The Iranian diaspora’s role in the Woman, Life, Freedom movement

Author anonymous.

In October last year, Berlin attracted international attention for a turnout of more than 80,000 Iranian people and allies showing solidarity with protesters in Iran. Capturing a feeling that resonates with myself and other members of the Iranian diaspora, one protester told the BBC: “It’s breath-taking, it’s amazing…it’s the first time that so many people in our nation are united regardless of their political beliefs before revolution and after revolution. I am really proud.” Under the Islamic Republic in Iran (IRI) dictatorship that has gripped the homeland for 44 years, mass protests inside Iran are not new.

Why is this unprecedented solidarity and activism from the diaspora happening now? As a British-Iranian woman under 30 years old, who grew up in the UK and with strong family ties in Iran, I have been struck by the increased diasporic activism both online and in the national and international political arena. I’ve found myself active in Iranian homeland politics like never before. Importantly, I have witnessed an increased cohesiveness among the Iranian diaspora and an unprecedented optimism that real change is in the making. 

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Protests in support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement, London (UK). Photo by the author.

It is estimated there are more than four million Iranians abroad. The 1979 revolution was a huge driver of emigration, with the upper and middle classes moving to North America and Western Europe. The Iranian diaspora is usually a fractured group that steers clear of organising around homeland politics, but the killing of Kurdish-Iranian woman Zhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of morality police in September 2022 led to an eruption of political diasporic activism in support of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. The rallying cry of ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ originates from Kurdish liberation movements, and now also embodies the female-led, intersectional revolution in Iran focused on securing human rights for all and an end the dictatorship. As the former Shah’s son and secular democracy advocate, Reza Pahlavi, told the Guardian newspaper, the revolution is continuing because everyone understands this is a “do-or-die” moment. Diasporic activism has ranged from global rallies for solidarity and awareness, social media campaigns to amplify Iranian voices, and political lobbying. This is however while standing against foreign intervention.

Social media

Unlike previous uprisings such as the Green Movement in the wake of the hotly contested 2009 election, Iranians use of the internet has rocketed from 14 per cent of the population in 2009 to 79 per cent in 2021, Following the killing of Amini, the ability to document what’s happening on the ground and connect with outside Iran is therefore unprecedented. The messaging online and from prominent human rights campaigners was clear early on to not allow the regime’s nationwide internet shutdown to silence Iranian voices and commit atrocities with impunity. And so members of the diaspora (alongside established independent Iranian media and human rights activist groups) have become facilitators in sharing videos, images and messages from Iranians to the outside world and to keep their stories visible, and IRI accountable, on the international stage.

Diaspora mobilisation included templates to write to political representatives, circulating petitions, details of global rallies, and social media posts to spread awareness of particular protesters recently missing or arrested. Organised actions to gain votes for the women of Iran to be chosen as Time magazine heroes of the year, and for Iranian singer Shervin Hajipour’s song ‘Baraye’ (For Freedom) to be chosen as the Grammy awards song for social change category, were also targeted visibility efforts that succeeded. Existing Iranian businesses and celebrities have also turned their hand to using their social media as a tool to raise awareness of events in Iran. One Texas-based Persian language teacher, for example, began doing vocabulary videos of protest slogans, while Iranian food businesses came together to promote #cookforiran challenges.

Social media has also grown in the number of English language accounts now solely campaigning for Iran. Some examples include United 4 Mahsa, Diaspora for Iran, Be Iran’s Voice and Iranian Diaspora Collective on Instagram whose content ranges from weekly round-ups of news of the ongoing revolution, calls to actions and videos shared from Iran on what’s happening on the ground. Iranian Diaspora Collective for example was formed in response to the “overwhelming demand from Iranians in Iran to amplify their voices”. It describes itself as “non-partisan, multi-faith and queer-led” and has more than 57,000 followers. It launched a crowdfunding campaign to install billboards highlighting the Woman, Life, Freedom movement around the world to counter the lack of coverage in the mainstream media. Within two months it had installed billboards at 136 locations and gained 22 million media impressions, according to its campaign update.

Global protests

October 1st, 2022 marked the first day of global rallies to show solidarity with protesters in Iran, which took place in more than 150 cities worldwide. Toronto hosted the highest recorded turnout with 50,000 people, and global rallies continued every weekend through 2022, with further events ongoing. In January 2023, bus loads of Iranians from around Europe travelled to Strasbourg to demonstrate in front of the European Parliament demanding that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a powerful branch of the IRI, be placed on the EU’s terror list. In the UK, the same demand is being targeted at Westminster, with British-Iranian activist Vahid Beheshti’s hunger strike outside the Foreign Office ongoing since February 23rd. And this news gets relayed in Iran. One Iranian journalist Tweeted a picture sent to their newsroom of a boy in Iran holding a sign asking the London hunger striker to break his dangerously long action. An underground youth group of Iranian protesters also published a statement of their support of diaspora efforts to designate the IRGC a terrorist group. A key understanding of activism in the diaspora is that their actions must represent and amplify the demands of those inside Iran.

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Protests in support of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement in London (UK). Photo by the author

But the threat of the regime beyond borders is also a risk. The social media group, Iranian Diaspora Collective, for example, does not disclose the identities of all its members due to concerns of surveillance and the safety of family members in Iran. London-based independent media Iran International’s newsroom was forced to leave the UK in February due to a “significant escalation” in state-backed threats against its journalists. According to the Metropolitan Police 15 plots to kidnap or kill UK-based people seen as enemies of the regime have been foiled since 2022.

