Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

How do refugees' aspirations and vulnerabilities interact?

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
Syrian refugees in Turkey in 2016.
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European Parliament/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)

Refugees are more associated with vulnerability than with aspirations. However, aspirations are crucial to understanding why refugees are ready to undertake dangerous journeys. Not only the aspiration to survive, but the dreams of having a new home, of joining a family member, or of being able to study drive refugees to risk it all to change their lives. These aspirations are without doubt shaped by an individual’s vulnerabilities. An individual with few resources, for example, can rarely afford passage out of the country. If they can, the journey will certainly be dangerous. Yet if they are experiencing poverty, violence, or degrading circumstances where they are, these vulnerabilities are likely to nourish their aspirations as well as the determination to realise them at any cost.

Those escaping war and crisis find themselves willing to face all kinds of risks in order to reach a safe destination where they can imagine building a life. But people have their limits. Trauma and poverty can negatively affect people’s capacity to aspire as well. Refugees who have lived in a camp for years or who have been tortured may become hopeless – unable to dream about the future let alone act to realise those dreams.

In this part of the roundtable, we invite our contributors to shed light on the interaction between vulnerability and aspirations through their research and work.

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.

Rejected asylum seekers are required to return to their alleged countries of origin. For them, the tensions between their life aspirations and the vulnerabilities that come with their precarious legal situation are particularly clear. Instead of authorising them to realise their aspirations, the state presents the option of ‘voluntary return’ as the only reasonable way out of their vulnerable situation in Europe. If they decide to stay without official permission they might be able to realise their aspirations, but only at the risk of further increasing their vulnerability as well.

At least in Europe, rejected asylum seekers are the main target of so-called assisted voluntary return (AVR) policies. These programmes are commonly framed as a more humane, dignified and less violent alternative to deportation, while both measures essentially serve the same goal: to ensure the effective return of those denied the right to stay (or who decide to leave but lack the means to do so). But in contrast to deportation, policies of ‘voluntary return’ explicitly appeal to the underlying life aspirations and vulnerable situations of rejected asylum seekers by offering them ‘re-integration’ assistance. AVR policies are framed by the state as both a way out of a vulnerable situation in Europe and an opportunity to realise alleged life aspirations in their country of nationality. This framing of AVR obscures the facts that: a) the vulnerability of rejected asylum seekers is very often a direct or indirect result of them being denied legal status; and b) ‘voluntary return’ policies themselves rely on accompanying measures that create or reinforce this vulnerability in order to appear as an attractive option.

Of course, not all rejected asylum seekers decide to return to their countries of nationality. Many choose to remain in Europe without authorisation despite the ‘hostile environment’ policies that many European states have instituted to dissuade them from doing this. These measures combine the termination of state support (e.g. in the form of social security or housing) with the threat of detention or the obligation to reside in detention-like accommodation. They also include sanctions for employers who hire rejected asylum seekers, usually in construction, agriculture, or other low-paid sectors of the economy.

Although policy makers seem to believe that these measures encourage return, they rather drive people underground and thereby increase their risk of destitution, exclusion from basic rights and services, as well as exploitation. It is well-documented that people without legal status find work, but that work frequently takes place under degrading or exploitative conditions as well as the constant fear of being reported (by their employers) to the immigration authority. For the same reason, many rejected asylum seekers are afraid to seek social or medical assistance, even where they would be formally entitled to such services.

In other words, restrictive migration policies create extremely vulnerable situations for those who decide to disobey them. At the same time, rejected asylum seekers who manage to endure such situations can sometimes realise at least some of their actual aspirations. This includes providing education for their children and earning enough money to support family members in their country of nationality. If they manage to survive the hostile environment for long enough, they may even be able to open up possibilities for regularisation of their presence in Europe on the basis of social ties, long-term residence, or other humanitarian grounds.

Lea Müller-Funk

Lea Müller-Funk is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

Apart from considerations for safety, how people want to live their lives is crucial for how they think about migration in a conflict context. However, there are limits to the capacity to aspire and realise aspirations as war and displacement reveal and reinforce inequalities. The amount of research detailing the vulnerabilities of refugees could fill libraries but relatively few scholars have attempted to understand refugees’ aspirations, ambitions and dreams.

In my research, I have tried to find out how Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey have experienced their lives in light of the difficult circumstances they face. Unsurprisingly I found that many respondents saw their previous life plans deeply shattered and interrupted by the conflict and displacement. More interesting, however, was the wide variety of ways in which they dealt with it.

They naturally all had plans for their life before the conflict: lead a life according to one’s principles, get married and start a family, have a social life, own a house, study, find a decent job. Many of the refugees I interviewed also talked about aspirations linked to the Syrian revolution, and their dream to help change Syria’s political system to one with more justice, accountability, and freedom. People I talked to had seen the world they knew break down in Syria and had experienced traumatic experiences – the loss of loved ones, imprisonment, kidnappings, killings, torture, hunger and poverty.

People frequently resisted the idea of fleeing Syria and tried to stay as long as possible in the country. “I was never thinking of leaving Syria before the events,” one said. “One is happy in one’s country. I lived happily, you can go wherever you want in your country.” However, the war started to deeply affect their daily life. Everyday movements started to be heavily restricted through violence in the streets, regular bombings, and military checkpoints, which presented especially a danger for men who went into hiding because they did not want to be compelled to serve in the military. This immobility was also an obstacle to life aspirations – it made going to university, having a social life, or simply continuing to work extremely difficult. Many respondents described their lives as simply stopping, that they left “to continue their future”.

