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Narrations of Belonging and Unbelonging of Refugee Women in Geneva

Estelle Gagnebin

1. Introduction

Texte intégral

  • 1 Where do I belong? Narrating collective identity and translocational positionality is an article wr (...)

1Where do I belong?1 Belonging is about “feeling at home” and “feeling safe” (Yuval-Davis, 2006b: 199). The definition seems straightforward but making sense of it is not. In practice, this is a question people moving from one country, one society, one culture to another will ask themselves. One does not need to move very far away from one’s home to be faced with this question, just somewhere else where one does not have this crucial but sometimes difficult to define sense of “feeling at home”.

2However, the experience of (re)creating social and cultural links and practices as well as feeling accepted and included can be more or less difficult depending on where one comes from, where one settles and what one has experienced before. Refugees, migrants, expats, all experience uprooting, feelings of loss and the task of recreating their “own world” within the new place of settlement. Thus, “integration” is a crucial concept, with changing meanings (Castle et al., 2002: 12). It is a matter of multiple actors, from the host society to the newcomers, of multiple debates and tensions. It is a matter of public policy, discussed in political debates, defined and put in place by the law.

3Nevertheless, the individual human being at the center of the process of integration should not be forgotten. In fact, as argued by Ager and Strang (2010: 601) social processes such as integration within a new society must be understood from the perspective of the key actors. This is why this thesis will focus mostly on individuals and their experiences, fears, hopes, strategies and constraints, opportunities and agencies within their new “home”, Geneva.

4My interest in this master’s thesis is to focus on the experiences of women refugees. First, the decision to take refugees and not immigrants in general as the population under study is that refugees, as forced migrants, are (or should be) given the right to stay in the host country, notably given the 1951 Refugee Convention ratified by most countries, including Switzerland. The statute regarding refugees, as an institutional apparatus, sets out specific rights and duties which profoundly impact refugees’ experiences in the host country.

5My second choice in this thesis is to study only women. Many studies on women as refugees or forced migrants focus mostly on their experiences of persecution, on their unequal access to the asylum determination process, and on specific aspects of the exile experience such as pregnancy or employment (Hunt, 2008: 282). In these cases, women are seen as victims of their destiny and as passive. My intention here is to counter these discourses by approaching the women as active agents, listening to and amplifying their voices, and making visible their various experiences and journeys. Furthermore, as migration is a gendered experience, it can have various impacts on the lives of women. Their status as women can be improved; some studies stress how women adapt faster than men to the host country’s society because migrating usually means an improvement in their independence. However, migration processes should not be essentialized because migrating can also end up aggravating inequalities (Itzigsohn and GiorguliSaucedo, 2005: 897-898). Consequently, refugee women might go through various experiences that may or may not worsen or improve gender inequality given not only their position as women but also their position as agents with multiple identities. This can be linked to the concept of “super-diversity” developed by Vertovec (2007): we now live in a world characterized not only by ethnic diversity but also by an interplay of factors such as gender, age, immigration status and so on. Consequently, when examining someone’s experience within a new society, their various identities and characteristics need to be considered (Itzigsohn and GiorguliSaucedo, 2005: 897-898).

6Finally, I agree with Dahinden’s (2016) plea for the “de-migranticization” of research on migration and integration. According to her, when migration and integration research follows the idea of the nation-state as a reference system, the distinction between foreigners and natives, between members of the majority and the minority is made. Migrants are constructed as homogenous and different from the host society. One should thus focus on how gender, age and other axes of difference interact with the ethnic background of immigrants as emphasized by the concept of “super-diversity”. Therefore, this study will analyze journeys of different refugee women focusing not solely on their ethnicity but also on various other aspects of their identities. However, I still decided to focus on refugee women coming from the Middle East in order to have a common background and not to expand too much the scope of the study. As the social process being studied here takes time, I interviewed women who had arrived in Geneva between 3 and 20 years ago.

7To summarize, this thesis tries to apprehend how women refugees, not solely as coming from a specific country but as women with a specific religion, identity, culture, background and agency, experienced their arrival in Geneva. Thus, their multiple identities and characteristics are seen as having an impact on their agency.

8The literature review below allowed me to focus on concepts and theoretical tools that helped me define my research question. First, the idea of experiences of settlement and integration can be conceptualized through the lens of boundaries (Wimmer, 2004; 2008), especially the various strategies of boundary making and negotiation of identities that are part of processes of belonging (Anthias, 2016: 177). Second, my primary concern was to understand how the various identities and social locations of the women I spoke with affect these experiences of settlement and integration. The concept of translocational positionality (Anthias, 2002; 2008; 2012; 2016) permits this understanding of various positionalities among different contexts and spaces. Thus, the interplay of gender, class, ethnicity and other factors needs to be considered when focusing on the refugee women’s identities and should be seen as embedded in a transnational space made of hierarchical and social boundaries.

9This focus led me to an investigation of how the refugee women negotiate their identities within a specific context and given their specific translocational positionality to create a sense of belonging and/or unbelonging. In fact, markers of identity like gender, class or ethnicity and so on are not only exclusive forms of categorization but also provide narratives and resources. Consequently, individuals should be apprehended as “becoming subjects” (Prins, 2006). For this purpose, the following question is addressed in this study:

10How do refugee women in Geneva use negotiations of identity and processes of boundary work to affect their sense of belonging and unbelonging given their translocational positionality?


1 Where do I belong? Narrating collective identity and translocational positionality is an article written by Anthias (2002) about the multiple feelings of belonging and inclusion/exclusion from second generation young Greek Cypriots in the United Kingdom.


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