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The Effects of Intercultural Disparities on Refugee Identity

Dr. Nora Alarifi Pharaon
Society for Psychological Study of Social Issues
Annual Convention
June 28-30, 2002
Toronto, Canada

The Effects of Intercultural Disparities on Refugee Identity



The 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as a person “who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or owing to such fear is unwilling to (return to it)”.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated to provide international protection and “seeking permanent solutions for the problems of refugees by assisting Governments and subject to the approval of the Governments concerned, private organizations to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of such refugees, or their assimilation within new national communities”. UNHCR foresees three durable solutions: resettlement in a third country of durable asylum, local integration in the country of first asylum and voluntary return.

A distinction is drawn between two categories of persons forced to flee their homes:

  • Refugees, who have left their country to seek refuge abroad;
  • Internally displaced persons, who are still within their own country

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees sets out the social, civil and economic rights of people in need of international protection. Chapter III of the Convention titled Gainful Employment outlines refugee rights in relation to wage-earning employment (Article 17), self-employment (Article 18) and liberal professions (Article 19). Chapter IV deals with welfare issues in particular with regard to rationing (Article 20), housing (Article 21), public education (Article 22), public relief (Article 23) and

labor legislation and social security (Article 24). Article 26 addresses the right to free movement of refugees. In a range of service areas, the Convention stipulates that refugees should be treated on a basis “not less favorable” than that accorded to non-nationals. By treating refugees in this manner, it was felt that “refugees would become assimilated in their new countries and would avoid the kind of social marginalization that might result if they were given only a second-class status”.

Furthermore, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), that met in Seville from 7-9 June 2002, urged European governments to use the opportunity of World Refugee Day on June 20 and the Seville Summit on 21-22 June to live up to the Tampere Summit commitments to “respect the absolute right to seek asylum” and provide “guarantees to those who seek protection in or access to the European Union”.

Persons of concern to UNHCR, at 1 Jan 1996, by category
Region Refugees Returnees Internally displaced Others of concern TOTAL
Africa 5692100 2085400 1344000 23900 9145400
Asia 4479600 1189100 1699100 300200 7668000
Europe 2101000 1611100 3976900 7689000
Latin America 127700 65000 8000 11000 211700
North America 789700 545700 1335400
Oceania 46300 7300 53600
TOTAL 13236400 3339500 4662200 4865000 26103100

This table includes over 4 million internally displaced people (IDPs) with whom UNHCR is concerned. However, these are only a small proportion of the world’s internally displaced. There are thought to be at least 26 million more. Thus, the total number of people who have been displaced inside or outside their own country is at least 50 million.


Assimilation and Integration vs. Separation and Marginalization:

A literature overview would highlight two key factors, which determine the nature of refugee membership in the country of durable asylum. These relate to whether individuals or groups maintain or lose their cultural identity (assimilation vs. separation) and whether or not they engage in social relations with the dominant society (integration vs. marginalization).

Assimilation refers to the process whereby a refugee or a group becomes submerged in the host/dominant society. Separation occurs when there is no interaction between the larger society and the refugees who maintain their own culture. The process of loosing one’s cultural identity while keeping apart from the dominant society is described as marginalization. Integration presupposes that refugees maintain their cultural identity but also interact with the society as a whole.


The Council of Europe has defined integration as “a two way process (whereby) immigrants change society at the same time as they integrate into it”. The World Development Summit in 1995 prescribes the goal of integration as “a society for all” in which all people have the right and the ability to participate in decisions affecting their lives. Beyond the proliferation of terms and definitions, three statements can be made based on a fair degree of consensus to describe the process of integration:

  1. That it is dynamic and two-way: it places demands on the receiving society and the individuals and/or the communities concerned. From a refugee perspective, integration requires a willingness to adapt to the lifestyle of the host society without losing one’s own cultural identity. From the point of view of the host society, it requires a preparedness to accept refugees based on equality and takes action to facilitate access to resources and decision-making processes in parity with the national population.
  2. It is long term: from a psychological perspective, it often starts at the time of arrival in the country of final destination and is concluded when a refugee becomes a member of that society from a legal, social, economic, cultural and identity point of view. It is often the case that the integration process extends past the first generation of refugees.
  3. It is multi-dimensional: it relates both to the conditions for and actual participation in all aspects of the economic, social, cultural, civil and (following naturalization) political life of the country of durable asylum as well as to refugees’ own sense of belonging and membership in the host society.

