top of page

The displacement paradox: Legitimising rightlessness in the refugee regime


Judith Kohlenberger -- (c) Doro Blancke.jpg

Picture by Doro Blancke, courtesy of the author.

‘So, have you ever been to a refugee camp?’


I have been publicly asked this question far more often than one might think – or hope. During interviews, on panels or after lectures – there appears to be a thinly veiled desire to get a direct report on ‘how these people are really doing’. The person asking this question usually means to ask about how bad they are really doing, as if this was absolutely indispensable for legitimising and substantiating my (unfortunately only data- and facts-driven) talking points on international refugee protection, European migration policy or the dynamics of global migration movements. It seems that some participants and attendees, however well-meaning, only respond to images depicting the helplessness of exposed children in mud, cold and dirt, of pregnant women in utter despair, of asylum seekers in prison-like complexes without them ever having committed a crime. To those attendees, only these images drive down the message that we really need a complete overhaul of the existing refugee regime.


Clearly, the question about refugee camp visits obscures the questions that should actually be asked. The focus should not be on questions about alms, nor on acts of mercy and charity, but about rights – rights that were fought for with blood, sweat, tears, and that emerged from the turmoil of two World Wars, precisely so that the circumstances of abject camps in Moria or Calais would no longer be possible. If their rights were upheld, refugees would no longer have to endure the most adverse conditions for months on end. They would no longer become the plaything of diplomatic disputes between adverse states, nor would they be turned away at borders or driven off with brute force. Yet, this is exactly what is happening at the gates of Europe and the United States. It is about rights that are first systematically taken away from people seeking refuge, and whose suffering, caused by this very lack of rights, is then to be alleviated by charity.


I argue that this absurdity, among many other facets of the global refugee regime, is only made possible because that regime is characterised by central paradoxes that make a solution to the European ‘refugee question’ both unthinkable and unfeasible from the outset. Our narratives around displacement and refuge are fundamentally contradictory, yet immanent to the system they help to maintain. Within the existing paradox, whose dénouement must be prevented if Fortress Europe is to be upheld, the refugee question cannot be answered, nor can conditions of protection and reception be improved. 

Let me briefly describe these paradoxes that characterise our discourse around displacement and flight, and that essentially follow Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘aporia of human rights’.

  1. The asylum paradox, or the impossibility of legal access to (the right to) asylum, as a result of which refugees have to ‘break the law’ to access their rights, i.e. enter a state without an asylum title to apply for it within the borders of that state.

  2. The refugee paradox, or the vulnerable, but efficient refugee, who is both in need of protection and highly self-sufficient; and

  3. The integration paradox, or the conflict inherent in the heavily charged figure of the refugee, who, once successfully integrated into the host society as required, fuels heated debates about fairness, social mobility, representation and visibility.


These paradoxes present themselves along the actual and symbolic journey that refugees undergo. This can be from the moment of departure and attempted entry in the destination country, to their reception and constitution as ‘refugees’ in the host society, to their partly implicitly, partly vehemently demanded ‘integration’ into its social, economic and cultural fabric. In between, many paradoxical moments reveal themselves on a small scale, essentially stemming from and in turn reinforcing the big three. Each action within the displacement paradox only perpetuates and further entrenches it. Existing interventions, be they local aid, humanitarian intervention or political activism, must move within the narrow limits of this paradox and therefore seldom accomplish more than symptom control. 


Within the morally-charged paradox of displacement, both systemic-political and personal-individual decisions can only be made under the fundamental conditions of contradictoriness that accompany them. Thus, at its core, the paradox serves the legitimation of the status quo. As long as this is not recognised, it remains naturalised and heavily morally and symbolically charged.


At the same time, this is where the power of paradox lies. If its inherent absurdity does become recognised, it opens up alternative ways of seeing, thinking and acting. Conditions that have long become normalised are thus exposed as utterly absurd. To recognise a paradox means to become aware that things are not inevitable, in that they do not simply have to be as they are. It is only then that alternatives to the chasms of the present refugee regime become thinkable and feasible.

Judith Kohlenberger.jpg

Judith Kohlenberger

Judith Kohlenberger is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Social Policy, Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU). Her research focuses on forced migration and different dimensions of integration, including health and education. She is a co-author of the Displaced Persons in Austria Survey (DiPAS), one of the first European studies on the human capital of refugees in the fall of 2015, which was awarded the Kurt-Rothschild-Prize. Her work has been published in international journals such PLOS One, Refugee Survey Quarterly and Health Policy. Her new book, The Refugee Paradox, will be published in August 2022 by Kremayr & Scheriau.

Twitter: @J_Kohlenberger

puerro largo.png
bottom of page