Yet, for many, displacement to Turkey and Lebanon did not offer them a chance to fulfil their life plans. Instead it caused a dramatic loss of social status. The restrictive legal environment in both countries made realising their aspirations extremely difficult – access to a legal status, to work, to decent housing, or to education was neither easy nor cheap. Some interviewees found ways to manoeuvre this hostile context despite working in exploitative jobs. Others had experiences and encounters that transformed what they had initially imagined for their life. “I don’t want to return as a housewife,” one explained. “No. I want to work and do something. (…) It’s like we say: ‘it’s a misfortune but something good came out of it’.”

Still others longed to leave to another country or to return to Syria – often imagining to be able to return to previous life plans and a lost lifestyle. Yet some respondents also lived in such dire conditions that surviving the present had become their only concern. They often expressed their loss of hope in humankind and the future more globally. One such person told me, “I swear, I don’t imagine anything, every day comes as it comes, darker than before. We are afraid of the days to come.”

Although the aspiration of safety is something expected among displaced by war individuals, it turns out that dreams rarely stop there.

Maria Shaidrova

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

When we think of forced displacement due to armed conflict (e.g., in Syria), we often associate it with overcrowded refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. However, far more displacement as the result of acute conflict remains internal – most people never do leave. Similar to international mobility, internal migration has its own dynamics. It is not mere A-to-B movement but a path with many stops. At each point migrants find themselves in different circumstances, and these circumstances shape their ability to aspire and what they aspire about. At the beginning aspirations are usually limited to the immediate needs of safety and security. But as people make it farther down the path of internal displacement they start to contemplate more long-term, economically driven considerations that might push them to cross the borders.

I define aspirations as the ability to dream, plan, and make decisions to achieve these dreams. Is it possible to dream when fleeing a warzone? I explored this question with internally displaced people in Ukraine. In 2016, the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy registered up to 1.5 million Ukrainian IDPs who migrated from conflict-affected areas in the East (Luhansk and Donetsk regions) and Crimea to the peaceful parts of Ukraine.

When I asked IDPs about their main considerations prior fleeing the area of the active fighting, I learned that their first move was mainly a spontaneous reaction to the dangers of the conflict. As Maria (32) described it to me, “At one moment I just took a small bag and put all things I ironed in it. Then, I went to the bus station, I did not know exactly where I was going, I had to go away from that place to feel safe”.

In some cases personal circumstances increased the need for planning, even at this initial stage. For example, families with small children tried to arrange their move when the danger became subjectively close, but not acute. Many of the IDPs considered the conflict a “short term phenomenon”, making other aspirations than safety of less importance. However, once the IDPs found themselves in safer surroundings and realised that the conflict had no defined end, their aspirations changed.

So, what did they dream about? Due to the ethnic tensions between the east and the west of Ukraine, IDPs longed to live in the place where they ‘belonged’ and were not discriminated against. They aspired to have well-paid jobs and provide better futures for their children. Younger people were looking for new careers and educational opportunities offered by larger cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv. None of the youngsters considered coming back to less developed industrial towns in the east. Families with children focused their aspirations on providing a better future for their children, whereas older people against all odds preferred to stay closer to the conflict-affected areas and aspired to eventually return to their homes.

Although the aspiration of safety is something expected among displaced by war individuals, it turns out that dreams rarely stop there.

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).

When Tahani and her husband were forced to flee from Syria, they had dreamed of building up a family, of her continuing her education, establishing a small business together, and registering their two children in a good school. They ended up in Lebanon due to the restrictive asylum policies of most countries, which prevented the family from seeking asylum somewhere else. It’s impossible for her to return back to Syria as her city is almost completely destroyed and her husband is wanted for the reserve military service.

However, Tahani did not give up her dreams. She started to come to the community centres run by Women Now for Development (WNfD), where women and girls are supported with economic empowerment, protection, and advocacy activities to enhance their role in public life and participate in rebuilding Syria in the future. Due to the bad economic and legal conditions for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Tahani had minimised her priorities to focus on finding a decent job to feed her children. Many doors were being closed in front of her husband. She decided to participate in economic empowerment projects at WNfD and other NGOs until she finds an opportunity to pursue her education.

As an empowerment programme manager for WNfD, I meet tens of women like Tahani every day at our centres in the Beqaa, where 36% of Syrians registered with UNHCR reside. Those women and girls have to look for alternatives every day to meet their aspirations while negotiating many specific vulnerabilities. Gender-based violence is high in Syrian refugee communities, including child marriage, intimate partner violence, sexual violence (rape, sexual harassment, exploitation and assault), and forced marriage. And in Lebanon, there is no free, easily accessible, and comprehensive public health service available for Syrian refugees.

WNfD tries to provide them with some alternatives, for example by offering vocational and educational services to help them access the labour market. Only around 10% of Syrian women in the Beqaa are employed. We prioritise women who are at the head of their households, as these households typically suffer from higher levels of poverty and food insecurity than men-headed households. These conditions leave Syrian women especially vulnerable to sexual and economic exploitation, including ‘survival sex’ and seeking alternatives for protection and empowerment opportunities. Again, the specific life circumstances of Syrian women are telling of the coexistence of refugees’ vulnerabilities and capacities of aspiring for a better future.

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