Indicators of Refugee Integration

Objective Indicators of Integration Subjective Indicators of Integration
  1. status in education/type of academic and other qualifications in particular with regard to second and third generation;
  2. labor market position and earnings capacity;
  3. legal status/residence rights;
  4. political rights (including voting rights);
  5. knowledge of the language of the host society;
  6. access to socio-economic rights;
  7. absence of discrimination;
  8. participation in social and cultural activities.
  1. the degree of satisfaction with life in host society;
  2. adherence to values of the dominant society;
  3. internalization of values, norms, attitudes of host societies;
  4. host society general attitudes towards refugees;
  5. host society recognition of the values/beliefs/norms of refugee populations.

The plight of more than 50 million refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, the majority being women and children, is one of the most pressing international social issues in the world. Although the United States has consistently been the leading donor of humanitarian assistance to refugees worldwide, The UNHCR continuously faces a difficult problem in both promoting return of those who want to go home, and at the same time helping local integration for those who wish to stay.

There are many disparities in the lives of refugees whether internally displaced or those who seek refuge in a host country. The effects of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and their interrelatedness with multicultural co-existence, as caused by lack of communication and cooperation have far ranging psychological effects on their sense of self, the recovery from emotional trauma, and development of a new identity. Equally significant are the psychosocial responses by their hosts; ignorance and mistrust lead to discrimination and exclusion from socio-political representation; access to educational and occupational opportunities; health care and other social services. This paper will highlight the most salient factors that serve to sustain the range of disparities in the lives of refugees while giving some examples that contribute to our effective understanding of these issues in context.

Citizenship/Identity Documentation

Bhutan: Dissent grew increasingly in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan because of what the Southerners thought was an attempt by the government to force out Nepali-speaking citizens and to impose the Drukpa culture. The

flow of refugees out of Bhutan reached its peak in May 1992 with 11,000 arrivals recorded for that month in the camps in Nepal. The refugees brought with them detailed allegation of torture, brutality, and rape.

The Bhutanese government rejected the refugees’ allegation and argued that it was facing a problem of terrorism in Southern Bhutan. Bhutan disclaimed responsibility, arguing that the people in the camps were illegal immigrants, Nepali nationals, migrants from India, or Southern Bhutanese who had left voluntarily. It cast doubt on the authenticity of the citizenship documents still held by two-thirds of the camp residents, and expressed the fear that a plot was afoot to turn Bhutan into a Nepali dominated State.

Canada: Persecuted people often have to flee their countries without documentation. Refugees are frequently forced to travel using false papers both because they need to hide their identity from their persecutors and because countries such as Canada use restrictive measures to prevent refugees from seeking asylum. The Federal Court has ruled that whether or not a claimant destroyed travel documents on arrival in Canada is irrelevant to the determination of the claim. In some cases the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) has ruled that claimants who did have documents were not refugee partly because the fact that they were able to obtain documents proved that they were not being persecuted. Furthermore, refugee claimants are often advised by others to dispose of their documents when they reach Canada. They may believe that if they keep the documents they will be immediately returned to the county they are fleeing.

Lebanon: In addition to the harsh living conditions of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, they face discrimination through Lebanon’s attempts to prevent them from permanently settling in the country to encourage them to leave. The key factor underlying the political exclusion of the refugees is Lebanese concern that granting citizenship would upset the political and religious balance in the country. As a result, Palestinians in Lebanon are denied access to a large number of professional occupations, cannot own property, and have limited access to health, education, and social services.

In addition, last fall Lebanese passed a law depriving only Palestinians of any real estate ownership in Lebanon as well as forbidding the passing on of property to their heirs.

