Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How do refugees adapt to realise their aspirations for (im)mobility?

ROUNDTABLE: Refugees dream about their future in order to give shape and meaning to their journeys, yet this often counts against them in public discourse.

6 July 2020
'I miss my family' – Syrian refugees demonstrate in Berlin in 2015.
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ekvidi/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc)

Refugees confront restrictions in every area of life, from the rules governing their stay in a specific territory to where, when, and how much they are able to work. Legal and de facto restrictions make it more difficult for them to achieve their aspiration of either settling down in a certain place or moving on.

However, many refugees have found creative ways to cope with the hostile environments surrounding them. Some of these coping mechanisms are unsafe or entail risk, but they allow individuals to adapt to their surroundings – to eat, improve their financial resources, cross checkpoints, and build up solidarity networks, etc.

In this last question, we have asked our contributors to explain which coping strategies refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants use to realise their aspiration to stay or move on, and when and how they have failed.

Weam Ghabash

Weam Ghabash is a Syrian Woman Human Rights Defender who has been working for six years for local and regional NGOs supporting displaced women and people in Lebanon and Syria. She currently works with Women Now for Development. She is a board member of Syrian Women League, the oldest feminist NGO in Syria, and co-founder of the Intersectional Feminist Collective (IFC).

Syrian refugees in Lebanon engage in positive and negative coping strategies. These include the normalisation of exploitative working conditions, eating cheaper food, incurring debts, and child labour. Refugees also limit their daily movements, decide to migrate to another country, or even return to Syria. Since people all over Syria launched a peaceful revolution in March 2011, over 500,000 people have been killed in the war that followed and over 5.6 million people have sought refuge in surrounding countries according to UNHCR. Most of the Syrian refugees we have worked with at Women Now for Development (WNfD) in Lebanon state that they are stuck in the midpoint between return to Syria, staying in Lebanon, or leaving to another country.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon found different ways to reshape their aspirations after their lives were interrupted. Many participants in our programmes face great uncertainty about their futures and often feel that their situation is out of their control. Social integration has emerged as a salient coping strategy to aid them in overcoming their challenges. More negatively, they also resign themselves to their current situation and accept to work in conditions of stark economic exploitation, where they face long working hours and very low wages. In the face of this, faith and religion also serve as coping mechanisms to soothe pain and keep themselves mentally strong.

To make up for economic shortcomings, they also begin to eat cheaper food, incur debts, and send their children to work. A recent UNHCR study revealed that 88% of Syrian refugee households had debts, with the average household debt increasing from 800 USD in 2016 to over 1,000 USD in 2018. Women and girls are often the most affected by negative coping mechanisms, as they face restrictions on movement or self-imposed isolation, aversion to accessing services, victim-blaming, suicide and violence against children.

Syrian refugees fear returning to Syria for a host of reasons, and so many limit their movements to small areas around their place so that they do not have to pass checkpoints that might deport them back to Syria. Access Center for Human Rights has so far documented 29 cases of forced deportation. Additionally, in a situation where all possible borders are closed, some try to leave the country by reaching out to smugglers, even if it is illegal and risky. Others even decide to return back to Syria although it is still unsafe. According to a recent study by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, at least 638 people who have returned have subsequently disappeared, and fifteen of them were killed under torture. Most families who decide to return send their women and children first while men stay in Lebanon.

Most participants in our programmes state that the social support they receive not only helps them to normalise their experiences and feelings, but also empowers them to reach out and find solutions for their problems through the social support networks they have built in our community centres.

Reinhard Schweitzer & Laura Cleton

Reinhard Schweitzer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Vienna. Laura Cleton is a doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp.

Asylum seekers whose asylum claims were rejected in Austria and the Netherlands and who are threatened by removal can rely on a range of coping strategies to realise their actual aspirations to stay. These include destroying their papers or going underground: some asylum seekers destroy or hide their identity documents and refuse cooperation during identification procedures, often before or during the asylum application process. As neither ‘voluntary’ return nor deportation can take place before the returnee’s nationality is established, this strategy at minimum buys them time to make further plans.

