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Cultures of Exile and the Experience of «Refugeeness»

Stephen Dobson

Refugee research and debate have focused on international agreements, border controls and the legal status of asylum seekers. The lived, daily life of refugees in different phases of their flight has thus been unduly neglected. How have refugees experienced policies of reception and resettlement, and how have they individually and collectively built up their own cultures of exile?
To answer these questions the author of this study has undertaken long-term fieldwork as a community worker in a Norwegian municipality. Refugees from Chile, Iran, Somalia, Bosnia and Vietnam were on occasions subjected to exclusionary and discriminatory practices. Nevertheless, restistance was seen in the form of a Somali women’s sewing circle, the organisation of a multi-cultural youth club, running refugee associations and printing their own language newspapers.
Moreover, in activities such as these, refugees addressed and came to terms with a limited number of shared existential concerns: morality, violence, sexuality, family reunion, belonging and not belonging to a second generation. Drawing upon these experiences a general theory of refugeeness is proposed. It states that the cultures refugees create in exile are the necessary prerequisite for self-recognition and survival.

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Part I – Discourses

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25 Part I Discourses 26 27 Chapter 1 The refugee in discourses of law, nation, gender, class, race and the mass ¿“no pesa el aire, aquí siempre es octubre”, o se lo dijo a otro que he perdido, o yo lo invento y nadie me lo ha dicho? Piedra de Sol, Octavio Paz (“the air’s so crisp here, it’s always October,” or was she speaking to another I’ve forgotten, or did I invent it and no one said it?) Refugees entering Norway, applying for asylum and desiring permission to reside, are defined and determined by a number of different, often overlapping discourses. These discourses are im- portant in the constitution of their self-identity as refugees and in their experience of refugeeness. In post-modern fashion it might be argued that they constitute the refugee. A working definition of the discourse is required, and I shall adopt Foucault’s: [.. .] sometimes using it to mean the general domain of all statements (énoncés), sometimes as an indivisible group of statements (énoncés), and sometimes as an ordered practice which takes account of a certain number of statements (énoncés). (Foucault, 1972: 20) The statements comprising the discourse are groups of signifiers and signified, and above all, they are active and performative – discourse, in the French discours, means to talk or converse. The discourses on refugees can be ‘not an expression of subjectivity, but rather the agency that produces subjectivity by positioning human beings as subjects.’ (Macey, 2000: 100) Accordingly, the second strand of argument...

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