Kuwait: About 52,000 refugees were living in Kuwait in 2000, including an estimated 35,000 Palestinians, 15,000 Iraqis, and 2,000 Somalis. These are rough estimates, however, because Kuwait does not recognize refugees. Rather, it tolerates the presence of some foreigners as part of its expatriate labor force. Kuwaiti tolerance, however, generally does not extend to Palestinians and Iraqis, whom Kuwaitis judge to have sided with Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.

Since 1991, Kuwait has been hostile and suspicious toward certain groups considered sympathetic to Iraq during the war—particularly Palestinians, Iraqis, Yemenis, and the remaining stateless Arabs, known as Bidoon, still in Kuwait. Many Bidoon have lived in Kuwait their entire lives, but are not recognized as citizens. Kuwait reserves full citizenship rights for those who established residence in the country prior to 1920. Children born to Kuwaiti women are not generally accorded citizenship if their fathers are Bidoon or foreigners. Since 1991, Kuwait has reduced the number of its Bidoon residents by more than half, down from a pre-war population of 250,000 to an estimated 120,000 in 2000.

Kuwait has deported many Bidoon, often without a hearing, most commonly for alleged collaboration with the Iraqi occupying forces during the war. Bidoon with strong ties to Kuwait who left the country have not been allowed to return, and remain stateless in Iraq and other countries. Because of the war, Kuwait also fired Bidoon from government jobs, including the police and army, which had employed many before the war. Authorities restricted their residence to overcrowded slum areas and barred Bidoon children from Kuwaiti schools.

Although Kuwait’s Parliament voted in May 2000 to ease the citizenship requirements of those Bidoon registered in the 1965 population census, numbering some 36,000, the government announced that the remaining Bidoon would not be eligible for citizenship and had until June 27 to regularize their status with the authorities or face prosecution and deportation.

Religious/Sectarian Affiliation:

Northern Iraq: Iraq is host to the highest number of internally displaced people in the Middle East. Between 700,000 and 1 million people are estimated internally displaced in Iraq. A preliminary survey carried out in Northern Iraq by the UN Center for Human Settlement (Habitat) estimated the number of internally displaced persons at 805,000 by the end of October 2000, comprising 23% of the population. Ethnic Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmen have suffered from several waves of displacement over the past two decades, mainly due to repression by the Iraqi government and to a lesser extent to inter-ethnic Kurdish fighting. Shia Arab population in the south of Iraq has also been displaced from their home due to government actions, particularly since 1991.

The Balkans: Nearly one tenth of the combined population of Bosnia Herzegovina, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY)—a UNHCR-estimated 1.7 million people—remain displaced and in need of a lasting solution. This past year brought war to the FRY territories of Serbia and Montenegro, which had until then been spared. The massive exodus of over 800,000 ethnic Albanians out of the Kosovo province in April 1999 was matched by their equally dramatic repatriation following the June cease-fire agreement. However, since then, large numbers of ethnic Serbs and Roma have in turn been displaced, mostly into Serbia proper, Montenegro and Bosnia. UNHCR puts the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Serbia proper and Montenegro at 242,000, including 13,400 “double refugees” from Bosnia and Croatia. The total comprises an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Roma. Many among the remaining Serb populations in Kosovo reside in newly formed ethnic enclaves, rather than in their original homes. UNHCR also estimates that there remain in Kosovo 600 ethnic Serb refugees from the conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia.

In Federation areas of Bosnia, there remain 487,000 Bosnian IDPs, 8,000 Kosovo refugees, and as many as 15,000 Sandjak residents who moved during the NATO air campaign. As to Republika Srpska, UNHCR reports 344,000 Bosnian IDPs and 40,000 refugees from Croatia, including 10,000 who resided in the FRY until the recent conflict. 
The Kosovo crisis has resulted in a surge in the number of asylum applications to European countries in 1999: the average number of monthly asylum applications submitted by FRY citizens in the first three quarters of 1999 was 38% higher than in the corresponding period of 1998. On the other hand, temporary protection schemes set up for Kosovo refugees in various European countries have for the most part been terminated, and repatriation is well underway.

