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The migrant speaks back

The Migrant as a Storyteller

Migrants everywhere nowadays ultimately dream of recognition and admission. Recognition entails a legalistic acknowledgment of status as a refugee. Admission means integration and adaptation in places of settlement. Refugee status has become necessary since it is the only legalistic framework through which the migrating individual may obtain access to some of the rights accessible to citizens such as free movement or in considerate environment food, basic income, hospital, education and in rare occasions citizenship. 


The very process of achieving a refugee status is not always a given and demands a long walk that first puts the migrant through a rebirth of existential strife. Since the current definition of a refugee according to the UN charter is of a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger, violence or persecution, those fleeing from poverty, diseases or from consequences thereof do not qualify as refugees.  Even as the number of those fleeing from consequences of poverty, famine, drought, and hunger surpass those fleeing actual physical violence, the definition of a refugee remains frozen.


 It is within this current legalistic framework that one encounters the African migrant. The refugee law only recognizes violated bodies and/or mutilated beings. Only those whose stories fit into the narrative of violation are accepted as worthy of resettlement. What this means is that the immigrant will have to tell only stories that show extremities of dehumanization.  Normative bodies and non-traumatized memories are to be rejected. Violation and trauma become a symbolic reference of acceptance and rejection; of inclusion and exclusion.


It is in this politics of becoming, first, as a refugee, in order to qualify as a human and then as a citizen that greater human injustice occurs. The law in itself becomes a theatre of alienation in which the immigrant dances precariously at the edges of approval or refusal. To tell the truth about one’s past becomes wrought. Truth for its sake is forbidden. The only truth, the only narrative, worthy of being told is the truth of survival, of becoming accepted, recognized and resettled within the legalistic framework. To speak this truth the immigrant will first have to denounce him/herself, erase his/her identity, truncate her past memories. S/he has to become a new person, one desired by European laws of inclusion – laws of violated subject – for only impaired beings, people whose bodies have been the locus of violence, are welcome as worthy of refugees. Non-violated and non-traumatized  bodies (and stories) are inverted with compulsory disabled/violated bodies. 


Our project seeks to challenge this narrative and engage the migrant as a storyteller. Storytelling speaks to rehabilitation; a process that restores voice and agency to the migrant. Storytelling is a sympathetic initiation into the world of the migrant.  We not only identify the root causes of migration; we are offered tools for understanding the context of these human experiences and generate humane and practical solutions.


Michael Onyebuchi Eze 

Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge

April 8, 2019

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