Malcolm Franklin

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Concepts of displacement and home: seeking asylum and belonging amongst the host community of Belfast, Northern Ireland

Malcolm Franklin BA Hons MA

This paper explored some of the ways in which refugees and asylum-seekers in Belfast negotiate the daily realities and experiential challenges of their displacement. Refugees and asylum-seekers have been displaced from their original homelands, but finding a successful outcome in the search for a new place to call home is contingent upon many factors. My paper provided a brief synopsis and examples of survival strategies employed by a cross-section of refugees in Belfast. In comparison to the UK as a whole, Northern Ireland has a far smaller percentage of refugees and asylum-seekers. However, their predicaments and challenges are representative of the wider debates and issues which surround this particular category of people.

My doctoral thesis (submitted the same week as the conference) is an in depth research project which focuses on the meaning of home and belonging from the perspective of refugees and asylum-seekers who reside in the Belfast environs. My paper was largely drawn from two chapters of the thesis which highlighted the discursive space that exists on the streets of that city. I emphasised how my research methodology engaged with a multiplicity of subjective opinion, from asylum-seekers and refugees, to individuals who work for organisations that are closely involved with their predicaments. The presentation examined the meaning behind some of these individual narratives as they attempt to negotiate the social boundaries that cross-cut their new environment in their search for a measure of belonging. The Northern Ireland Community of Refugees and Asylum-seekers (NICRAS) comprises a myriad of individuals from a range of different countries. The paper provided a snapshot of my ethnographic encounter with the refugee community in Belfast which highlights the individuality of each fieldwork participant. It focuses attention on the struggle to become minimally emplaced in a new social environment and the meaning of what ‘being at home’ entails.

In the course of presenting my paper, I showed the audience a short film (with the sound on mute), which was recorded and produced during my fieldwork. It centred on interviews and my interaction with a Somali asylum-seeker who is still in the process of being granted permission to stay in the UK after eight years. The other people in the film were his friends. From an ethical perspective, they were all aware of my research aims, and they were happy for me to use the film in any way that may be of benefit to their situation and predicaments. The individuals and their narrative voices mentioned in the paper were not specific to those featured in the film clip, but the images provided an emotive impact to the overall presentation.

The first part of my paper focussed on a refugee from Eritrea with whom I established a good relationship during the fieldwork period. Alzar had arrived in the middle of Belfast following an exhaustive journey from Eritrea along with his pregnant wife Hanna and their three children. They had arrived by car from Dublin with a member of the ‘smuggling team’, and were then unceremoniously abandoned by the driver and told to look for Bryson House. This place is part of National Asylum Support Services who are under the auspices of the Home Office, and is the first port of call for anyone seeking asylum in the Belfast area. I caught up with Alzar in NICRAS a short time after his substantive interview at the local UKBA facility. He told me:  

‘I find Bryson House. My baby was born in the Royal hospital (Belfast), and the doctors were all so friendly and smiling. Our house is near Falls Road and has three bedrooms, but I would be happy in one room. We are moving in November, but I don’t know where as yet, and I say, I don’t mind where. I am so happy with people here. I tell my story straight (uses hands to show no deviation, only straight). Me and wife, we tell the same thing. Big problem in Eritrea (he shudders at the memories, and becomes emotional with tears in his eyes). For you is very nice country, and for a lot of the people, but no speak about politics, not a word, then is big problem. Here, I feel as if I am a man. In Eritrea, I am nothing’.

In the second part of the presentation I briefly focussed on the meaning of citizenship from the perspective of asylum-seekers and refugees; a crucial aspect pertaining to modes of belonging and non-belonging. Primarily, citizenship concerns membership and belonging to a nation-state. However, asylum-seekers and refugees have been forced to flee their own country and are representative of statelessness. A female refugee told me that she lives with the constant uncertainty (in her mind) of being sent back to Zimbabwe at any time, despite having a daughter settled in primary school. Elizabeth Colson from the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford, notes, ‘those who have been displaced fear further displacement even years after resettlement’. In this construction, a sense of feeling ‘at home’ is conflated with a geographical space. This would indicate that a physical structure which serves as a carapace and a geographical location is not sufficient to call a place ‘home’. 

I showed that a sense of place is developed through various forms of social relations linked through the interaction of structure and agency. Individual refugees employ what can be termed emplacement strategies in their attempts to embed themselves in new socioeconomic and cultural environments. In this sense their actions should be considered as proactive and goal-oriented. Moreover, the presentation evoked a sense of home as vital if human identities are not to be dispersed and fragmented. Belonging, therefore, involves both a connection to specific places and also our existence within networks of stable relationships. Home is more than simply where we originate. For the refugees mentioned in my paper, they have already moved on from seeking asylum to become residents in Northern Ireland.  In time, the goal is to become a person who is no longer categorised as a refugee, but an individual who had broken free from any socio-cultural indexing.