The meanings of 'refugee'
Institut für Soziologie Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Germany
There is no homogenous understanding of the concept of "refugee". Some authors have been using the term as a symbol for worthlessness and lack of rights. In her well known essay "We Refugees", Hannah Arendt describes the condition of refugee as person without a country. The refugee as the one who has lost all rights shows the worthlessness of human being. Giorgio Agamben adopts this notion from Arendt, comparing the refugee with the homo sacer. This figure symbolizes the status of naked life, of someone who is called 'sacred' in the sense of the ancient Roman law which stated that the person was destined to die.
Zygmunt Bauman even identifies refugees as 'human waste', persons that have become redundant in their own societies and thus lost their right to remain there. All these interpretations underline the hopelessness of marginal subjects. In contrast to this, 'refugee' also designates a legal label and a codified definition following the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention has an understanding of refugee which focuses on governmental persecution based on a number of reasons (e.g. religion, race). This definition has an impact on opportunities and interpretations for those people who are classified as refugees. The Geneva convention originates from a certain historical context - the post-World War II era. Influenced by the experiences of war, its definition does not cover a number of other causes of flight (such as natural disasters), and it fails to take into account the situation of those refugees who do not have the chance to leave their country of origin. Thus, a large number of persons who are in a situation of flight today are not refugees in terms of the convention. This raises a number of questions: How do migrants use the legal label refugee? What meanings do they assign to it? Do these migrants describe themselves as marginal subjects? Empirical research shows that migrants have different ways to employ the label. My contribution focuses on the different meanings of the term and concept of 'refugee' by contrasting political, academic and migrants interpretations.