Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Refugee Cosmopolitans: Disrupting Narratives of Dependency

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Refugee Cosmopolitans: Disrupting Narratives of Dependency

Article excerpt

This article provides an alternative framing to so-called 'illegal refugees' in comparison with those dominating public discourse currently in Australia, drawing upon 'cosmopolitan social theory' and ideas of a shared humanity. It distinguishes between contemporary refugees and the nation-building approach to immigration policy, and the tensions in current humanitarian policy responses to refugees. It draws upon original research among refugees in Australia, providing narratives/stories which allow refugees to speak their own experiences in the host country of Australia.


The movement of people across countries either as refugees or immigrants has become a worldwide phenomenon with increasingly diverse characteristics, especially in Western societies. This global migration is often accompanied by duality of citizenship and raises critical issues about the ability of national and local authorities to deal effectively with the task of constructing new civic communities that reflect the diversity of citizens and at the same time acquire shared values and norms (Banks 2008: 130).

Historically, Australia has catered for the needs of migrants under its multicultural policy. Following assimilation and 'White Australia', multiculturalism was a ground-breaking and culture shifting moment because it focussed on valuing, rather than erasing, difference. The times are now different. The movement of people has changed. Mass migration to Australia with permanent settlement as the aim is now only one pathway. Increasingly, people come on short term work visas, while others come and go multiple times while retaining dual passports. This form of circulation migration is becoming more common (Hugo 2003). The arrival of refugees in Australia is not new either but their relationship to Australia is different from the times when permanent settlement was the only aim. Now, processes of globalisation enable the mobility of ideas and people that serve to maintain and strengthen the continuation of ties to more than one place. Multiculturalism as a policy to manage diversity, with its focus on the nation, seems problematic when viewed through the lens of increasing diversities, mobilities and rapid social and cultural change. Understanding and explaining conditions such as these, or what has been called a 'cosmopolitan condition' (Fine 2007), requires a complex framework.

This article will be presented in three parts. The article first outlines the ways in which cosmopolitan social theory might be useful when talking about the movement of people, such as refugees, in these globalising times. This is to say that cosmopolitanism might become 'a means whereby national and global cultures can be mediated' (Vertovec and Cohen, 2002: 17). Secondly, the legal meaning of the word 'refugee' is discussed to reveal the ways in which Australian society generally looks at refugees so that this can be compared with the perspectives of refugees and how they view themselves as human subjects who want to live and act as others do. Refugees' perspectives reveal that they believe that they are equal to others; they have goals in life to fulfil through using their life experiences, including professional and educational experiences. The third part of the article concludes with a brief discussion about the relative merits of a cosmopolitan theoretical approach. The argument put forward draws strongly on four conceptual dimensions of a cosmopolitan imagination as outlined by Delanty (2009).

Cosmopolitan Social Theory and Refugees

Cosmopolitan social theory is a diverse field. In this article, there is a focus on what Sobe has referred to as 'actually existing cosmopolitans' (2009: 6-7). The practical focus on what people do is in contrast to a focus on debates about the theoretical origins of cosmopolitanism in the Enlightenment and elsewhere (Fine 2007; Vertovec and Cohen 2002). These debates are extensive and focus on the epistemological and ontological locatedness of various cosmopolitan traditions and 'world varieties of cosmopolitanism' (Delanty 2012: 425-550). …

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