International political lobbying

From removing IRI from the UN women’s rights commission, to establishing the UN to set up an independent investigation to hold IRI accountable for its crimes against Iranian people, the diaspora has been at the forefront of pushing international action. Widespread campaigns gained traction worldwide in December as executions of protesters became a reality. In efforts for the  #stopexecutionsiniran campaign, lobbyists tried to galvanise international politicians into giving political sponsorship for prisoners. Joint efforts have also emerged from female Iranian and Afghan activists to launch a campaign to make gender apartheid a crime under international law.

An alliance of diasporic Iranian opposition figures has also formed, drawing up a charter of secular democratic principles. They present themselves not as a “shadow government”, or leaders of the Iranian people, but aims to “reflect and pursue their demands’ with the goal of a secular democracy in Iran. They state practical steps of supporting public strikes and protests in Iran, drawing attention of the international community on the conditions of prisoners in Iran, and asking them to isolate IRI. Members include the former Shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, women’s rights campaigner Masih Alinejad and Nobel peace prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.


While continuing unity on Iran’s future political landscape is no easy task, the commitment of Iranians abroad to support those inside Iran on a mass scale gives hope and connectedness across borders I’ve never seen before among Iranians. My own engagement has changed. I previously had a strict ‘no Iranian politics’ social media rule for myself. Since Amini’s death, I have been sharing regular updates online, taken part in demonstrations, written to my MP, created templates for others to do the same, written articles, donated to NGOs and signed and shared petitions.

The celebration, education and pride of Iranian culture and diversity has also flourished within this movement, with excitement growing over the possibilities of a free, democratic Iran. For many in the diaspora, this could mean being able to travel to Iran for the first time or returning after many years in exile. For me as a dual national, it will mean being able to return without fear of arrest, which is something I have been unable to do for several years as IRI’s suspicion of foreign influence grows.

For both the diaspora and those inside Iran, the stakes are high and one thing is clear, there is no returning back to the status quo. The gains of a free Iran are too great to stay silent anymore.

As protesters shout on the streets of Iran: “Be scared, be scared, we are all together”.

Note – The author, a British-Iranian, has asked to be anonymous to protect her family from potential repercussions.
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Posted in Migration Comments

How time reveals hidden power in the refugee camp

Dr Melissa Gatter is Lecturer in International Development (University of Sussex)

While a universal experience, the passing of time is not an equal one. For those whose mobility is policed, time becomes more immediately present, almost tangible, as they must wait for permission at every border crossing, however official or informal.

Such is the case for the residents of Azraq refugee camp, the desert site that Jordan and the UNHCR designated for 40,000 Syrian refugees in 2014. Located 35 kilometres from the nearest city on either side, Azraq camp looks nothing like Jordan’s well-known Zaatari camp, which features a booming microeconomy, winding cul-de-sacs, and a consistent rotation of journalists, researchers, and documentary filmmakers. In Azraq, the bustling market is instead a strictly regulated cash-for-work scheme, the neighbourhoods with makeshift patios and courtyards are replaced with straight rows of identical caravans, and the journalists, researchers, and filmmakers are often turned away at the camp’s entrance.

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Azraq camp, Copyright: Melissa Gatter

Order and compliance, not liveability or comfort, are prioritised in Azraq camp. This is enforced by the camp’s security apparatus, which responds to disobedience by threatening deportation. Village 5, the camp’s high security zone housing thousands of residents awaiting security clearance in lockdown, is an enduring reminder that residents are never truly settled in Azraq.

Since 2014, those living in Azraq have resided there for an indeterminate period, during which time their biological and biographical fates lie in the hands of a stranger: an aid worker or a security officer. In the meantime, they seldom have access to ‘national’ time; that is, the temporalities available to Jordanian citizens who can participate in capitalist timelines. While UNOs and NGOs run centres throughout Azraq, it does not take long to see that programming seldom carries biographical significance. Because humanitarians do little to address the structural marginalisation of refugees in Jordan, the skills certificates that many residents earn at NGO centres do not grant them access to careers, and diplomas achieved in the camp may not result in a place at a university. Many young residents become frustrated, resorting to the poorly paid cash-for-work scheme not for the income but for the sake of work itself.    

The apparent temporal stillness of the forcibly displaced contributes to the archetypal image of refugees as ‘stuck’. Their lives appear on hold; their wait, permanently transitory. My forthcoming book, Time and Power in Azraq Refugee Camp: A Nine-to-Five Emergency (AUC Press, 2023), is an ethnographic investigation into these temporal politics. It foregrounds time in its study of Azraq camp, revealing realities often overlooked by studies of forced displacement that centre around space. Studies that leave time to the background of camp spatialities tend to reproduce narratives of refugees as living in a paradoxical state of temporary permanence in which power is exercised solely through the tangible and perceptible: borders, material infrastructure, and space itself. When we focus solely on the spatial dimensions of power in camps, we miss all the ways that power also operates—and is challenged—through the temporal realm.

By honing in on the everyday temporal experiences of the Jordanian aid workers and Syrian residents of Azraq, my book locates invisible power across the camp as it affects both those who work there and who live there, emphasising the critical importance of the camp as time, not just a space. Examining the numerous ways that power operates through time is crucial to how we understand refugee camps as modern technologies of care and control. Through its investigation of Azraq’s everyday operations, Time and Power depicts a multifaceted timescape within which both aid workers and residents negotiate, challenge, and comply with the workings of the aid regime.