The moment at which most rejected asylum seekers decide to go underground and remove themselves from the state’s sight is when their appeal rights are exhausted. Rather than engaging with a system that they know will try to return them, they disengage, leave the reception centre, and disappear. Despite the fact that their continued residence in Europe without legal status in many cases increases their vulnerability, many prefer this situation to the prospect of leaving. Research has also shown that some migrants also use ‘assisted voluntary return’ programmes strategically, temporarily relocating to their countries of prior residence with the intention to re-migrate later on.

These coping strategies oppose the aims of AVR policies, which seek to return and ‘reintegrate’ those denied the right to stay. What is noteworthy about AVR in this context is that its very logic opens additional possibilities for resistance. This has to do with two crucial requirements of AVR: first, that return must be based on a ‘voluntary choice’, which can be revoked at any moment; and second, that the return procedure itself does not involve physical force. Some rejected asylum seekers use the time afforded to them by the AVR process to instead make plans about how to prolong their residence or how to move elsewhere. By seemingly changing their mind about returning at the last moment, they can then not only delay their effective departure but sometimes even manage to abscond from the return process.

"I feel much better here in Kiyv, it is like a sip of fresh air!"

Maria Shaidrova

Maria Shaidrova is a PhD researcher at the Tilburg Law School.

Internal migration between different regions and cities is often a vital coping strategy for those escaping violence, especially in wars where regions become identified as belonging to different political sides in the conflict. Eastern Ukrainians suffering from armed conflict for the last six years used this strategy to find a place where they not only felt safe, but also to find a new place to belong. Although international in its nature, the Ukrainian conflict is characterised by an explicit ethnic component (Ukrainian-Russian; West-East). As in many ethnicity-driven conflicts, the feeling of belonging when moving internally is very important.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the internally displaced people I encountered in Kyiv and Kharkiv emphasised their aspiration to belong. Kyiv, the capital of independent Ukraine, a patriotic city that gave birth to the pro – EU protests in 2014, was more appealing to those IDPs who identified as Ukrainians. Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, hosted a large number of IDPs because of its proximity to the warzone. Although Kharkiv accommodated many IDPs, those identifying as Ukrainians did not prefer to stay in the city long term. As a former Soviet capital, Kharkiv has never given up on its Soviet identity making pro-Ukrainian IDPs feel less welcome. Therefore, belonging alongside with economic considerations made some IDPs change cities or return to their homes.

Tetiana, a chemistry teacher in eastern Ukraine, first moved to her summerhouse in a suburban area in order to seek refuge from the instability. As the shooting once again drew close they decided to relocate to Kharkiv, where they stayed for a year. Given her previous work experience, it was relatively easy for her to find a teaching job. However, it was ultimately her feeling of non-belonging in Kharkiv which made Tetiana migrate to Kyiv as a coping strategy. “Kharkov is full of Soviets, I felt suffocated,” she said. “I could not live there. Something changed in me. I could not stand anything that is Soviet after everything we went through. You know, here people speak Ukrainian during the classes and the breaks. I feel much better here in Kiyv, it is like a sip of fresh air!”

Kristina also relocated to Kharkiv as a result of the violence. But in contrast to Tetiana, her way of coping was ultimately to return to her small home town after many moves. Kristina first left with her family to her relatives in a neighbouring region, which was occupied but quieter. However, due to divergent political views within the family – her relatives identified as Russian or pro-Russian in the conflict and she as Ukrainian – they were often quarrelling. Kristina finally decided to return home despite the danger.

Once again under threat, the family eventually decided to move and settle in Kharkiv. Due to the overwhelming number of IDPs in the city, it was very difficult for Kristina and her husband to make ends meet. At the same time, Kristina did not feel that she belonged in Kharkiv. After years of struggling, she decided to return home again. Against all odds, returning provided her with a possibility to realise her emotional and career aspirations: the return gave Kristina peace, familiar surroundings, and even encouraged her creativity. After successfully completing a photography course, Kristina is now working as a freelance photographer in her small town.

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