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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.

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