Once you label me, you negate me (part 2)

My interest in the impact of labelling goes back a few years now.  During my MA in Refugee Studies, I came across a body of work which analysed how labelling impacts refugees, services for refugee and refugee policy making in general, and subsequently used this as the basis of my MA dissertation. The latter focused on services for older refugees in Reading, UK, on their appropriateness and on factors influencing their availability and appropriateness. I am still stunned by the findings and thought it was time to share them on here albeit in a summarised format.

As I said in my blog yesterday, labels do have their uses. There is also “no necessary equation of categorisation with stigmatisation and oppression” (Jenkins, R. 2000:20). However, problems may arise when labels are “authoritatively applied” (Jenkins, R. 2000:9) and “represented as having universal legitimacy” (Wood, G.1985:9), not least because labels frequently “serve as a shorthand for policies and programmes and above all access to these (Zetter, R. 1985:97). Dangers in labelling are therefore twofold: on the one hand, incorrect labels may harm certain groups by excluding them from much-needed support (Zetter, R. 1985:97); on the other hand, they can form the basis of altogether inappropriate programmes. The question to ask, then, is not so much whether labelling is occurring but “whose labels prevail to define a whole situation or policy area” (Wood, G.1985:7) and what their impact is.

Refugees worldwide and in the UK specifically have to contend with the label of “refugee” as per the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees: According to this definition, a refugee is someone 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 avail himself of the protection of that country” (Excerpt as cited in Chimni, B.S. 2000:2)

Refugees in countries worldwide have to go to great lengths to prove that they have left their homes for exactly the reasons outlined in this definition.

 In the UK (and in other countries, too), the “refugee” label is then further fragmented (Zetter, R. 2007:178), with policy makers and implementers having to differentiate between “asylum seekers”, who have sought refuge in the UK on the ground of the 1951 Convention but have not yet been granted the right to stay, and “refugees”, individuals who have successfully claimed asylum and are allowed to remain in the country. This additional differentiation between different types of refugees has its roots in policy designed in the 1990s, when labour migration channels were gradually opening (Flynn, D. 2005: 465) and when the government sought to balance a perceived risk of abuse (Flynn D 2005:475; Home Office 2005:17) with a desire to facilitate the type of migration advantageous to the British economy (Flynn, D. 2005: 465). The resulting need to protect the interests of the state (Fekete, L. 2004:5) and keep undesirable migrants at arm’s length lead to a decision on the part of the government to exclude those who have not as yet been granted asylum from mainstream rights, in order to deter those contemplating abuse of the asylum system from entering the country (Mynott, E. 2002:122). As a result, two new social and political categories of “refugee” found their way into both discourse and policy (Sales, R. 2002:463), each with its own set of corresponding rights and entitlements: “asylum seekers” and “refugees with status”.

When adopted by agencies administering refugee entitlements and services, legal labels become further entrenched in both discourse and policy and are transformed into bureaucratic labels. (Zetter, R. 2007:180).This phenomenon is particularly significant given that non-statutory, private and charitable organisations currently play a significant role in the provision of UK welfare services (Sales, R. 2002:469; Zetter, R. and Pearl, M.  2000:676). Sub-contracting arrangements may force Housing Associations, NGOs, Local Authorities,  other community-focused charities, private sector agencies such as the transport sector and even employers to verify immigration status (Cohen, S. 2002: 153; Humphries, B. 2002:127; Zetter, R. 2007:185) and turn away refugees with the “wrong” status when legislation so demands. This may prevent them from pursuing refugees’ best interest and may jeopardise their neutrality (Humphries, B. 2002:131; Dona, G., 2002:47; Cohen, S. 2002:141), and can influence public perception and discourse about specific groups and their right (or not) to support and services.

Bureaucratic labels can also be the direct result of social labels. Some of these are based on stereotypes. Older people in the UK, for example, are sometimes regarded as frail subjects of care (Peace, S. et al 2007:13) unable to continue contributing to economic life. This label may be bestowed on older refugees in the same way that it is on older British people.

