Beyond 'Helping': Gender and Relations of Power in Non-Governmental Assistance to Refugees

By Szczepanikova, Alice | Journal of International Women's Studies, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Beyond 'Helping': Gender and Relations of Power in Non-Governmental Assistance to Refugees


Szczepanikova, Alice, Journal of International Women's Studies


Abstract

This article pursues critical gender analysis of conditions of non-governmental (NGO) assistance in the Czech Republic. The study scrutinises practices of assistance in local, low-threshold NGOs working with immigrants, asylum seekers and/or recognised refugees. Although they provide refugees with essential support, this research shows that the NGOs can foster rather than challenge unequal power relations that define refugees primarily as dependent clients. They produce highly feminised spaces of assistance where these power relations produce gendered 'criteria of belonging' (Ong, 1996, 738) that impact differently on refugee women and men. The organisations have, often unacknowledged, vested interests in producing certain client identities in order to sustain their existence and to gain a desired social image. This study aims to provide an insight into gendered power structures of assistance to and representation of refugees provided by the representatives of privileged majority and characterised by informality and discretion.

Keywords: refugees, non-governmental organisations, assistance, representation, Czech Republic

Introduction

Asylum seekers and refugees in today's Europe are more than ever in need of independent and professional legal and social assistance. Gradually restricting access to refugee status seems to be the major concern of the European Union as well as individual nation states and asylum is "no longer a right but a prized status and expensive commodity" (Zetter, 2007, 188). In this context non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become increasingly responsible for securing refugees' access to basic social and economic rights (Lester, 2005; Raper, 2003). On the one hand, their new roles in the process of refugee reception and integration are framed by their ability to identify niches where they can do better than state institutions and by their determination to oppose a dominant restrictive political climate towards refugees. On the other hand, the position of NGOs has been strongly influenced by a wider process of restructuring and rolling back of European welfare states, privatisation of state-run services (Tazreiter 2004) and new modes of governance employed to control migration flows from outside and ethnic minorities inside the nation state.

Even though NGOs tend to be seen as a sign of a healthy civil society, a number of authors have argued that their increased presence should not be perceived as an unconditionally positive development. Questions have been raised about their accountability and legitimacy. For example, Tazreiter (2004) asks: "To whom do NGOs answer? How transparent and open to scrutiny is their work and action?" (68). Others point to a growing divide between responsibility and accountability as NGOs are effectively becoming 'subcontractors' of governments or of the United Nations (Lester 2005, 127). While a number of studies unravel complex and ambivalent relations between NGOs, states and/or large international organisations, there are fewer critical investigations of local NGOs' involvement in the lives of refugees in Europe.

In the Czech Republic and elsewhere, NGOs are often the key mediators of individual refugees' relation with the state by providing them with legal counselling during the asylum determination procedure and information about their rights in the host country. Besides, they also mediate refugees' relationships with the wider public by organizing public events aimed at making refugees visible in a positive light and while fundraising for the continuation of their own existence. Furthermore, NGOs are usually the first contact points for the media; when journalists want to report on refugee issues and look for refugee interviewees, they turn to them. Last but not least, they are important sources of contacts for researchers looking for refugee interlocutors, thus, they also indirectly influence the production of knowledge about refugees. …

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