My examination of time in the refugee camp is not only concerned with its residents’ wait for the return to Syria. It carefully situates the everyday tempos of the camp within overlapping and conflicting contexts of humanitarian emergency, bureaucratised aid, neoliberal development, facades of care, and architectures of control. The book’s focus on time considers how humanitarian and development work operate through blurred timelines, how aid jobs are structured by deadlines, contracts, and proceduralism, and how aid workers have deeply personal perspectives on time’s passing in the camp. It is also about how camp residents build daily schedules, wait for services and work, and project themselves into alternative presents and various near and far futures.

The year I spent conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the camp between 2017 and 2018 revealed that while Azraq’s residents are indeed active in their waiting, the realities of displaced temporalities stretch far beyond either active waiting on the one hand and limbo, stuckness, and liminality on the other. Time and Power contends that time in displacement is not straightforward, but messy; not frozen, but confused. The camp is not only an endless present for its residents but also part of their recent pasts and near futures. We can acknowledge the co-evalness of Azraq while still not denying the reality that its residents feel that the timescapes of the camp are different and isolated from outside temporalities. Every moment of Azraq residents’ lives in the camp is bordered not only by material infrastructure that separates and confines but also temporal scaffolding that restricts and alienates.

Through ethnographic accounts of boredom and urgency, the book illustrates how Azraq’s residents are exhausted by keeping busy in the day-to-day while simultaneously confronted with an abundance of time in the camp. It follows residents as they navigate the camp system and negotiate the temporal and spatial power that shapes their lives in order to create more meaningful and comfortable residence in exile.

In its investigation of the ‘best-planned refugee camp in the world’, Time and Power asserts that it is impossible to analyse emergency response without critically evaluating bureaucracy, to understand how residents wait without acknowledging how they resist, to identify how aid workers care without recognising how the aid system controls, and to interrogate power without accounting for time and space together. My book is a call for more research on the politics of time in spaces of displacement, paying attention to the hidden dimension of disempowerment and isolation, but also agency and endurance.

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Posted in Migration Research

LGBTQI+ immigrants’ experiences of in/exclusion in the UK

Dr Sarah Scuzzarello, Senior Lecturer in migration (SCMR and Dept of Geography, University of Sussex) and co-coordinator of GenSeM, Gender and Sexuality in Migration research at IMISCOE. With Golchehr Hamidi-Manesh, Research Assistant.

Rainbow and transgender flags

To what degree do the experiences of migration and settlement of LGBTQI+ people differ from those of heterosexual and cisgender migrants? The burgeoning field of ‘queer migration’ asks this and related questions, fore-fronting how sexuality and gender identity impact migratory processes. Working within this body of research, I conducted life-story interviews with LGBTQI+ migrants (N:17) from Europe (N:12), the US (N:3), and central America/Caribbean (N:2), eight of which identified as Black or minority ethnic (mixed race; Arab; Latinix). No participant had refugee background. The preliminary findings point to the need to enquire systematically, first, how LGBTQI+ individuals’ experiences of migration and settlement are influenced by intersecting social location of sexuality and gender identity, race, class, and migration status. Second, we need to analyse in which social spaces sexuality and gender identity matter in shaping one’s migratory journey, rather than assuming their ubiquitous relevance. Here, I present some of the participants’ experiences of settling in the UK that speak to these points. All participants’ names are pseudonyms.

At the margins as (relatively privileged) migrants

16 participants migrated to the UK as European or US citizens and they came as university students, family members, or high-skilled professionals. They did not face the same restrictions upon entry imposed on migrants from the ‘Global South’ or ‘low skilled’ migrants. Their relative privilege, however, does not spare them from the UK hostile climate towards migrants. Paolo (Italian gay man), who works in design, feels that British acquaintances treat him “like a guest”. Others point at how British politics have changed public attitudes for the worse.

As an immigrant [things have changes], yeah! I think it’s much less welcoming, open, than I think it was 20 years ago, 15 years ago […] I think over the last 12 years before the government, that has changed hugely. Things like this Rwanda policy is just a disgusting example of that. That no-one is welcome. (Mark, French American bisexual man)

European participants are adamant to underline that the climate of hostility worsened after the 2016 Brexit referendum, which has eroded their rights. They feel “unwelcome”, in the words of Christophe (French, gay man), “unstable”, “stressed” and “anxious” (Mark), and “sad” (Fatime, French queer woman), their right to be in the UK questioned (Frank, Italian gay man). Four participants decided to mitigate the insecurity borne out of Brexit by naturalising as British citizens.

British citizenship completely came out of Brexit because there was no need for this before. We were just here. And it was forever. (Olle, Swedish gay man)

Thanks to their privileged status as eligible citizens who had the means to naturalise, those participants could act upon their perceived insecurity and create a sense of stability after the rug “had been pulled out from under us”, as Mark puts it.

Findings suggest that the participants’ sexuality and gender identity does not fully define their experience of migrating to the UK. Instead, being foreign citizens, regardless of their relative privilege, shaped their experiences.

