What is a refugee: an ontological exploration




Zuzunaga Zegarra, Daniela

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Refugee and migrant crises continue to make headlines, and media coverage of these events varies on the perceived legitimacy of the displacements. Displaced people are referred to as refugees, economic migrants, or illegal immigrants, and these labels are used interchangeably. The use of these labels begets the question: what is a “refugee”? In this thesis, the label of “refugee” gets unpacked outside of the boundaries of legal definitions. Migrant and refugee research point towards a core ontology and epistemology of belonging, sedentarism, that informs migration policy in the Global North. The adherence to sedentarism as a mode of belonging results in migration being constructed as inherently problematic and dangerous. The storytellers in this thesis express that being/becoming a “refugee” is not a universal experience, but a collection of feelings that are present in response to the phenomenon of being/becoming a refugee. The feelings the storytellers describe are based on sedentarist conceptions of belonging, where citizenship and nationality are expressed as key concepts in the development of identity and belonging. This thesis argues that the value of this knowledge rests not within legal/political change, but within the social sphere. The “refugee” label, as a tool to create and drive policy, is a prescriptive tool that can only act given a specific representation of the world, therefore change needs to be located outside policy boundaries in order to transgress sedentarist ontologies. Thus, I present alternatives for reshaping contemporary ontological conceptions of belonging and highlight the work of social justice movements in re-articulating the concept of citizenship and belonging.



Refugee, Immigration, Sedentarism, Postcolonial theory, Decolonization