The United States has set up a processing center in Timisoara (Romania) for the resettlement of up to 10,000 ethnic Serbs. The resettlement program is focused on certain particularly vulnerable groups, such as the “double refugees” from Bosnia and Croatia who had been living in collective centers in Kosovo.

Political Affiliation:

Northern Iraq: Since 1997, Iraqi government forced Kurds as well as a number of Turkmen and Assyrians to leave the Kirkuk area as part of its policy of “Arabization” or “nationalization” of this oil-rich region. Five to six families, who are perceived to be opposed to the regime, are deported every day to Northern Iraq. Furthermore, families who have relatives outside of Iraq or in Southern Iraq, and those who have relatives in detention or executed, are said to be the first targeted in the process of forced displacement to Northern Iraq. Kurdish sources reported acceleration of forced displacement of non-Arab citizens in 2001 and 2002. Furthermore, ethnic Kurds who changed their identity to Arab received plots of land in certain areas only. Kurds have also been forced to sell homes to Arabs in Kirkuk.

Ethnic Background:

Myanmar: In Burma, conflict induced displacement affects ethnic minority groups in the border areas in particular. Army assaults to gain control over ethnic insurgency groups have forced at least 600,000 people to become internally displaced (UNGA, August ’01). Internal displacement has also occurred on a large scale in urban and rural areas where ethnic Burmese are in the majority. The war in Burma is said to have created three main hinds of internal displacement:

  • Jungle displacement
  • Forced relocation
  • Social dislocation

Furthermore, the minority groups have restricted freedom of movement. Those residents unable to meet the restrictive provisions of the citizenship law, such as ethnic, Chinese, Muslims and others must obtain prior permission to travel.

Worldwide Post 9/11: The backlash against migrants, asylum seekers and refugees worldwide is a serious side effect of the September 11 attacks. Throughout the world, countries have responded to the events in the US with tightened immigration and asylum policies, and rushed through emergency legislation. Some governments, such as Spain, have publicly equated the war against terrorism with the fight against illegal immigration. The British Home Secretary David Blunkett has vowed to stop Afghan refugees from “spreading across the world” and has equated asylum seekers with terrorists. Some countries, such as the US and the UK have proposed increased use of prolonged detention with limited judicial review and have suggested that international human rights standards and due-process protections will become secondary to security concerns.

Australia: Australia has taken extraordinary measures to exclude certain of its territories from key aspects of its migration law in order to abrogate responsibility for Afghanistan and other asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Australia last year received around 4000 illegal arrivals, a quarter of them from Afghanistan and a further quarter either Iraqis or Iranians. After the Tampa was boarded by armed soldiers off Christmas Island, the government declared that refugees aboard ships intercepted in Australian waters would be ferried to offshore locations such as the South Pacific Island state of Nauru to have their asylum claims processed by UNHCR. Of the 1515 refugees shipped to Nauru or Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, only 66 people have so far been resettled. Australia has offered cash payments to get rid of hundreds of Afghan refugees whose failed asylum claims have left them stranded in detention camps at home and abroad.

Children, Educational and Job Opportunities:


Refugee children grow up surrounded by the violence of war and drugs, and distant from the social norms and values that prevail in times of peace. Years of languishing in refugee camps have deprived them of education and have led to widespread drug use. Mainstream education is the ideal starting point to enable refugee children to rebuild their lives. The structure and routine of a regular school day can help to provide a sense of normality and security in a child’s life, vital to promoting their emotional, physical, educational, and social development and well-being. It will also have a lasting impact on his or her long-term positive integration into school, community, and wider society.

Myanmar: Children of various ethnic refugee groups in Myanmar have to restart their schooling upon arrival in the relocation sites because they are prevented from learning in their own language.

UK: The Asylum and Immigration Bill recently returned to the House of Commons to remove the rights of refugee children to be educated in schools. Allowing a child’s immigration status to determine whether or not they can attend mainstream school is a dangerous and unprecedented attack on one of the founding principles of the 1944 Education Act that school-based education should be universally available.