Spaces of belonging in queer Britain

Several White respondents stated that life in the UK, with a relatively vibrant LGBTQI+ community, enabled them to achieve an integrated and fully open queer life. Those who came to the UK to study at university, found “freedom” that made them “ignore a lot of shit in those few months [when they first arrived in the UK]” (João, Portuguese, non-binary). This positive experience was shared by ethnic minority participants who could ‘pass’ as White, highlighting how intersections of race, sexuality and gender identity matter in the participants’ experiences of settlement. Kai (American, Latinix, trans*) says:

[City] is a much better place for me to live. I think people just see me as Italian […] the racism that I experience is markedly lower than back home […] And also, I noticed that […] people, rarely gender me. […] this is the ultimate space for transmasculine people.

The opportunity to socialise in queer spaces is welcome by many, but some Black and ethnic minority interviewees report instances when socialising in queer spaces is mediated by race and their migration background. They describe the British queer scene as predominately White and several participants recounted being “objectified” (Christophe, French, black gay man) and “fetishized” (Drew, Arab-Danish, gay man). They also describe not fitting in culturally:

I’ve loved what [city] has given to me [but it is] too small […]I think more than just [city] it’s just probably British culture and I just… even the pop culture I don’t really enjoy… you know, having a beer at the pub I don’t enjoy it so much or, you know, the gay scene… so many people  just…they always tell me to just go to a drag show and that bores me. (Connor, Caribbean-Canadian, mixed race, gay man)

Living in predominately White spaces, where there is not only a risk for objectification and racism but also a cultural disconnect, has made these participants look for specific places of belonging and solidarity outside mainstream White British queer culture. To Christophe, this means socialising in local networks for Black and brown LGBTQI+ (which can however be small and run by gossip, as Connor hinted to) and in London, which offers more diversity. Others searched for “people that had the same story, had the same past, and hopefully have the same future” as Drew described his network which includes predominately Black, Brown and Arab queer people.

Navigating unfamiliar territory

The participants underline that it takes time to find and become part of safe (queer) networks and that the first years in a new country, making contacts, and navigating the unfamiliar rules of the local queer community could be challenging. Paolo, despite living in the UK for five years, has not yet found a social space where he can share interests and “be myself, but in a gay environment”. Drew describes his first years in the UK as frustratingly “trying to fit into a group that I did not belong in” and in hindsight he says he was being “white-washed”.

Raphael’s (Polish, White gay man) experience points to more concerning implications of navigating unfamiliar queer territory. He recounts that, as he moved to the UK, he was drawn to what seemed exciting gay venues and bought into a lifestyle which involved partying and chemsex. Years on, having left those circles, he is adamant to stress the risks for young gay migrants. Especially those coming from highly heteronormative societies and with limited experiences of queer identities, can get “lost”:

If a young migrant from Eastern Europe who didn’t have any experience in the gay community before, because there was no gay community, comes to London and finds himself straight into the darkest worst part of gay community like Vauxhall nightclubs and everything. That is a very drastic, extreme change. So sometimes they might get lost in that new world. Because it’s exciting, of course. But it’s also something that they probably can’t handle, […] if you’re surrounded by wrong people who are only dragging you down, it’s very difficult to find yourself back. If you don’t have that somebody, if you don’t have good friends around you, and you are only relying on yourself, it might be more difficult, it might take more time.

These examples speak to specific needs of parts of the queer migrant community that are not fully attended to. On the one hand, a desire to ‘fit in’ – often identified in research on migrants’ ‘integration’ – and the strategies adopted by participants to find a place of belonging. On the other, the need for safe spaces for young LGBTQI+ migrants where they can find advice.

The initial findings from the research emphasise how the participants’ experiences of settlement in the UK are not only shaped by their sexuality and gender identity. Their ethnicity, class and migration status are equally important in influencing their migration journey. These intersecting social locations give them differential abilities to navigate life in the UK and attention to these intersections can contribute to a more holistic understanding of the life experiences of LGBTQI+ migrants that avoids treating these migrants simply as sexual subjects.

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Posted in Migration Research

Statelessness and belonging: The case of Saharawis in Spain

By Celia Garcia de Medina-Rosales, alumnus of the Migration Studies MA, University of Sussex (2021/22). Her dissertation was awarded 2022 JEMS Award for the best Migration Studies MA

Statelessness, defined in international law as ‘not being considered a national by any state under the operation of its law’, is receiving increased attention. UNHCR’s 2014iBelong’ campaign aims at ending statelessness by ensuring the right to a nationality, on the grounds that rights are derived from belonging to a political community by acquiring a national citizenship. Another perspective on statelessness looks at groups who have been dispossessed of their land, becoming citizens of states they don’t necessarily identify with. In academia, these are called ‘stateless diasporas’.

What then, does ‘belonging’ and ‘statelessness’ mean to people who are not considered formal citizens of any state where they live? What about those who are, but also identify as belonging to a country not recognised internationally? What role do the host state and society play in their experience, and does this influence their personal engagement with their origin country in the place they now live? Pondering over these questions, I interviewed 8 Saharawis living in Spain as part of my master’s dissertation. This piece highlights my key findings. 

Indigenous to Western Sahara, the Saharawis were colonised by Spain from 1886 until 1975. A year later, Morocco annexed the territory, and despite numerous UN resolutions for its decolonisation, 80% remains occupied. Thousands of Saharawis sought refuge in the camps of Tindouf (Algeria), now governed by the POLISARIO under the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Due to colonialism, most of the diaspora lives in Spain. Those from the Occupied Territories generally possess the Moroccan citizenship. However, those born in the camps find themselves in a legal limbo; they’re not Algerian citizens, but Spain doesn’t recognise the SADR either. To regularise their situation, Saharawis must be granted stateless status and eventually obtain citizenship. This situation enables subjective understandings of statelessness to emerge, influenced by the Spanish state and society.

