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The agency of refugees

I wrote previously about two narratives that undermine the way in which we look at refugees: that they deserve help because they might be the next Steve Jobs, and that they should be viewed primarily as victims.

In this post I will point out why recognising and celebrating the agency of refugees could be beneficial to our societies, even when looked at from the political right.


Our European nation states are, by and large, organised according to Neo-liberal ideology, which sees the market as right, the state as better when smaller, and democracy as a worthy norm.

And when we talk about democracy from a Neo-liberal perspective, we’re not just talking about one-person-one-vote and the chance to elect any kind of government the masses desire, we’re talking about a very specific type of government.

It has to be a government that promotes the free market, eschews radical ideology and pushes forward ideals such as gender equality and human rights.

Typically, the further right you are economically, the more you trust the market. In fact, the market itself becomes more than just an economic matter as its rules are applied to everything – people, projects, etc.

Neo-liberalism sees the world as a competition. People compete for resources, the strongest win. It’s like political Darwinism. Those who acquire vast resources do so because they deserve them, because they have worked hard and earned them.

This worldview isn’t really compatible with the victim narrative because, deep down, those who view the world as a competition don’t necessarily believe that they have a duty to help those who are losing the game. When it’s a matter of she who plays best wins, the loser is losing because they’re not trying hard enough to win.


Right now I’m not going to get into the systemic violence which works against many who play the  game. Instead I want to suggest a refugee narrative that might work in a Neo-liberal context.

I want to suggest that we start looking at those who arrive at our borders seeking refuge not as victims, but as winners.

These are individuals who, in spite of having all the odds stacked against them, have made it to a more stable place. They have risked their lives. They have navigated unknown territories. They have been brave enough to leave behind everything they once knew.

They have just competed in one of the most grueling journeys that it is possible to take, and survived. 


If we learn to see these newcomers as intelligent, capable individuals who have already proven their ability to face challenges, we might just reduce the stigma of being labelled a refugee.

It might be easier for us to recognise that while there are ways in which they need help, there are also many ways in which they can help us, and many things which we can learn from them.

Dear Habib

I found this video earlier today that tells the story of Habib, an unaccompanied refugee minor from Afghanistan who now lives in Britain.

It reminds me of some of the young men I had the privilege of getting to know during the research for my master’s thesis.

Many have experienced great loss, risked everything, and faced many challenges since leaving their homelands. They arrive in Europe having invested a lot of their time, energy, and resources in getting here. 

And when they arrive, they are eyed with suspicion by many in society. They are asked to prove their age. They are assumed to be the same as that one person from their country who was in the news for doing something bad.

They are over-represented in the mental healthcare system because of the trauma they have experienced at home, and during their travels. 

And yet they persevere. They go to school, they work hard, they build new friendships, and they do their best to fit in.

The utility of refugees

There are several strands of conversation, or discourse, on the subject of refugees and why they should, or should not be offered the hospitality of our national borders. I find two of them particularly disturbing.

First, the idea that refugees are worthy of help because of who they may become.

The argument goes something like this: we should allow refugees into our countries because they may become the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein: they may end up contributing to history in such a way that it would be a huge mistake not to let them survive and thrive in our country. They are valuable because they contribute to our sense of the common good, and thus because of their utility.

The flaw in this argument is that it fails to recognise that human beings are valuable. They’re valuable not because of what they contribute to the greater good, but because of the basic fact of their humanity. We should offer hospitality to refugees not as some kind of high odds gamble in which we may hit the jackpot and find ourselves hosting a genius, but because we recognise the humanity we share.

The second is the idea that refugees should only be understood through the paradigm of victimhood.

There is a good reason why refugees tend to appear in the media as either victims of a great injustice, or as villains seeking to portray themselves as victims.

The reason is that the former is the easiest way for organisations like the UNHCR to raise funds.

They make a video that talks about how helpless these people are and how we must save them, otherwise they will die or face some other terrible injustice. How do we save them? By giving money to the UNHCR, who in turn promise to convert cash into changed lives.

The competing story about refugees has its roots in the same concept, but is the antithesis of the victim discourse. It says that refugees are not victims, but opportunists using political unrest in their homeland to further their personal ambitions. They leave an otherwise peaceful part of Syria and move to London or Stockholm in order to improve their standard of living and to give their kids a chance at getting in to better schools. Refugees, in other words are not victims but scroungers who don’t deserve to be helped.

My issue with the idea that refugees are victims is that it ignores the agency, the decision making powers, that the individual refugees have and use throughout their process of relocating.

Most of the people I have met who have obtained refugee status are extremely creative, strategic individuals who have used all their abilities to get to Europe and begin building a life for themselves here. They are doing what any of us would if we found ourselves in a similar position: finding a place that is more stable – somewhere that future generations can succeed. I don’t understand why we can’t learn to celebrate this creativity, to recognise their agency, rather than seeing it as a threat.

The victim narrative paints the picture of someone who is utterly useless once they arrive in their host country: they’re all take and no give, which is the opposite of the experience I have had as I’ve gotten to know refugees in Sweden and Jordan.