So-called hosts: The myth of host communities
Local fruit shop in Canley Vale, Australia, during a walking interview in June 2019. Courtesy of Project Finding Home.
We often speak of ‘host communities’ when discussing displacement and migration in research, policy and practice. The term usually refers to citizens or established communities in countries and neighbourhoods who host new arrivals, including refugee-background individuals and families. The word ‘host’ implies welcome, hospitality and support. But who exactly are the hosts assisting newcomers in resettlement countries?
I recently completed a project using walking interviews with a small group of refugee-background women as co-researchers in Western Sydney, Australia, one of the most diverse areas in terms of ethnicities, religions and languages. The research proposal included interviewing members of so-called host communities – i.e. white Anglo-Australians, established migrants and their Australian-born descendants living in the same area – to understand how they interacted with co-researchers and refugee-background families more broadly, and whether host community attitudes shaped resettlement outcomes.
However, the co-researchers’ narratives indicated that relationships with so-called host communities were completely absent. Their entire networks were other families from the same background. One co-researcher said that she did not know a single white person. Families with shared ethnicity, religion or language had hosted these women and their families when they moved to Australia. In turn, co-researchers were actively hosting newly arrived families from similar backgrounds, even when they were relatively new arrivals themselves. This was a common experience across their networks. These women were in fact hybrid hosts; there was little distinction between being displaced (or a ‘guest’) and becoming a host, making the language of ‘host/guest’ superfluous in this context.
In Australia and other resettlement countries, there is a distinctive culture of inhospitality especially towards people seeking asylum. Messages of conditional hosting in the media and political rhetoric shape a damaging ‘good refugee’ narrative. Uncritical uses of the term ‘hosting’ can reinforce rather than disrupt political discourses about un/deserving refugees and ‘burden’ sharing. When notions such as hosting and hospitality are contested across contexts of exile, displacement and resettlement, it becomes crucial to identify who performs this labour. This can contribute to challenging the myth of host communities as a static, one-sided idea.
Based on the narratives that co-researchers shared during the walking interviews, a more accurate description of hosting reflects the gender-specific responsibilities of welcoming, housing, supporting and guiding families from similar backgrounds until such time they can extend the same gestures of hospitality towards newer arrivals. Trauma-informed practitioners and caseworkers – especially those from the same ethnic, religious or linguistic backgrounds – no doubt helped initially. But hosting was integral to the roles of refugee-background women in the same way they had themselves relied on informal support and extended family to adapt to new circumstances. These co-researchers and their families were in fact the host communities rather than white Anglo-Australians or established migrants and their Australian-born descendants.
The language of so-called host communities in research, policy and practice overshadows the gender-specific nature of hosting, offering only a partial understanding of the dynamics and relationships that lead to positive resettlement outcomes for refugee-background families. More importantly, the myth of host communities ignores women’s resilience, skills and capacities to navigate complex bureaucratic systems and negotiate social relationships in new settings. In sharp contrast with the country’s stubbornness to enforce policies of inhospitality, these women show determination through informal rituals of unconditional, genuine hospitality in their homes and communities as part of religious or culturally grounded norms of hosting. These gestures could range from buying groceries for families to acting as interpreters for newly arrived women at health appointments. The women did not need the political rhetoric to legitimise their practices.
The notion of refugee-background women as hybrid hosts aligns with the literature on women’s roles in ensuring cultural continuity in migration contexts, through acts performed in the private sphere and through childrearing. But hybrid hosting should not be romanticised. Co-researchers noted tensions linked to women’s expectations to host unconditionally, such as feeling emotionally burdened due to competing responsibilities, or having diverging ideas about how guests should express gratitude in response to being hosted.
I had never questioned the meaning of hosting before this project. Co-researchers’ stories led me to reflect on my uncritical use of the language of ‘host communities’ and to rethink my research design to disrupt rather than reinforce western thinking on hosting.
This article draws from the academic paper ‘Who is the host? Interrogating “hosting” from resettled refugee-background women’s perspectives’, which I co-authored with Josie Gardner (PhD Candidate, UNSW Sydney) and Rooan Al Kalmashi (a refugee-background co-researcher from the walking interview project), to be published in Journal of Intercultural Studies. We pay our respects to the Traditional Custodians of the Lands where our research and reflexive writing took place and acknowledge that sovereignty was never ceded.
Further reading and resources:
Nayeri, Dina. 2017. ‘The ungrateful refugee: “We have no debt to repay”’. The Guardian, 4 April. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/04/dina-nayeri-ungrateful-refugee
Project Finding Home. 2021. https://www.projectfindinghome.net/point-of-arrival-au/
Caroline Lenette lives and works on unceded Bedigal land. She is Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Caroline is the author of Arts-Based Methods in Refugee Research: Creating Sanctuary (Springer, 2019) and Participatory Action Research: Ethics and Decolonization (Oxford University Press, 2022).