It is now well established that refugee claimants tend to be overly represented as a uniform group. In parallel, victimhood and powerlessness, experiences of violence and repression have progressively gained particular attention in exploring contemporary displacements. These manners of framing refugees’ experiences entered collective imaginaries attached to a series of preconceived representations that are not questioned anymore. These imaginaries permeate the literature on migration, which uses to privilege certain viewpoints, understandings, categories and voices that can be reckoned as “dominant”.
By using insights from our ongoing research, we aim to problematize these dominant frameworks - victimhood in one way and violent displacement in the other - to understand migratory experiences. In particular, the research project on women during the current refugee status determination (RSD) program in Canada as well as the experiences of Syrian students and entrepreneurs having migrated to Belgium before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in 2011 are two good examples to explore what we reckon as neglected analytical perspectives.
Between victimhood and neglected processes
As a starting point, we question some dominant viewpoints we have confronted in building our fieldwork and its analysis. In the first case, the non-taking into consideration of the gendered aspects of the different trajectories in the RSD process is put forward. How gender intersects with other axes of social division in shaping the experiences of each woman is crucial in this respect; however not always considered. In the second case, it is the building of refugeehood as an extraordinary experience of displacement as framing the understanding of Syrian migration that is the starting point. In particular, 2011 is an essential moment where violence, persecution and repression turned out to be the main arguments to shape the Syrian migration trajectory, neglecting other forms of experiences. Noting the limitations of these perspectives, we aim to explore other possibilities for approaching migration processes by confronting them in our respective fieldwork.
In the first case, using an intersectional and postcolonial feminist framework to approach the field, the case study highlighted different and multiple migratory experiences that cannot be summarized in a single image of women having similar experiences of powerless victims. Whereas intersectionality has emphasized how gender shapes experience differently along race/ethnicity, class, and other axes of social division, postcolonial feminism has notably stressed the importance of colonial context in analysis and knowledge production. The interviews conducted in the light of these perspectives illuminate diverse experiences, among which we take here the example of low-quality and abusive counsel that almost half of the women respondents had experienced. Contrary to their representations as victims only, all of them took actions in this regard although their experience in doing so much varied, as the testimonies of Emily and Valentine (pseudonyms) illustrate: while both have children, Emily claimed asylum with her husband (who offered support) and Valentine was single and pregnant at the time. Emily, fluent in English and a lawyer in her country of origin, could find help through her coworker and could change lawyer before the asylum process went too far. Valentine, on her side, mentioned her difficulties because she was not speaking English very well. She also appeared more isolated than Emily and only decided to change lawyer after receiving an unfavourable decision on her case. Making these particularities visible allows for a better understanding of the diversity of women’s experiences and of tackling the specific difficulties each face.
In the second case, Syrian migration is rather focused on the experience of refugee claimants, who are asked to reconstruct their trajectories, explain their political position, and show traumatic trials. Rather than circumscribing the definition of displacement as a forced and violent escape, a longer-term approach to Syrian displacement (1970-2010) could help grasp a multitude of relations to politics and displacement beyond any univocal interpretation. Approaching Syrians who migrated to Belgium in the 1970s and 1990s showed actors who do not fit into the category of dissidents of power, revolutionaries, or victims with a particularly violent background. Exploring such heterogeneous experiences lets to consider displacement as an ordinary act, broadening the processes through which we apprehend it. While choosing to collect their trajectories, the fieldwork showed how these Syrians' educational and entrepreneurial experiences before 2011 appeared not only as neglected political processes to explore but uninteresting and inadequate processes to witness. Victimization, repression and polarization exacerbated by the Syrian crisis frame the field of apprehension of Syrian actors. Being a witness or a victim turned to act as a legitimate lens to think of their personal past experiences.
These insights from both fieldworks showed how dominant perspectives contribute to delineating the experiences and migration processes to explore. Researching women’s asylum experiences through an intersectional and postcolonial feminist lens has opened the door to several dimensions of analysis, allowing the recognition of diverse experiences and the participants themselves as possible agents whose opportunities are diverse and shaped by the context in which they evolve. Approaching Syrian mobility practices before 2011 challenges the borders of political narratives dealing with Syrian migration, actors, processes and interpretations. Challenging dominant perspectives is not just a matter of changing the focus, approaching different actors and silenced voices. Instead, it is about broadening the questions beyond victimhood or repression, imagining neglected processes differently, and exploring and rigorously analyzing them beyond any dominant theoretical and methodological perspective.
Charlotte Dahin has a background in law (BA, MA, LL.M) and is now pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her research focuses on the refugee status determination process, the decisions that refugee claimants take regarding their case's legal and procedural aspects, and their relations with lawyers. She also works as a teaching assistant at the University Saint-Louis – Bruxelles, Belgium, and the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.
Virginia Fanny Faccenda is a teaching assistant in political science and PhD candidate at the Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles and a member of the OMAM (Observatoire des Mondes Arabes et Musulmanes) at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. Her research focuses on the government of mobility of Syrians to Belgium from 1970 to 2010. Her research interests are Migration and Exile, Government of Mobility, Syria, Memory, and Violence.