This presentation was given by Anna Rowlands at the Refugee Hosts International Conference and reflects on her contributions to the Refugee Hosts project. In listening and critically engaging with the ways that humanitarian actors, especially faith based actors, have conceptualised their roles vis-à-vis practices and conceptualisations of membership in response to rightlessness, Rowlands draws on the works of Arendt and Gundogdu, as she describes how Refugee Hosts research has ‘sought to re-read the mutual implication of the political and the ethical’  as it shapes the lives of refugees and refugee hosts. In so doing the research calls for critical attention to both political and ethical implications of state and non-state humanitarian action, including what Fiddian-Qasmiyeh conceptualises as refugee-refugee humanitarianism, to highlight and question rights and ‘rightlessness’ experienced by refugees.   

Rights in context: exploring (faith-based) humanitarianism through the lens of refugee hosting

By Anna Rowlands, Refugee Hosts – Durham University

Much of our work on refugee hosting (and refugee hosts) has been concerned with themes and practices of protection and assistance, addressing questions of rights and rightlessness within the plural and complex context of refugee-refugee, refugee-host, civil society and national and international humanitarian response. In consciously moving away from state-centric and narrowly international humanitarian narratives, and choosing to focus on communities of displacement and hosting, we have not, however, sought to lose the state as actor. Rather, we have sought to understand the complex, mutual implication of state and non-state actors, refugees and hosts in the construction of refugee realities. To express this more philosophically, we have not sought to conduct a programme of research that seeks to collapse or dissolve consideration of the properly political questions of rights into the softer space of the ‘ethical’. For better or for worse, we have sought to re-read the mutual implication of the political and the ethical as it arises in the lives of a complex range of agents who shape the localized (and in this sense also globalized) experience of refugees and refugee hosts. This might be articulated as an attempt at sustained, multi-contextual attention to questions of rights in their socio-cultural including socio-religious, context. I do not think it is unfair to say that such readings still remain fairly undeveloped in much rights-based discourse, humanitarian and academic.

Hannah Arendt’s work figures the aporia of the refugee as evidence of both the negation of rights and their endless fragile re-instantiation, holding in critical relation the political in the ethical and the ethical in the political. In critically extending Arendt’s work, Ayten Gundogdu argues, rightly I think, that rather than despairing in the face of the impossibility of rights-work, we might “take them [the perplexity of rights] as challenging political and ethical dilemmas that can be navigated differently, including in ways that bring to view new understandings of relationship between rights, citizenship and humanity” [p.5]. In this sense, to study rights is to be interpreters of  “struggles to reinvent the meaning of rights.” Arendt’s work remained critical-diagnostic in mode: she does not propose a new theory of rights, but rather calls for a critical attention to the aporia of rightlessness and its negotiation by agents in history. As Gundogdu notes, “an Arendtian politics of human rights centres on the political agency of those subjects whose rights are at stake and who venture to vindicate these rights and declare new ones.” Our work has, I think, in multiple genres, followed in that critical-diagnostic spirit. In this final sense, it adds Behrouz Boochani’s insights to Arendt’s: that we can only know the condition of rights and rightlessness through a multi-perspectival analysis.

In Arendt’s work refugees figure rupture as well as mere displacement. Nonetheless, we find ourselves drawn less to figuring the significance of the rupture, which is carried into refugee experience and becomes a spectral part of the dynamic of refugee-hosting, than to the question of matter perceived to be out of territorial place. Where Gundogdu talks of the need to look at “the political struggles that introduce new understanding of rights”, my contribution to the Refugee Hosts research project has been to listen to and critically reflect on the ways that local humanitarian actors, especially but not exclusively faith based actors, have conceived of their role in fostering practices and understanding of membership in response to rightlessness. In what follows, I wish to argue that one of the striking things about conducting empirical research into local humanitarian responses is that listening to the interpretation and experience of local actors takes the researcher back into figuring this reality of rupture and the re-membering of community as part of, and not separate from, the ongoing aporetic structure of refugee rights and rightlessness.


If you found this piece of interest please visit the recommended reading list below, or you can listen to: Refugee Hosts’ Co. I, Dr. Anna Rowlands, on BBC Radio 4, Immigration & Religion: A Sunday Programme Special

Recommended reading list:

Berg, M. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Hospitality and Hostility towards Migrants: Global Perspectives—An Introduction

Carpi, E.  (2018) Does faith-based aid provision always localise aid?

Eghdamian, K. (2018) How to overcome religious prejudice among refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Refugee-Refugee Relationality: Hospitality and ‘Being With’ Refugees

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y.M. (2017) Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

Goodwin, E. (2019)  Engaging with religion at the local level for Mental Health and Psychosocial Well-Being following humanitarian crises

Harsch, L. (2019) Soundscape: Faith Communities in Hamra

Lauterbach, K. (2019) ‘A Refugee Pastor in a Refugee Church’ – Hybrid Forms of Faith-Based Hosting in Kampala, Uganda

Rayes, D. (2018) In God We Trust: Faith communities as an asset to refugee youth in the United States

Rowlands, A. (2018) Faith and Displacement: Introducing the Series

Steinberg, A. (2019) Sustaining Protracted Displacements: A brief history of labor policy for Jordan’s refugees

Timberlake, F. (2019) Home-making and home-taking: living spaces for women refugees in Grande Synthe

Trotta, S. (2017)  Faith-Based Humanitarian Corridors to Italy:  A Safe and Legal Route to Refuge

Wafai, J. (2018) Al-Mustaqbal in the Space of Refuge

Weatherhead, K. (2017) Thinking Through the Concept of ‘Welcoming’

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