Spain’s citizenship regime is amongst the strictest within the EU, but exceptions based on historical reparations exempt certain Latin Americans and Sephardic Jews. Saharawis, whose situation is a direct consequence of Spanish colonialism, feel they should also belong in this group. Spanish citizenship is not only necessary to enjoy stability and basic rights including work, study, or move, it’s a matter of justice. Due to Spain’s non-recognition of the SADR, many Saharawis possessing stateless documents are met with doubt surrounding their origins, which can substantiate feelings of not belonging anywhere. Others reject the legal definition of statelessness because it erases their collective identity, given that ‘stateless’ in Spanish is ‘apátrida’: the absence of historical, juridical, and affective ties linking a person to a homeland.

Furthermore, Saharawis’ plight doesn’t necessarily end with a passport. Many aspire to visit Western Sahara but can’t because of the fear, restrictions, and intimidation of Moroccan authorities. Algerian-Spanish tense relations might also jeopardise Saharawis’ ability to travel to the Tindouf camps, a place some cited as also belonging to because they can practice their Saharawi culture which they hope to do in their homeland one day. Consequently, Saharawis find ways to negotiate their ascribed statuses. Said’s journey from fleeing the occupied territories with a Moroccan passport to being granted protection and a new citizenship abroad allowed him to voice his Saharawi identity, where he was previously just considered Moroccan. Mustafa applied for stateless status instead of taking the citizenship route, for, besides other practical things, the recognition of the Saharawi refugee camps as his birthplace instead of Algeria. 

Spain’s local institutions complexify feelings of statelessness and belonging through their immigration practices and degree of support of the Saharawi cause. Catalonia and the Basque Country lead as progressive autonomous regions. Amir, a nurse working in Bilbao feels a sense of attachment to the city because ‘for the national administration, [he‘s] stateless, but the civil servants see [him] as Saharawi’.

Belonging is therefore deeply social and shaped by the relationship that Saharawis have with Spanish people. Given Saharawi and Spanish interconnected histories, many reject exclusive identities. Bahia Awah introduced himself as a ‘saharo-spanish’ writer and anthropologist, which challenges the idea that Saharawis belong ‘here’ or ‘there’. This is further contested by Saharawis who decide to remain in Spain after participating as children in the Holidays in Peace scheme where they develop emotional bonds to their host families. Therefore, Saharawis’ sense of belonging in Spain often occurs before obtaining a Spanish passport. Feelings of statelessness and exclusion can also endure after obtaining citizenship due to racism and xenophobia within Spanish society.

it’s like a constant reminder that you don’t belong here’.


The desire for Spanish citizenship is also to influence Spanish’s policies regarding Western Sahara. Others act before obtaining citizenship and use social media as a tool to articulate their distinct identity. However, the non-recognition of Saharawis by the Spanish still impacts their online engagement. During her citizenship application process, Nadia ‘needed to be careful with what [she] said… not to criticise the Spanish monarchy or share [her] political beliefs’. 

Before 2013, Saharawis were considered either Moroccan or Algerian. The stateless status identifies Saharawis, which Mustafa sees as a political tool of pressure on governors to be attentive to their demands as future voters. Other factors influencing their engagement includes the extent of the host family’s political involvement or Saharawi’s socio-economic positionality as adults: some have more time and financial resources than those in lower-wage sectors or where they can’t access activist networks. Improving one’s socio-economic and legal situation is not necessarily incompatible with mobilising for Western Sahara. Iman is part of an organisation of lawyers who help Saharawis with legal matters, but Spanish citizenship allowed her to study, learn languages and become an expert to also advance the case of Western Sahara in international law. As a university teacher, Bahia visibilises Saharawis within Spanish academia by organising fieldtrips to the camps and liberated territories.

Experiencing statelessness and exclusion also motivates Saharawis to change Spain’s socio-political landscape and formulate a new template for belonging. Mustafa’s Saharawi collective supports unaccompanied Moroccan youth because he strives for a Spanish solidarity that challenges ideas of loyalty and nationalism. Bahia’s essay ‘Lavapies’ suggests a non-hierarchical idea of belonging, independent from one’s ethnicity, passport, and class. Indeed, Saharawis’ condition is not detached from that of other migrants, which explains Nadia’s participation in last year’s protest following the Melilla massacre by Moroccan and Spanish forces, whose collaboration followed Spain’s support for Morocco’s occupation.

[Belonging is] the fight for the rights of people in a society [asking us to] imagine an administration where they don’t understand your language but try to understand you… these things are what make you feel part of something


Despite the limited sample, my research offers insights into the experience of Saharawis in Spain and their personal strategies to accept, redefine, or negotiate top-down categorisations of ‘stateless’, ‘citizen’, ‘Saharawi’ or ‘Spanish’, and how this influences their understanding of belonging in profound ways, shaping personal engagements. This lens, that centers their voices, needs to be privileged to comprehensively address the issue of statelessness. 

Posted in Migration Research

Somali women refugees in Ethiopia: Who knows best what works (or not) for them?

Bole Michael, Addis Ababa. Credit: Jasmine Halki [original]; Licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Adamnesh A. Bogale, Gender and Migration Expert at the Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa and a member of the Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) team.