Lebanon: Many people of Palestinian origin living in exile have assimilated, or become rich, or have forgotten Palestine. However, the percentages of Palestinians living in camps give a sharper idea of real refugeedom: 55.6 percent in Gaza, 53.6 percent in Lebanon, 28.1 percent in Syria, 25.6 percent in the West Bank, 19.6 percent in Jordan-around 1,205,000 people in all. If we include all Palestinians outside historic Palestine-around 3,650,000 in 1995-and add to them the more than 1,108,767 displaced inside, we reach a figure of more than 4,750,000, or around 70 percent of the total Palestinian population (estimated at 6,838,000 in 1995).

Currently, there are approximately 382,000 UNRWA-registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Their situation is unique in the region in the degree of political, economic, and social exclusion. Just over half of them reside in densely populated camps in small shelters with inadequate infrastructure.

Burj El-Barajneh refugee camp on the outskirts of Beirut, for example, has a registered population of about 16,000 of which 12,000 live inside a cramped camp. The camp has seven schools, six vocational training centers with courses including hairdressing and nursing, but clearly little opportunity for placement. It is estimated that only 20 percent of the camp residents have some form of employment. The lack of access to work and its related income are creating an increasingly illiterate, unemployable and resentful population within its borders though Lebanon has the option of issuing temporary and renewable work permits to Palestinian refugees.

Political Refugee Identity and Citizenship Status:

What creates a political refugee identity is, however, not just poverty, which refugees share with many of the surrounding populations, but a mix of low status, limited opportunity, vulnerability and thwarted national identity. Even when refugees have adopted the nationality of a host country, theirs is a lesser citizenship. Targets of suspicion, they are constantly followed, singled out at airports, interrogated and refused entry. Caught breaking the law, they receive especially harsh punishments aimed at intimidating others.

Arab World: In Arab as in most other societies, citizenship is hierarchically structured, with access to state resources, jobs, and protection weighted by class and “origins”. Even in Syria, where the Palestinian returnees enjoy full civil rights and can become acres of the state, an unofficial ceiling exists. In Jordan where all but a few 1967 refugees are Jordanian, entry to the political class is closely controlled. Although the proportion of Palestinians living in camps in Jordan is the lowest-19.6 percent-non-statistical evidence suggests harsh socioeconomic conditions for the majority, especially since the Gulf War. Anecdotal evidence from the third generation of refugees in Lebanon indicates marked discrimination in universities, the work place and social life, and indicates the presence of uncrossable boundaries.

US: Americans of Palestinian origin in the US are subject to surveillance, Palestinian residents to “quiet” deportation. In Lebanon and Kuwait, citizenship did not protect naturalized Palestinians. For those who still carry “refugee” passports, crossing borders is fraught with humiliating and frustrating security checks. The costs of being a refugee are continually renewed and seared into the consciousness of each new generation. The political refugee identity remains a potent reformative factor as long as objective conditions continue to reproduce it.

Monetary Assistance and Health Care:

US: During the summer of 1996, momentous changes in both federal welfare and immigration policy were enacted. The welfare legislation, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, severely restricted legal immigrants’ eligibility for public assistance programs including Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Food Stamps and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The welfare reform bill denied many social services to refugees after their first seven years in the US if they fail to become citizens. In recognition of the harshness of these provisions, Congress restored access to SSI and food stamps to some refugees and immigrants in 1997 and 1998, but fell short of complete restoration of these benefits for all eligible legal refugees and immigrants.

Lebanon: Palestinians refugees in camps also lack access to medical care beyond the basic services provided by UNRWA. In Burj El-Barajneh, medical professionals at the two UNRWA-funded clinics see about 150 patients per day. Patients needing secondary care such as routine surgery are referred to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS). PRCS reports that they receive only minimal funding to cover staff salaries from the Palestinian Authority. The European Union helps to pay for medical equipment, but operating and maintenance expenses must be covered by the symbolic fees charged to refugees. Individuals needing care for chronic illnesses such as diabetes are not assisted at all.

