Conversation between Dr Katarzina Grabska and PhD researcher Mahardhika Sjamsoeoed Sadjad
Kasia (K): There has been a dominant focus in the media and in policy discourses over the past three years on the situation of refugees and migrants to Europe and the US. The situation has been framed in terms of a crisis. Why do you think so much attention has been given to refugee and migrant flows towards Europe when the majority of migrants and refugees remain within the so-called Global South?
Dhika (D): Even though about 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries, the ‘refugee crisis’ exists in the west because that’s where news, knowledge and information are produced and shaped. The tragedy of 9/11 has left a strong sense of insecurity in the Global North. As a result, migration has largely been perceived from a security lens, as the majority of refugees are often identified as young Muslim men of colour who are portrayed as threats.
K: I agree. Identities are now being framed in the European and American context – a very anti-Muslim, anti-‘other’ discourse. Also, the 1951 Convention has been criticised for being very Euro-centric and often not applicable to other contexts. How do you think debates about refugees and migration, but also policies addressing refugee protection, are being shaped in the Indonesian context?
D: Some refugees are protected by organisations like UNHCR and IOM, but generally there is little protection for refugees in Indonesia. The government claims to uphold international customary law of non-refoulement,
but this is not necessarily followed with policies and practices that uphold refugees’ basic rights. UNHCR recently told refugees in Indonesia that they might have to stay for another 15-20 years before they can be resettled to a third country and some may end up staying permanently in Indonesia. This makes them very vulnerable. This is a knock-on effect because Australia, the intended destination for many refugees that pass through Indonesia, has very strict border policies and bilateral agreements to keep refugees in neighbouring countries, including Indonesia.
Refugees …either a security threat or a humanitarian cause
K: What you’re saying is very relevant to many other contexts such as EU policies on externalizing refugee protection outside of European borders and blocking migratory routes towards Europe. In the context of Sudan, the EU is and has been very active in building these kinds of frontiers on the borders between Sudan and Libya, or on the borders with Eritrea or Ethiopia. The result is that many people are arrested, detained, refouled or stuck, and often have to use even more dangerous routes to reach their destinations. While Sudan and many other countries in Africa and the Middle East are criticised for their treatment of refugees, it is often not reported that they also host the largest groups of refugees and migrants.
What I find is that even in countries where the 1951 Refugee Convention has not been ratified, those seeking refuge are allowed to stay and survive in one way or another. This allows them to manoeuvre the system much more than in Europe or the US where people are very much labelled or categorized.
D: A criminal prisoner often has more rights than a refugee who can be detained for an unlimited period without trial.
K: Exactly. Another point is that we get the impression that most refugees and other migrants coming to Europe are young Muslim men and pose a threat to the imagined Christian heritage of Europe. How are migration and refugee flows portrayed as threatening in the Asian context?
D: When Rohingya refugees became stranded in Indonesia in 2015, people expressed a strong sense of solidarity. Meanwhile refugees from other countries don’t receive as much attention. A few months ago there was
a news article from South Sulawesi that raised concern that young refugee men were causing a moral decline by having affairs with local women. The news story portrayed these young men as threats to family values as in Indonesia adultery is against the law.
K: This brings us to an interesting comparison. In Sudan, the migrants and refugees who are perceived as threatening morality are the women because they are seen as corrupting or seducing men. There was a case of a young Ethiopian woman, 17 years old, who was raped by six young Sudanese men who recorded the rape and posted the recording on social media. Yet this woman was put into jail as the perpetrator for breaking Sudanese public order.
She had to confess and was sentenced. So what we see is the use of gender, religion, colour, race, ethnicity as expressions of national morality, making divisions between the other and us, and how the other threatens our moral values.
D: When we look at refugees we look at them as either a security threat or a humanitarian cause, without considering pre-existing notions of patriarchy, gender relations, patriotism and nationalism, and pre-existing ideas about who the state is responsible for. This complicates the dichotomy between a security threat and someone who deserves humanitarian aid, because often someone can be both, or neither.
K: That brings us to our last question. How do we as researchers show that the situation of refugees is so much more complex than simplifications of refugees as security threats or humanitarian beneficiaries?
D: I think a big challenge researchers face is that what is factual is not always popular. There are a lot of preconceived notions about refugees and other migrants that need to be critically discussed. For example, they are often perceived as a burden to the economy, despite research that shows the opposite. It’s a complicated puzzle, not something we can adequately cover here.
K: No, but it’s an important discussion to have.
Katarzyna Grabska a social anthropologist. She completed her PhD in Development Studies/Anthropology at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK in 2010. Since 2002, her research has focused on gender, generation, youth, displacement, refuges, return, and identities.
Mahardhika (Dhika) S. Sadjad is a PhD candidate from Indonesia. She is currently doing research on institutional and social discourses on refugee reception in Indonesia.