The politics of refugee voices: notes for a chapter

Asylum seeker protesting in the Darwin Detention Centre, photos by Refugee Action Coalition Sydney, 2011

With current and former colleagues at the Refugee Studies Centre (Elena Fiddian Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher and Katy Long), we are editing a large collection on forced migration studies to be published by Oxford University Press in 2014. The collection, The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, includes over fifty chapters and even more contributors. It is exciting and daunting to be charged with the job of reviewing a multi- and inter- disciplinary field of study and account for its past, present and possible futures, and I am glad to be sharing the job with such capable and knowledgeable co-editors and authors.

I am finalising my own chapter for the collection at the moment. This will be included in the section on ‘Lived experiences and representations of forced migration’, and explore the tension between dominant representations of the refugee which make them speechless and agency-less victims and refugees’ quest for political subjectivity. The chapter aims to explore and conceptualise the complex relationship between memories, narratives and representations of refugees’ experiences in the contemporary world. It problematizes the notion of a ‘refugee voice’, paying attention to the different contexts of production and consumption of narratives of asylum as well as to the power relations underpinning them. Michael Jackson’s ethnographic exploration of Hannah Arendt’s idea of the ‘political’ as power relation between private and public realms and ‘storytelling’ as the bridge between these realms – a process through which individual passions and shared views are contested and interwoven – provides one of the entry gates to the discussion. Vanessa Pupavac’s analysis of the dominant representation of the refugee among refugee advocates as a victim/patient and the ambivalence embedded in the sick role, a concept developed by the sociologist Talcott Parsons, also provides an inspiration for my chapter. The representation of the refugee as a patient finds an echo also in Didier Fassin’s seminal work on the use of medical certificates and medical expertise as ultimate evidences of the truth of asylum claims, and substitutes for asylum seekers’ voice in the asylum process.

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