by Sarah Adjekum
11th April 2022

According to the UN, more than 84 million people internationally were forced to leave their homes because of conflict and violence in the first half of 2021. For those forced to traverse beyond their borders, the refugee label encompasses more than displacement and exposure to conflict. Increasingly, it emphasises constructs of race and disability that normalise the use of carceral responses, including institutionalisation, instead of moving away from the criminalisation of refugees.

The media is instrumental in how refugee discourses emerge and take hold. We can see this in the recent media coverage of Ukrainian refugees. There has been an outpouring of support and welcome towards the Ukrainian refugees that has been absent towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East seeking refuge in Western nations. Comments by news pundits remarking that Ukrainians differ from ‘typical refugees’ have made this difference even more apparent. Remarks like ‘They’re just like us’, and ‘they’re not used to this kind of conflict’ have betrayed the tacit understanding of who the ‘real refugees’ are. The real refugees are the ones who frequently find themselves in proximity to violence and geopolitical conflict because of settler colonial and imperial power relations. And often, these refugees are racialised and indigenous populations who bear the physical and emotional scars of long-term political discord and violence.

In our article ‘Violence by any other name: constructing immigration crises, the threat of the sick refugee and rationalising immigration detention through moral panic, published in Critical and Radical Social Work, Ameil Joseph and I expand on how this discourse is often perpetuated in Canadian media to frame refugees as threats in waiting. When examining Canada’s history and relationship with white supremacy, we found examples of this discourse at play. The Komagata Maru and the Chinese Head Tax stand as reminders of how certain populations have been ‘Othered’ on the basis of race and presumed disability, and how this has been used to justify their deportation and detention. These discourses do not simply exclude others; they also have functioned as a settler-colonial state-making practice in Canada’s formation.

Our discourse analysis of the media recognised this process of identification, labelling and push for social control as hallmarks of a moral panic. The media has long been examined as a disseminator of discourse. Stanley Cohen’s theory on moral panic has helped articulate how various actors work to mobilise narratives against the folk devils – populations that have been targeted for social control because of perceived difference. In this case, the folk devils are those refugees we perceive as Other; those who are increasingly the targets of migrant regimes because of their race and their country of origin. We also connect this to racist and ableist practices of the past. Foucault’s concepts of governmentality and biopolitics help us to understand how these discourses inform policy responses to refugees. In addition to accounts of detention by Canada Border Service Agency officials, we encountered stories of refugees accepting the label of trauma to improve their chances of asylum. These examples illustrate what Foucault described as technologies of self and technologies of government, that intersect in the lived experiences of refugees.

Today we see similar methods employed by mainstream media to depict refugees as possible threats. When we juxtapose the infamous images of Haitian refugees being whipped and round up by men on horseback, or the recent ban on Muslim travellers to the United States, to the outpouring of support for refugees from Ukraine, it suggests that in the Western imagination certain refugees are exempt from this discourse. While these distinctions might appear arbitrary, the shifting boundaries of Whiteness and the Other actively work to inform who is worthy of aid, and who is not. Our analysis highlighted how we can observe Whiteness operating at the scale of Western nation states that are framed as both benevolent and victims of refugee crises. These complementary discourses also operate to frame Western nations, like Canada, as passive in refugee crises, rather than as geopolitical actors influencing responses to migrant regimes. The term invasion complex, coined by Nikos Papastergiadis, captures how the irrational fear of the Other undergirds this logic and normalises the use of detention against refugees.

Just as complexes about invasions obscure discrimination against refugees, so to does the focus of trauma obscure the violence used against them. Our study highlighted detention and deportation as forms of structural violence, and the refugee label and accompanying discourses as forms of symbolic violence. In Canada, the introductions of Bill C-31 and Bill C-24 denied refugee claimants the right to appeal rejections for asylum and introduced a two-tiered citizenship system that permitted the deportation of those with dual citizenship or with foreign-born parents. These bills are understood as part and parcel of the expanding of securitisation approaches to restrict the movement of migrants.

The narratives we encountered invite further consideration about how the presumed trauma of conflict and war is focused on, rather than the trauma and sometimes fatal violence that accompanies state practices of detention and deportation. Migrant crises are anticipated to increase in coming years, and demand solutions beyond border securitisation and carceral responses. Instead, it demands a better understanding of the suffering and struggles facing migrants and refugees that takes into account how state responses perpetuate harm against those they should aim to help.

Sarah Adjekum is a social worker, instructor, and PhD Candidate at McMaster University. Her research examines the geopolitical and historical contexts of refugee trauma, and conceptualizing violence. 


CRSWRead the article by Sarah A. Adjekum and Ameil J. Joseph in Critical and Radical Social Work: ‘Violence by any other name: constructing immigration crises, the threat of the sick refugee and rationalising immigration detention through moral panic‘.

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