Others may be the direct result of social policy.In the view of some gerontologists, images of older people, refugees and older refugees as helpless partly result from welfare policies. They argue that the very existence of retirement age legislation and emphasis on institutional care creates and enforces perceptions of older people‘s inability to live independently and/or earn a living (Townsend, P. 1986:28 and 37).

A third and forth category of labels is produced either as a result of available funding or as part of a quest to attract funding. Malkki , for example, shows how Hutu refugees in Tanzanian camps are frequently depicted as helpless victims (Malkki, L. 1996:388) and how their voices have to be silenced, their stories neutralised and their resilience discredited in order to attract funding for standardised humanitarian intervention (Malkki, L. 1996:389). Once funding is available this stereotyping has to continue in all reporting to prove the legitimacy of the funding.

The creation of such labels and the fact that they can be used effectively for fundraising is ironic given the completely opposite labels in operation in the UK which describe refugees as scavengers (Lynn, N. and Lea, S. 2003:438). This conflict of ideas confirms that labels are inherently political and/or organisational tools, used when suitable for addressing particular priority concerns.  The image of the potentially parasitic or “bogus” asylum seeker (Hynes, P. 2006:8; Robinson, V. et al, 2003:12; Welch, M. And Schuster, L.2005:407; Lynn, N. and Lea, S. 2003:433), for example, is an intrinsic component of the wider “migrant-as-a-threat narrative” (Ibrahim, M. 2005:173) adopted by both UK media and policy-makers to justify deterrence mechanisms and denial of rights.

Lack of information contributes further to the development of distorted labels, for example when unrepresentative samples of a group are used for advocacy purposes (Jacobsen, K. and Landau, L.B. 2003:97) or during research which is then used to make policy recommendations. One of the main pieces of research available on older refugees in the UK actually only interviewed 20 individuals from 10 different countries (Connelly, N. et al 2008:52).  The risk of social labelling derived from incomplete empirical knowledge is, of course, all the higher in a context like the UK where studies on refugees are limited in number and small-scale and where quantitative and qualitative data on refugees in general and older refugees in particular is lacking (Hardwick, N. 2001:19; Boys-Smith, S. 2001:3; Stewart, E. 2004:37; Robinson, V. 1998:150; Connelly, N. et al 2008:8).


My research sadly confirmed the risks of labelling and the impact it can have on older refugees in the UK. Although Reading constitutes a setting marked by the presence of many committed and active statutory and non-statutory organisations, and although the organisations interviewed provided services which closely matched the challenges described by the refugees consulted, access to such services is restricted by the very same legal, bureaucratic and social labels which generate so much heartache for refugees in the first place. The challenges of older refugees in Reading and services available to support them are, indeed, a potential marriage marred by external pressures.

At first glance, the financial deprivation, lack of right to work, dependence on family and friends, housing problems, ill health, and separation from family which pained the older refugees whom I interviewed may seem part and parcel of the experience of an older refugee in exile. However, close examination of refugees’ accounts highlighted the great extent to which legal labelling dynamics directly created or, at best, merely worsened, some of their challenges. The need to match their stories with the narrow “refugee” definition provided by the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees posed considerable challenges for some of the refugees interviewed (in the case of one couple, it led to a 10 year asylum process as the couple refused to lie to “fit the bill” and make their claim more legitimate).  Both for refugees and the organisations studied, being a “refugee” and claiming asylum on those grounds proved to be  insufficient and both had to contend with the implications of the different fragmented labels  “refugees with status”, “asylum seekers” and “failed asylum seekers”, as discussed by Zetter (Zetter, R. 2007).  Problems suffered by refugees as a result of lack of rights and entitlements associated with these labels were particularly acute at the asylum stage, notably in regards to financial well-being, housing, employment and health care entitlements.

While services exist in Reading which could, in principle, support older refugees in these key areas, the organisations offering them are themselves constrained by bureaucratic labels born out of these legal labels, which govern access to the services in question. At times, organisations had been forced either by the law or by donor guidelines to adopt these labels, excluded older asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers in particular from certain types of support despite their great need for them.