The number of Somali refugees in Ethiopia is 250,719, which represents 28.6% of all registered refugees in the country. There are relatively very few Somali refugees in the capital, Addis Ababa, with the vast majority in Dolo Ado (82%) and Jijiga (17%). Although the Government of Ethiopia has passed a law providing refugees with the right to engage in certain economic activities, and has made additional effort to support refugees in Addis Ababa, refugees in the capital are struggling to subsist. This blog post draws on interviews with a broad range of Somali women refugees in the Bole Michael area of Addis Ababa.

The particular challenges faced by women refugees

The experiences of Somali women refugees, both in their home country and enroute to Ethiopia, were nightmarish. None of them imagined they would ever have to flee their homes. They were exposed to dangers including gender-based violence on top of the daily struggles they faced to care for their family. A number of them had husbands and/or children who were dead or missing as a result of the conflict in Somalia, leaving them as traumatised heads of their households in a new country. Their displacement has left them vulnerable to loneliness, distress, anxiety and desperation. Hanan (all names in this article have been changed) lost her husband and two sons in Somalia, and then lost two daughters in the process of fleeing to Ethiopia. She said: “… I am only left with one sick son, whom I brought here with me, from a family of seven… I don’t see any hope.”

A combination of financial challenges and cultural norms means that women and girl refugees are barely able to manage. While they are grateful for peace and appreciate protection from forced return, the absence of an enabling environment for women refugees to create or get jobs is holding them back from flourishing. Moreover, as women and girls are burdened with the responsibility of caring for sick people in the household, they are unable to go out and look for jobs. Girls drop out of school to help their mothers in the house and to care for sick members as boys continue their studies. Sarah, whose father is sick, explained that this is what happened to her: “I had to take that decision for my two brothers to continue their education.”

No pathways out of poverty

While refugees certainly need a more comprehensive right to work, of equal importance is supporting them to access the labour market in practice. In particular, the lack of language skills on the part of Somali refugees is a real barrier to their prospects of obtaining employment. Policymakers pay little attention to creating an enabling environment for refugees’ self-reliance. Such limitations hinder refugees’ prospects of obtaining decent work and improving their income. This is particularly true for women, who face discrimination in both formal and informal sectors. As a result, unemployment remains a major challenge, causing significant psychological, social, and economic crises, which are disproportionately borne by women.

Samia is a woman refugee in Bole Michael who gets minimal support through humanitarian aid agencies and government assistance. She said: “I only receive so little from UNHCR [the United Nations Refugee Agency], which is not by any means enough to survive. My family and I barely make it each month. On top of this, I have a sick child whom I have to care for… it is a miracle if we eat twice a day.” There are many refugee women like Samia. All of them deserve pathways out of poverty.

The need for respect and tailored interventions

While humanitarian and government interventions are viewed favourably by refugees, our engagement with Somali women refugees has demonstrated that such interventions could be tailored to address the specific needs of women refugees. The Somali women refugees also talked about the negative mindset of others toward refugees. As Saida summed up: “…the labelling and disrespect is taking us down. …we too are humans, aren’t we?”

Women refugees are the most vulnerable; at the same time they are the most resilient – against all odds. Our discussions with these women refugees showed that they need to be listened to in order to understand their concerns, unique challenges, aspirations and strengths.

It also appears that neither third country resettlement, a process which is characterised by enormous delays leaving refugees in limbo for many years, nor return to Somalia are options for the refugees trying to build their lives in Ethiopia. We have to address women refugee issues in a way that engages with complexity and nuance. This is not a task that any one actor can achieve; rather it requires collaboration between various stakeholders, with women refugees always in the lead. As we bring stakeholders together, we will seek to engender collaboration, with women refugees’ voices at the centre of any initiatives.

This blog was originally posted in Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) website. PDE is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (grant reference number ES/T004509/1).

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Posted in Migration Research

Entangled identities of second-generation Gurkha Nepali’s in the UK

Safina Bull, University of Exeter, BA Liberal Arts 2022

The paradox of belonging to two places, but at the same time not belonging to either, is something that many people face in a migratory context. Negotiating one’s entangled, intersecting identities is a complex process of defining, consciously and unconsciously, who you are and who you are not. My research with second-generation Nepali youth in the UK illustrates well such entangled identities, and of how people negotiate multiple belonging. Focussing on young Nepalis from Gurkha Army families in the UK, I find that the ways in which Nepalis have been incorporated in the Gurkha Army (as part of the Gurkha infantry or outside of it), and their social and economic capital has a clear impact on how their children born and raised in the UK experience their belonging to Nepal and the UK.

Nepal is a multi-ethnic state composed of 100 different ethnic groups and that has adopted in law (until 1963) the Hindu-based caste-system which has shaped social inequalities  and has left a lasting impression on Nepali society. The recruitment to the Gurkha Army from the British Army has followed a caste selective pattern since the 19th century, and the soldiers have traditionally been recruited from a handful of ethnic groups. Many of the recruits were men from poor ethnic groups who were used as cheap mercenaries. This caste-based recruitment pattern influenced the settlement in the post-Nepalese postcolonial diaspora in the UK, where these ‘ethnic minorities’ have become 9 times more represented than in their natal Nepal (Gellner, 2019). It is important to note that ‘caste’ is based on different ethnic groups in Nepal and the word for both is the same (‘jat/janajati), however, caste is stratified from ‘higher’ to lower’ or ‘pure’ and ‘impure’ people, whereas I use ethnicity to speak about the general Nepali population.