Sexual and Gender-Based Violence:

More than a decade ago, UNHCR adopted a policy on Refugee Women, giving institutional recognition to the unique abuses faced by women and girls who flee violence and persecution. UNHCR created the post of Sr. Coordinator for Refugee Women to promote the policy and in 1991 issued the Guidelines for the Protection of Refugee Women. In 1995, UNHCR issued guidelines on prevention and response to sexual violence.

The suspension of norms in times of conflict, particularly under refugee conditions, leaves women completely unprotected and subject to the most egregious forms of violence and abuses of human rights. The survival rate, physical protection, nutrition, education, skill development, and psychosocial well being of female refugees and displaced women fell far below those of their male counterparts, mainly because of inequitable access to resources.

Approximately 80 percent of the world’s more than 20 million refugees are women and their dependent children. It is also estimated that 80 percent of the world’s total refugee population is Muslim, mostly Afghans, Azerbaijanis, Palestinians, Iranians, Bosnians, Iraqis, Kurds, Burmese (Myanmar), Somalis, Sudanese, and Tajiks. Approximately 75 percent of Muslim refugees are women and children fleeing from or seeking asylum in Muslim countries. However, discourse on women and human rights in Islam do not include Muslim refugees, and little information is available on population displacement in the Muslim world or on the impact of religion and culture on Muslim women in forced migration.

Afghanistan: In most Afghan refugee camps women and girls are expected to uphold “Islamic” virtues. Seclusion, lack of access to education, and short birth-spacing are regarded as religiously normal practices. In fact, “Jihad” is being waged against women’s mobility, freedom, and human rights. Historically, Muslim women have been relegated to second-class status in their societies. Their status regresses further upon forced migration. In exile, and lacking a government of their own, they are pitted against indigenous as well as foreign male-dominated movements.

Along with social and economic subjugation, women are subject to sexual violence. The social stigma of rape, especially of virgin girls, is great because it is thought to bring shame not only on the girls’ immediate family, but on the larger clan as well. Reports of “honor killing” of rape victims in Afghanistan are common. They are also found among Bosnian Muslims.

The fate of Afghan women and girls living in asylum in neighboring Pakistani is no better. Atrocities such as selling young virgin girls to other countries or forcing them into prostitution in Pakistani brothels continue. These activities are well financed, organized and usually secret.

Afghan male leaders in general and refugee leaders in particular are unable or unwilling to confront these atrocities. Incidents such as the reported burning of Afghan widows’ camps in Pakistan demonstrate men’s frustration over not being able to protect “their women” who are often young widows sold into forced servitude.

Sierra Leone and Uganda: Adolescent girls face special risks, and are often neglected or overlooked in assistance and protection programs because of their age and lack of social status. They have been abducted, raped and forced to participate n violent acts of war. When they are not killed, they may be sent back to their families, who reject them or do not have the resources to help them to heal.

Another problem affecting the displaced is the disintegration of families and communities. There are a large number of widows and orphans among the displaced in camps in Uganda, which constituted a particular vulnerable group. Female-headed households were less able to become self-reliant and were therefore more in need of assistance.

US: In June 2001, the Board of Immigration Appeals overturned a grant of asylum to a Guatemalan woman fleeing severe domestic abuse by her husband. The Board decided that Rodi Alvarado Peña had failed to demonstrate persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a social group. Immigration court decisions on gender-based asylum claims continued to be mixed in 1999; despite the issuance of 1995 federal guidelines intended to recognize gender-based persecution as a basis for asylum.


In the latter part of the twentieth century, the world has been plagued by ongoing civil wars, political unrest, and natural disasters, causing the most horrific refugee crisis in recent memory. Although many countries have made strides toward democratic reform over the past few years, millions of refugees have fled unrest in their respective homelands only to face a precarious life in insecure refugee camps, disparate experiences in their new living environments, and unsuccessful repatriation in the absence of democratic and humanitarian governments. The tragedy visited upon uprooted populations in general, and upon women and girls specifically, produces unfathomable, lifelong psychological effects. Those who have been fortunate enough to repatriate often find it difficult to reintegrate in the absence of assistance that bridges the gap between emergency relief and sustainable development.


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