Other types of bureaucratic labels also worsened some of the refugees’ challenges. While those interviewed were not typical in that they all enjoyed support from at least one organisation and its corresponding referral partners, support received was often found to be restrictive due to bureaucratic labels, for example in cases where food or financial aid was only short –term and limited to a certain amount . The organisations interviewed in my study had equally adopted  bureaucratic labels of this nature, for example in regards to funding ceilings, time limitations in awarding support, referral mechanisms and access criteria relating to beneficiaries’ eligibility for state benefits.

Refugees had also suffered the impact of some of the various social labels discussed by critics which, at times, had become institutionalised through corresponding bureaucratic labels. Landlords’ reluctance to give properties to those on housing benefit or exclusions from employment on the basis of age were examples of this phenomenon. Some of the organisations interviewed in my study equally exclude certain groups on the basis of such labels, with some targeting their support women only while others focus specifically on—sometimes divergent—age criteria. Adoptions of such labels was frequently the result of financial and staff shortages of the organisations in question, but were partly also the product of the kind of “informational vacuum”   which Robinson has warned us about (Robinson, V. 1998:151). Not only are research data and statistics on older refugees limited in the UK in general, but most organisations themselves had not tried to fill this gap by consulting statistics available or monitoring relevant criteria, such as legal status or age, on their databases.

Given the various ways in which labels can originate, it is not surprising that in most of the services studied, various labels simultaneously influenced access to or exclusion from services. As a result, most of the services analysed were fragmented in multiple ways and organisations’ potential to systematically reach all types of older refugees was limited by various interlinking factors. The strongest link existed between legal and legal-bureaucratic labels, especially in the case of government or government-funded agencies.

It was relatively hard to gauge whether age worsened the impact of labelling-induced challenges, or whether hardship experienced as a result of them would have been felt equally by refugees of all ages and in all age brackets of the older age category. While the findings offered no reason to challenge the argument that age and refugee-hood may make it harder for older refugees to rebuild their lives in the UK (Stitching BMP and ECRE 2002:3; Norman, A. 1985:1), refugees themselves did not readily mention age as a key contributor to their problems. The minority of refugees who did refer to themselves as old or revealed anxieties about ageing and death were those who suffered from significant health problems, allowing us to wonder whether ill health, rather than age per se, generate an awareness of age and concerns about death. The impact of gender-related issues was similarly hard to gauge, given the low number of women interviewed. Nonetheless, there were differences in the emphases given to different issues by men and women respectively. While further research into the impact of age and gender differences is clearly called for, my research supports the view of many of the organisations interviewed that older refugees and their challenges can be addressed as part of a holistic approach to service provision, provided that significant attention is given to them, and that separate services may not necessarily be required.

My findings and their implications for refugees in general and for older refugees in particular justify a call for a more universal, geographically uniform and legally binding refugee integration framework with clear guidelines as to provision of minimal services. In the interest of refugees in general and older refugees in particular, the British government‘s authority to deprive refugees of scope for rebuilding their lives should be challenged. Politicians should equally be held accountable for policies which reduce refugees, particularly those still at the asylum stage, to dependent welfare recipients. As Robinson states, “simply to grant the right of entry is insufficient if the needs of refugees are then to be ignored for financial, political and social reasons” (Robinson, V. 1993:329). Furthermore, the automatic link between immigration law and welfare provision, which forces welfare providers to implement exclusionary policies, should be broken. Even when funding is given by government bodies, organisations should be able to freely reach out to all those groups with whom they wish to work, regardless of immigration legislation. That said, organisations themselves could equally weigh the implications of accepting government funds, lobby for legislative change, use existing data for planning and advocacy, and actively call for further quantitative and qualitative research on the refugee experience to be conducted and publicised.  The voices of older refugees must be heard and taken into account by the British government and effective channels must be found to pave the way for this.

In a wider sense, my research has made me extra wary of labelling….and I am sad to see that inappropriate, restrictive labelling continues not only socially but also in politics and policy-making today, with assistance of the media. All of us have a responsibility to be mindful of labels we bestow on others, and to challenge politicians, policy makers and the media when they inappropriately use labels. How to do this effectively is something I have not quite worked out….

The full version of my MA research can be provided to those interested and is also available through the University of East London.


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