This virtual conference explores how refugee experiences provide insights into the production of difference, boundaries, and borders by unsettling established understandings of identity, statehood, and territory. Prolonged wars, political destabilization, the climate crisis, and economic downturn in the Middle East have caused unprecedented levels of displacement of people internally and to neighboring countries. Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians, and Afghanis have been displaced in especially large numbers. Many of the displaced have been seeking asylum in European Union member states, leading to what has been labeled a “refugee crisis” in popular media and political discourses over the past decade. This language of crisis has animated racist, anti-refugee, xenophobic, and Islamophobic policies and discourses that target Middle East-origin asylum-seekers and refugees and that construct a “Europe” under threat of (and in need of protection from) an “invasion” of Europe’s political, cultural, and racial Others. Rising right-wing political movements have capitalized on and fueled these deeply rooted sentiments across Europe. The EU has adopted policies that seek to limit the number of asylum seekers by increasing surveillance and policing of its borders, leading to “fortress Europe” and turning the Meditarrenean Sea into a deathscape. At the same time, EU countries have continued to build bureaucracies for “weeding out” those “deserving” refugees from those who are judged unworthy of this status, and governments have started to implement increasingly stringent requirements to qualify for settlement and integration programs. In a 2016 agreement between the EU and Turkey, Turkey was to receive funding to keep Syrians in the country and to prevent them from going into the EU, thereby extending to West Asia the sorts of processes that have externalized the EU border into North Africa. Taken together, these practices are actively remaking boundaries and redefining the borders of Europe.

In this conference, we seek to explore questions that arise in this political context about who refugees are and how they position themselves (or find themselves positioned) within systems of power operating at multiple scales and across a variety of spaces. We center the embodied Middle Eastern refugee experiences to understand and theorize subjects, political spaces, and technologies of governance along and within the borders of the EU. Rather than treating queerness and racialization as marginal or exceptional, this conference positions them as starting points for analysis. We question the formulation of a “refugee crisis” and instead locate problems within nation-building and state-making practices that create hierarchies among people and define enemies and undesirables. Our aim in this approach is to acknowledge the full humanity of refugees and to explore refugee lives and subjectivities that exceed their designation as a refugee and that cannot be reduced to this status. This means pushing beyond understanding refugees only through the lens of displacement, violence, trauma, loss of home, and waiting in uncertainty. These are certainly crucial parts of the refugee experience. But refugees also experience love, build intimacy, form spaces of belonging, make new homes, navigate complex, multiscalar systems of refugee governance, and build lives, even in hostile environments. They encounter state officials, NGO workers, neighbors, and other refugees and immigrants, and they build valuable knowledge. Their subject positions are shaped by the interactions between these experiences and their gendered, ethnic, sexual, racial, classed, age-based, religious, and political differences. Interactions with refugees also transform those who come into contact with them, just as they transform the spaces that they travel through and that they inhabit.

This virtual conference explores these topics in five events:

Panel 1: Queer Refugees/Queering Refugee Studies (October 9, 2020)

Panel 2: Midnight Traveler: Uncertain Journeys to and through EU (October 16, 2020)

Panel 3: Racialization of Refugees in the EU (October 23, 2020)

Panel 4: Refugees and the "Crisis" of States: Rethinking Border Regimes and State Technologies/Mechanisms in the EU (October 30, 2020)

Roundtable: Learning, Teaching, and Community-Building with Refugees (November 6, 2020)

All events will take place virtually from 12:00pm to 1:30pm US Eastern Time. Please register to receive more information and Zoom link.

Organization Committee

Banu Gökarıksel, Devran Koray Öcal, Betül Aykaç, Suad Jabr, and Lily Herbert

Department of Geography, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Nathan Swanson

Honors College, Purdue University

Betül Aykaç

Suad Jabr

Lily Herbert