Despite the involvement of Gurkha soldiers in the British Army they have been systematically segregated from mainstream British society. The army’s restriction of the integration of the Gurkha infantry reduced the ability of these soldiers to gain the social capital of language and understanding of the nuances of British society, significantly reducing their opportunities for integration and social mobility in the UK. Due to the lack of social capital, many of the first-generation stuck to the ‘safe space’ of people ‘like them’. These spaces enabled the first-generation to maintain values and customs, based on memory and sustained links with their community of origins in Nepal and to pass them on to their children, who not only receive but also transform this cultural capital according to their own transnational activities between Nepal and the UK.

My research shows that the first-generation Nepalis’ opportunities for upward social mobility and integration in British society was importantly shaped by their opportunity to accrue social capital and become proficient in English while servicing in the UK. The stories of from second-generation Radhika and Maya’s (names changed) parents’ stories are illustrative in this respect. Whilst speaking to Radhika and Maya, I found out that they both knew each other but do not keep in contact much anymore.

Although this is about the second-generational experiences and their struggles or ability to ‘balance’ their multiple identities, the focus on their perceptions of their first-generation parents is important as they equip the second-generation with means to successfully balance their identities. However, this knowledge and support is directly related to the first generations’ class belonging within the UK society, and as we see in the case of the Gurkha experience, is based on caste. Maya’s father, who is still employed by the British Army, initially joined the British Gurkha Army in the ‘niche’ division of admin. This division was not integrated into the Gurkha communities of infantry. Rather his role involved interacting with ‘officers in the higher ranks’. There was also a generational history as his dad had served in the Gurkha Army, allowing him to access a higher level of education in Nepal than most people from his ‘gaun’ [village]. This allowed for his career progression within the British Army division, and therefore moved to the UK earlier than other Nepali Gurkha soldiers. He had the finances to invest in Maya’s education and she was able to attend private schools in the UK. Maya’s father was able to learn English and acquire a familiarity with British society, which enabled him to progress within the British Army and not to be confined to only interacting with other Nepalis.

Maya’s descriptions of her father’s career offer insights into her family’s transnational identity through their ability to break cultural boundaries by means of their social capital. Maya highlights the “selective acculturation” whereby the second-generation is rooted within their parent’s ethnic identity through language and values, whilst “cushion[ing] the move of both generations” into the ‘British’ ways, most common “among middle-class immigrants” (Levitt & Waters, 2002: 17). Furthermore, Maya’s father’s social and economic capital has allowed for the creation of a new ‘imagined’ belonging of Maya’s parents within the UK and a movement into the British class-system. Maya highlights this social and economic mobility through the fact that her parents “look posh” as they started dressing in “red chinos” when she began private school, which highlights her mother’s ability to decipher the appropriate dress code required to match their social mobility. Maya and her parent’s understanding of the nuances of ‘belonging’ to middle-class British society through clothing provides insights into the parents’ acculturation and integration into the country of destination.  

Radhika’s family had a very different experience, and it is clear by the way in which Radhika speaks about her family. She has less pride about her family and their experiences in the UK, and criticises them – especially in comparison to the way in which Maya spoke. Her father’s involvement in the Gurkha Army followed the ‘usual’ pattern of infantry mercenaries as he was from a ‘poor’ “gaun [village]”. In Radhika’s words he was faced with either “do nothing and be nothing” or to join the army. Owing to Radhika’s father’s position within the army, and thus his lack of English proficiency and social knowledge of the UK, they stuck to the ‘safety net’  of a predominantly Nepali community in Swindon when moving in 2006 after they were granted permanent residency and retirement for his service in the army – as with majority of the Nepalis in the UK. Radhika states that her parents “wouldn’t really socialise with English people outside of work context” and they would speak English only in case of necessity. Due to their lack of social capital and language knowledge, their opportunities for upward social mobility in the UK have been limited. In contrast to Maya’s father, Radhika’s father is retired from the army and is a security guard, “the common jobs of Nepali dads” and her mother is a cleaner, “another very common Nepali job”. Parts of the first-generation Nepali diaspora, as described by Radhika, engages in boundary work by operating in primarily Nepali spaces where they can speak the language and maintain their culture and customs. However, according to Radhika, this has hindered their integration and belonging in wider British society. Had they made an active effort, they could have been “modern” like Maya’s parents, acknowledging the fact they “live in Britain”, and not confined themselves to the Nepali cultural bubble, argued Radhika. I found that contrasting these two experiences were most interesting as Radhika used Maya’s upbringing as a comparison to what her family was not, as Maya’s ‘mobile’ parents lived in non-Nepali areas with more “pressure to kind of integrate with everybody else” (Radhika). This also provides a subtle commentary of what her parents could have been if it had not been for the ‘social bubble’ of the Nepali communities.

Maya’s case illustrates how the first generation ‘successful’ integration in the recipient society might enable the second generation’s ability to navigate multiple identities successfully. Maya explicitly talked about her strong emotional attachment to Nepal through her “proud history”, which is transmitted by her parents. She interacts with the Nepali side of her identity through the ‘balancing-act’ whereby she can “pick and choose” what elements of her cultures that believes make up her identity. This does not necessarily mean there are forms of strong material connections with Nepal (e.g. sending remittances or regular visits). Maya says that the most significant part of her ‘British’ identity was being born in the UK and having a British passport. But her British identity was also formed by going to a private British school, being surrounded by a diverse group of people, taking a gap year before going to university, and having a friendship group which does not only consist of Nepalis. These experiences gave her  the freedom to form her ‘separate’ identities and values. Yet, Maya’s allegiance to Nepal illustrates the importance interaction with her parents in maintaining traditions, foods, and music.

