“Where do I Belong?”: Identity Crisis of Refugees

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I N T E R N A T I O N A L  A F F A I R S

Tahia Afra Jannati

70.8 million people around the world, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted or with the intention of fleeing conflict or having been forcibly displaced from their home, have left their country or home and are living as refugees or Internally Displaced Persons. Among them 29.3 million are refugees, 41.3 million are internally displaced, and 3.5 million are asylum seekers. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 44,000 people become displaced every day. These staggering numbers indicated how important the refugee crisis is.

However, one question that usually gets lost in the middle of all these statistics and facts, and is often overlooked amid all the other material consequences of the refugee problem is, the identity crisis of refugees.

In plain words, the concept of identity refers to beliefs, personality or expressions that define one. Identity means having characteristics that identify one’s uniqueness and define how we see ourselves relating to our surroundings.  This term also refers to the sense of belongingness to some specific heritage, attached to what one calls home. The country of origin is the base of one’s identity. However, this sense of identity is the very price refugees have to pay when they are forced to leave their home country and in the process, a major part of their personal and national identity.

Among other consequences refugees have to face, the identity crisis is a salient one but unfortunately not deemed as important of an issue. After assessing all the basic and fundamental needs of a refugee, their struggle for identity is unnoticed by both the local authorities and the local population. If the culture of the receiving country is too different from their own, the refugees feel alienated, they feel out of place. The world around them comes crashing down. This problem can increase if they are not welcomed with open arms by the locals. Refugees tend to lose the basic rights every national citizen usually enjoys — no employment opportunities, no freedom of movement is allowed to them by the authorities. The scenario is common in refugee camps all around the world with few exceptions. The refugees start observing themselves as mere burdens without having the merest autonomy over the situation. Having lost the sense of belongingness, the feeling of ‘placelessness’ or ‘statelessness’ creeps in.

It has repeatedly been observed that if the local population of the hosting country is hostile or unwelcome, they usually blame the refugees for every kind of social or environmental problem and every inconvenience that are faced by the locals. The insensitive sentiments of the locals stems from various reasons e.g. the fear of losing employment to the refugee workers, fear of their safety and security, fear of environmental degradation because of refugee flows to their area, etc.

Deforestation for setting up camp sites can have a negative impact on the environment of the surrounding area. If refugees have to seek refuge or asylum for extended periods, the impact may be prolonged. An example of this kind of situation is Virunga National Park, Zaire, a unique site which had to go through irreversible negative environmental consequences, which was destroyed by refugees wanting to flee from conflict in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo over more than a decade ago.

In the Rohingya Crisis, many Bangladeshis blamed the Rohingya refugees for the environmental problems and massive deforestation in the Cox’s Bazaar area where most Rohingya camps are situated. In many instances, the locals blamed the refugees for major or minor crimes. In these incidents, then, the refugees were seen as the enemies or deemed as criminals, not a helpless population who were forced to leave their home and every comfort of it.

These instances highlight the contrast between the refugees and the locals, making them extremely visible. There is an indiscernible wall between the two sides, which makes it impossible for any sense of belongingness to develop and for the refugees to see the hosting country as their home. They can never assimilate with the lifestyle of the locals or conform to the local customs, traditions or attitudes. Refugees cannot adapt or adjust to a place where they are uninvited or unwanted.

Moreover, neither are they perceived as a part of the hosting country, nor a part of the country they were born in or spent the most part of their lives in. Basically, they spend their lives without an identity, without belonging to any place. Little children grow up in a state or in a place where they are not welcomed, their innocent minds cannot comprehend the severity, and they grow up without any specific nationality or without knowing which country to call their own.

For example, interpersonal relationships can heavily affect the lives of children of refugees growing up in a foreign nation. Relationship with local peers is a significant dimension, acceptance or rejection by them shapes the understanding of their identity. Rejection by peers belonging to the majority ethnic group can lead to severe mental trauma among the refugee children. Peer pressure, bullying, rejection can come from both their ethnocultural group and ethnic majority group. Refugee children from southern states growing up in developed northern countries can be presented as examples.

Family dynamics can help shape the identity of refugee children. The views, beliefs their parents practise, whether they decide to practise the culture of their origin country or the country they sought refuge in, environmental characteristics are all crucial factors. If the refugee families are prevented from practising their original culture, that can lead to the identity struggle of their children. Their whole life is lived in confusion, they grow up in the absence of any sense of personal or national identity. The young refugees do not even know or remember their home. An entire generation growing up without belonging to any place, without any knowledge of their heritage.

If the formal aspect of the identity crisis is reflected upon, many other scenarios come to light. Refugees in normal cases are required to leave with little to no preparation. Often, they arrive at camps without identification documents. Some lose their papers and other necessary documents during their onerous journey to a ‘safe-haven’, and others belong to the group of unfortunates who have never possessed any proof of identity. This directly affects their sense of national identity. In many cases, the refugees are used as pawns for various political propaganda by the political parties in the receiving country and are merely used and seen as political tools.

Members of EU since 2004; Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, or the Viseguard 4, were governed by recognisably nationalist populists leaders back in 2015, when EU initiated a quota system to disperse some record number of refugees and asylum seekers who entered the region that year. The nationalist leaders of these four countries campaigned fiercely against the plan, venting nationalism, exploiting fear and prejudice at a moment of crisis to derail the plan. The system was abandoned in November 2016.

The exceptional levels of xenophobia have been used by populist governments in the V4 countries both to repeal the quota system and strengthen their rigid position on migration. The Viseguard xenophobia can be used as evidence that irregular migration will inevitably favour the populists and undermine liberal democracy. Populist regimes have opportunistically gained from refugee and migrant flows, using xenophobia for political gain. As for the leaders of V4, it was more about strengthening their position rather than ideas or beliefs.

The struggle for identity is a pressing issue that needs to be acknowledged more as it is also an eternal crisis. This critical issue of identity should be perceived as a fundamental need of every refugee and, as such, should be subject to the necessary attention and care.


Tahia finds solace in reading; she wholeheartedly believes she is similar to Jane Austen heroines. She wants to build a life worth living and has a list of countries she wants to visit. She is an optimist but an over-thinker; ambitious but a procrastinator.


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