The Cognitive Landscape of a Refugee Camp. Conversation part IV

Conversation part IV. To read previous rounds go to: The cognitive landscape of a refugee camppart I, part II and part III

Angela Zarro in response to Bethany Ojalehto and Jacob Akech

Bethany's article takes a close and hard look at the condition of being a refugee, going beyond any use of definitions and categories. The stories that Bethany tells, remind us that refugees are first and foremost people and like every human being, have their own cognitive psychological process. In other words, they are people with emotions, feelings, aspirations, fears, dreams, frustrations, traumas. Refugees are people who live in a space that is temporarily supposed to protect them but that works instead almost as a permanent enclosure with the ultimate effect of limiting their freedom. Following Bethany's contribution, I would like to shift the focus from the micro to the macro dimension of the equation, drawing attention to questions of political roles and responsibilities.

When it comes to dealing with human mobility and migration - be it at academic, policy or advocacy level - there is a growing tendency to read and interpret reality through the use of definitions and categories. Forced migrants, voluntary migrants, foreign communities, Diaspora, refugees, asylum seekers, displaced, environmental displaced, etc, can be useful definitions for legal or economic purposes. However an indiscriminate use of them may pave the way to the construction of mental ghettos which may in turn affect the perception that migrants and non migrants have of themselves and of others in society. What happens when people - including those who might be on the move for any number of reasons - do not fit such categories? What I mean is that the cognitive-psychological process of the entire society — within which people shape and recognize theirs and others' roles, attitudes, behaviours - gets affected generating cultural, social and political exclusion. When it comes to dealing with human mobility and migration, the reality is strikingly characterised by the dichotomy of: forced migration vs forced sedentarization. In both these situations — of people forced to stay (like IDPs and refugees) and people forced to move - the fundamental right of choice and thought is increasingly compromised. This is because of the callous conditions migrants are doomed to face either in camps, or during the journey, or at the arrival in the desired place of destination. Bethany interestingly points out that people in the camps do not lose their agency; rather they develop adaptive patterns to their new condition of life.

But what does a camp ultimately represent and imply for the rest of society — particularly for those looking at it from outside? What I want to stress here, is that refugees and the rest of the people on the move are likely to become the undesired new victims of political attempts to establish social order and political stability.

The quest for security may end up generating insecurity either mental, physical, political, etc. Camps, including refugee camps, are the emblems of this and the population — within and outside - is the major victim. To this extent it is necessary not to forget the experience of some refugee camps in Africa (ex. Uganda) as well as that of detention camps for undocumented migrants in southern Europe.

To my mind, migration and more generally people's circulation — in the way it is experienced today - is increasingly associated with grave forms of abuse of the freedom of choice, thought and decision. Images of lifeless bodies abandoned in the Sahara desert speak eloquently. However, this reality does not seem to have been fully understood yet.

Now, since I am less interested in conceptual speculations and more interested in the implications that political decisions may have on people and society from a development based point of view, my concern is on how to raise political awareness and to enhance people's understanding of such processes? How can the attention of policy-makers and society on those aspects be raised? Whether we talk of refugees, IDPs, or migrants, one compelling question is whether and how these people are granted the proper protection during their stay in camps, when they leave a camp, and/or when they arrive at their destination (if they do). How are the psychological implications of their experiences are taken in consideration, if at all? Whose political responsibility is this?

As the number of people on the move increases worldwide, border controls are tightened and migrantsí conditions are worsened, one may imagine that the world's proportion of people getting limitations in their choices and abuse of their freedom is doomed to grow. Is such a scenario acceptable and desirable? Builiding on the initial conversation between Bethany and Jacob, I would like to move the focus on the relation occurring between macro-policy decisions (with regards to refugees and migration) and the implications on people and society, in psychological terms. Refugees and migrants are not a side category, nor part of a different reality, simply because they live in a camp or in an urban/rural ghetto. They are and do represent a part of society. Their agency, their will, their experiences and their traumas do not remain confined in a camp. They affect all. Are we well aware of this?


Photo: Dr John2005