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The Political Agency of Refugees

Cindy_Horst_tcm249-762996By Matea Curcovic Westendorp        Dr. Cindy Horst is an anthropologist located in Oslo, Norway where she works as a senior researcher at the research institute PRIO. Her main focus for the past 20 years has been on refugees – from spending two years in a refugee camp in Kenya researching Somali refugees, to more recently collecting life stories from refugees residing in Oslo.

Horst began by telling about where her inspiration for studying refugees has come from. Today’s refugee studies put much focus on ethnicity and national identity, something she is not very pleased with. Instead she proposes that it be looked at as civic engagement. An example she used was a Somali doctor living in Norway. Would she be volunteering at Doctors without Borders because she is of a Somali background, or because they are a doctor and wish to help other people? This type of engagement should be viewed as human, rather than categorized according to ethnicity or other identity classifications.

Current discourse views refugees as migrants, as a subcategory of migration – people on the move, something Horst finds problematic. What she has gathered through her years of studying refugees is that it is not necessarily the crossing of borders that has the most impact on refugees, but that their human rights have been violated and have gone unparalleled.

Another subject within this topic that is of interest to Horst is refugees as political subjects. She keeps asking herself, what is it that inspires people to stand up to conflicts? Many of the first wave refugees during a conflict are from the political elite, and they continue to be politically active once they have left the conflict. The reasons they leave is because they are at risk for having their human rights violated ‘as a consequence of who they are and what they believe’. As mentioned previously, Horst argues that viewing them as migrants is ambiguous, as generally unforced migrants do not flee from prosecution or human rights abuses.

Through the hundreds of life histories that Horst has collected over her career she has stumbled upon the term radical uncertainty. Studying people in transition has been a common topic amongst anthropologists, none the least people moving from conflict and displacement. One needs to reconfigure the way this type of transition has been viewed – firstly there are the unfolding of events. They happen fast, people experience violence from neighbors, former friends and at times even family. In situations like these people are forced to take risks where information is scarce and unreliable, choices need to be made based on nothing. There is a lot of fear during these times, which leads to extreme uncertainty – radical uncertainty. This suffering and long term negotiation of uncertainty however also creates opportunities. It is linked to openness, at some point this uncertainty that has tainted a person’s life leaves room for innovation and transformation.

Horst asks herself what happens when this conversion takes place, and how to people use it. ‘When social and moral order is challenged after conflict, it involves negotiation between different groups social norms and it transgresses not only politically, but also in terms of age, gender and so forth’. It is in this period that people try to create change, from their new home country as well as from within their old homes. Horst mentions Robbins (2013) and his proposition about the anthropology of good. In his article, Robbins (2013) writes about the paradigmatic shift occurring in anthropology where the focus is moving away from suffering towards the good, hope and care. He argues it is a deliberate and value based choice to explore the good, to look forward instead of keeping eyes behind you. It looks at hope and change and the individuals role within that.

What keeps Horst busy at the moment is trying to find where this agency come from in certain people, and why it does occur in some individuals and not others. What is it that makes a refugee who has witnessed murder, rape and destruction, turn around and focus on the good and a wish to make a change? Horst acknowledges that tremendous bravery is necessary – ‘they are so brave’ she exclaims. I am compelled to agree with her, bravery must be an imperative component to any decision made under such duress.

Horst ends her lecture by arguing these life stories provide a much needed counter narrative to the public image of refugees. It shows their vulnerability, their ability to survive and navigate through horrendous events. The media shows a lot of suffering around refugees, but a fuller picture is needed to show what it really means to be a refugee. Their political agency  as change makers is missing from the news outlets. Refugees’ political agency is imperative.

Weblecture Cindy Horst (21 April 2016, VU Amsterdam): Understanding Refugees as Political Subjects: What an ‘Anthropology of the Good’ Can Contribute.

Matea Curcovic Westendorp is a third year bachelor student Social and Cultural Anthropology, VU Amsterdam. 


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