Belonging in the nation-state: civic and ethno-belonging among recent refugees to Australia

by Farida Fozdar

Working Papers WP 13-12
July 2013
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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The question of who ‘belongs’ is a matter of hot debate across many Western nationstates. As a result of globalisation processes and suspicions raised by the New York and London bombings, questions are being asked about the ability of liberal democracies to successfully absorb migrants, particularly those who are culturally significantly different from the mainstream populations. Refugees are often the target of such concerns. Yet signatories to the UNHCR convention are legally obliged to accept refugees, and most are committed to assisting refugees to develop a sense of belonging through the delivery of settlement and integration programs. Refugees to Australia, for example, who come through its official resettlement program, receive some of the best government-funded settlement services in the world. These services cater to their material, medical and, to some extent, their social needs. This paper asks the extent to which this results in the development of a sense of belonging among refugees uprooted from their homelands and transplanted to a culturally, politically, and geographically distant place. It explores the facets of belonging identified inductively from a corpus of data from qualitative interviews with 77 refugees from a range of backgrounds, living in Western Australia, and a Photovoice exercise with a subsample of 10 families. Thematically, interview narratives map clearly onto civic and ethno conceptualisations of the nation-state and belonging within it. While refugees assert their civic belonging in terms of access to services and rights available to refugees and to Australians more broadly, their sense of ethno-belonging is much more ambivalent, due to a perception of exclusion from the mainstream population. Photovoice responses tell a slightly different story, one that highlights the significance of processes of reflexivity and recognition. Both suggest that for refugees, belonging is a project, rather than an end. Possible reasons for this pattern of responses are considered, as are implications for the concept of the nation-state and for processes of integration and social inclusion more generally.

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