Our Relations to Refugees: Between Compassion and Dehumanization*

Abstract

After the so-called refugee crisis of 2015–2016 European reactions to foreigners had come to the fore and we are seeing xenophobic political and populist movements become increasingly mainstream. The massive rejection of refugees/asylum seekers taking place has made their conditions before, during and after flight, increasingly difficult and dangerous. This paper relates current xenophobia to historical attitudinal trends in Europe regarding Islam, and claims that a much more basic conflict is at work: the one between anti-modernism/traditionalism and modernism/globalization. Narratives on refugees often relate them to both the foreign (Islam) and to “trauma”. In an environment of insecurity and collective anxiety, refugees may represent something alien and frightening but also fascinating. I will argue that current concepts and theories about “trauma” or “the person with trauma” are insufficient to understand the complexity of the refugee predicament. Due to individual and collective countertransference reactions, the word “trauma” tends to lose its theoretical anchoring and becomes an object of projection for un-nameable anxieties. This disturbs relations to refugees at both societal and clinical levels and lays the groundwork for the poor conditions that they are currently experiencing. Historically, attitudes towards refugees fall somewhere along a continuum between compassion and rejection/dehumanization. At the moment, they seem much closer to the latter. I would argue that today’s xenophobia and/or xeno-racism reflect the fact that, both for individuals and for society, refugees have come to represent the Freudian Uncanny/das Unheimliche.

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Correspondence to Sverre Varvin.

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Sverre Varvin, M.D. is an Training Analyst, Norwegian Psychoanalytic Association, Professor, Oslo Akershus University College of Applied Sciences.

Address Correspondence to: Professor Sverre Varvin, M.D., Pb. 4 St. Olavs plass, 0130 Oslo, Norway.

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Varvin, S. Our Relations to Refugees: Between Compassion and Dehumanization*. Am J Psychoanal 77, 359–377 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/s11231-017-9119-0

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Keywords

  • refugees
  • traumatization
  • Islamism
  • anti-modernism