The research explored identity, belonging and social action among refugee communities including Kosovan, Kurdish and Somali groups. The research used two participatory theatre techniques, Playback and Forum, in which people could narrate and perform and then subsequently reflect on their identities and their lives since coming to Britain, highlighting encounters of self, community, state and society.
We found out that:
Methodologically, using participatory theatre techniques produces a different kind of knowledge from that of other, more common social science research techniques, on the lives and problems confronting refugees settling in London. This knowledge is reflective, embodied, dialogical and illustrative, and therefore can be highly effective and affective in the dissemination of the findings to interested parties.
Theoretically, identity processes cannot be analysed as either individual or collective, but rather as inter-relational processes of in-between 'becoming's. These processes involve both narratives and performative practices which are continuously communicated, contested and authorized by self and others, and get fixated only within specific contexts of power, such as when subjected to specific discourses of the state.
In terms of the refugees' daily realities and their policy implications:
- Refugees cannot be seen as one homogenous group of people.
Their migration circumstances, processes of settling here and experiences of the British society differ. Also as a result of complex and shifting British immigration policies, they are in different legal relationships with the state in terms of rights and obligations. Different social locations, identifications and values in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, stage in the life cycle, etc also affect refugee identities.
- Although members of the three ethnic refugee communities with whom we worked can all be labelled as 'Muslim',
'Muslim' identity meant very different things to the participants within each group but especially between them - from an almost vacuous identity marker of origin, via a boundary marker of national belonging to a central cultural and religious mode of selfhood.
- Different refugees have different resources, economic but also human and social capital, to aid them in their settlement process
in London/Britain and in their encounters with the state. Their membership in a community organization can become such an important resource.
- One of the most fundamental problems, common to many refugees, even those who are settled here, is the uncertainty concerning the future, not knowing when they would be told that their country of origin is now 'safe' and therefore they need to be 'repatriated'.
Their inability to plan their future seriously hampers their full integration into British society.
- The refugees develop multi-layered sense of belonging, trans-national where possible.
Although longing, nostalgia and/or loyalty to their countries of origin is common among refugees, they usually also develop a sense of local belonging, often pragmatic, often mediated via belonging to their community organizations, often ambivalent as a result of a sense of racialization and exclusion by local society and state.
- The relationships of refugees with local people (including agents of the state) varies
from a complete sense of separation and isolation, sometimes persecution, to frequent tales of friendship and support.
- Many refugees, often depending on their gender and generation, develop conflictual relationships with cultural norms of both community of origin and local peer groups.
Many youngsters feel impeded in their pursuit of education and fulfilling work as a result of needing to support their families.
- Lack of knowledge of English emerged as a major problem, with interpreters often causing problems of their own.
Children who are required to interpret for their families feel trapped in the middle of conflictual conversations between powerful adults and professional interpreters are perceived as often abusing their power and exploiting the refugees.
- Special technologies of intimidation and disempowerment are
used in crucial encounters of the asylum seekers with the state, such as taking away their mobile phones, preventing them from bringing their solicitors, friends or interpreters.
- Children are sometimes separated from their parents
so that the latter could be deported while the British state still conforming to the ban of child deportations in international covenants on the rights of the child. Refugee women, especially Somali, often live in fear of their children being taken away from them.
- Even when state policies are aimed at inclusion and integration, their mode of execution can end up being counter productive, as they are not case sensitive.
For example, policies aimed at encouraging women refugees to learn English and to find work (such as Sure Start) do not take into consideration their family situation, needs of husbands and often end up being divisive. Moreover, these policies are applied in a top-down manner which is not sensitive to particular individual circumstances and are abruptly stopped when the women’s children reach the age of five.
- This bureaucratic top down approach can also have other unintended effects of disempowering refugees and others.
For example, refugees who wanted to retain independence and autonomy and not to rely on social security, were told they cannot get any training and support in applying for various training courses and jobs as such help was only available to those registered as unemployed. Similarly, settled refugees from other European countries who arrived to the UK to take care of ailing relatives were not given housing support because they were not registered locally as refugees.