalances between the resettlement organizations and refugees (Hyndman 2000), as also discussed in other chapters of ‘Refugee Resettlement, Power, Politics, and Humanitarian Governance.

Consequently, UNHCR, NGO and governmental processes and interventions have been shaped in a way that encourages the mistrust and resentment expressed by refugees. This discussion adds a new dimension to the understanding of refugees’ experiences in these two emergent resettlement countries, tracing these power imbalances by looking at the expectations of both refugees and the organizations involved. The chapter concludes by arguing that that these interactions have contributed to refugees’ experiences of ‘unsettlement’ by extending and normalizing refugees’ uncertainties and instability in the host country.


This blog contains excerpts and quotes from Marcia’s recent book chapter, ‘The Politics of Resettlement: Expectations and unfulfilled promises in Chile and Brazil’ published in Refugee Resettlement: Power, Politics and Humanitarian Governance, edited by A. Garnier, L. Lyra Jubilut and K. Bergtora Sandvik, 223-243. New York: Berghahn Books.

If you found this piece of interest, you will find these additional Refugee Hosts posts – on refugees’ experiences and narratives of life in camps and cities in the global South and of resettlement to different countries, and on the roles played by humanitarian agencies – to be of interest:

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2015) South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from Cuba, North Africa and the Middle East, Oxford: Routledge.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) “Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and Introduction to Our Mini-Blog”

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E.  (2018) “Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement.”

Jayawickrama, J. and Rehman, B. (2018) “Before Defining what is Local, Let’s Build the Capacities of Humanitarian Agencies”

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

Rayes, D.  2018 “In God we trust: Faith communities as an asset to refugee youth in the United States.”

Sheikh, S.  2018  Dehumanising Refugees:  Between demonization and idealization.

Turner, L.  (2017) Who will resettle single Syrian men?

Zbeidy, D. (2017) “Widowhood, Displacement and Friendships in Jordan.”

References Cited

Marete, Julius. 2012. “The Resettlement Journey of Somali and Sudanese Refugees from Camps in Kenya to New Zealand.” Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration 2(1): 48–52.

Moulin, Carolina. 2012. “Ungrateful Subjects? Refugee Protest and the Logic of Gratitude.” In Citizenship, Migrant Activism and the Politics of Movement, edited by P. Nyers and K. Rygiel, 54–72. New York: Routledge.

van Selm, Joanne. 2013. Great Expectations: A Review of the Strategic Use of Resettlement. Policy Development and Evaluation Service. Geneva: UNHCR.


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