Whilst Maya’s parents have retained many of the cultural or social traits of their ethnic group, they have adapted their values through ‘selective acculturation’ where some norms of the community are retained and there is a “lack of intergenerational conflict”, and therefore “cushions the move of both generations” into the British ways (Levitt & Waters, 2002, p 17). The social and financial capital of her family are influential in enabling them to break the boundaries of caste maintenance through the creation of a transnational identity, which contributes to a supportive atmosphere for the development of Maya’s transnational identity.

On the contrary, Radhika’s example illustrates that, because of her father’s caste and especially the fact that he had limited opportunities to acquire higher education (like Maya’s father), he went into the army as infantry like most Nepalis. The segregation from divisions within the army did not give him the opportunity to move away from his comfort zone, nor learn English or about British society. Therefore, he never gained any social capital nor the cultural capital from education and interaction with other British soldiers. Owing to this and his subsequent class belonging in the UK, Radhika’s parents do not possess the means to help guide her conflicting identities without judgement, as they have never been anything other than Nepali. Unlike with Maya’s experience, in the long-term Radhika’s situation can – from the way she spoke about her parents – cause intergenerational conflict and ultimately create a distance between the parents and children.

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Posted in Migration Research

The politics of Syrian refugees’ economic impact

A street in the densely populated suburb of Nabaa, Bourj Hammoud
A street in the densely populated suburb of Nabaa, Bourj Hammoud

Claude Samaha is Lead Researcher at Basmeh & Zeitooneh and a member of the Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) team. 

Policymakers in Lebanon argue that displaced people, particularly Syrian refugees, are one of the causes of the country’s failing economy. Syrian refugees are often blamed for the lack of electricity, water, jobs and even bread.

At a conference in Brussels in May, Lebanon’s Minister of Social Affairs, Hector Hajjar, declared that hosting Syrian refugees has had negative economic consequences for Lebanon. He accused Syrian refugees of benefiting from “state-subsidized services” and being responsible for “the loss of many job opportunities for the Lebanese… without contributing… taxes.”

A key focus of Hajjar’s comments on services relate to energy subsidies. In reality, however, Lebanon had experienced blackouts for years before Syrian refugees arrived. As Zachary Davis Cuyler argues, ‘the 1975–1990 civil war witnessed the large-scale physical destruction of infrastructure. Postwar reconstruction did not deliver functional refineries or reliable electricity’.

Lebanon’s energy regime became characterised by a set of interconnected vested interests that enabled it to persist despite its inefficiencies. These vested interests include politicians who received kickbacks on high-cost electricity purchases from Turkish mobile power barges, fuel importers who formed a close-knit cartel, and politically connected private generator owners whose wealth and power grew in the gaps created by the state’s shortcomings. Thus even if no refugees moved to Lebanon, blackouts would still occur as a result of decades of utter mismanagement, and the level of energy subsidies would still be an issue of contention.

Hajjar’s comments on employment imply that cash assistance allows Syrians to work for lower wages, pricing out the Lebanese workforce in certain industries. Yet refugees are underemployed, and those who do work are underpaid. Our surveys in displacement-affected communities show that refugees’ employment does not exceed 25%.

The truth is that the economic crisis has amplified poverty among both refugees and ‘host’ communities. Resources and jobs have become increasingly scarce. Due to the economic crisis, hundreds of businesses have closed or reduced personnel over the last two years, and wages have been cut for many of those who do continue to be employed, exacerbating poverty and hardship.

According to the United Nations, nine out of ten Syrian refugees are impoverished. Salah (not his real name), originally from Homs but now living in Tripoli, said: “We have a very bad financial situation… I don’t have a fixed job and I’m currently not working. We don’t have water or electricity… We are unable to buy meat, oil, and milk.”

According to our qualitative interviews, the vast majority of displaced people prefer to be relocated to other (third) countries. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International are clear that Syria is not a safe place to return to, as returnees may be subjected to intimidation or even direct violence. As Saddam (not his real name), originally from Homs but now living in Bekaa, explained: “Our relatives went back to Syria and were threatened and detained… One of our friends was detained in Homs for several months… He’s not mentally well anymore.”

The current official narrative is that refugees are an economic burden. As a result, attitudes toward refugees have changed locally, and inter-communal relations are getting worse, particularly since the start of the economic crisis. Hate speech and falsehoods being spread by some Lebanese media only aggravate this negative situation.

Syrian refugees are being used to detract attention from the Lebanese government’s failure to deal with the economic crisis. They are also being used as a card in an international aid poker game with potentially US$3.2 billion at stake. In other words, the Lebanese and Syrian governments, as well as the donor community and other great powers, address displacement through the lens of their own limited political objectives.

Refugees did not cause Lebanon’s current financial crisis. The country’s elites are responsible for that. As Sahar Atrache highlights, contrary to popular belief, Lebanon has benefited from the presence of refugees. Along with substantial levels of international aid injected into the economy, refugees have contributed to the development of novel approaches to promoting sustainable livelihoods. Syrian and Palestinian refugees have contributed to the establishment of businesses that not only address a range of community needs but also enrich the local culture.

The blog was originally posted on the Protracted Displacement Economies website. PDE is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (grant reference number ES/T004509/1).

Posted in Migration Research



The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR).