Decolonial approaches to refugee migration: Nof Nasser Eddin and Nour Abu-Assab in conversation

In this conversation, Dr Nof Nasser Eddin and Dr Nour Abu-Assab – the founders and directors of the Centre for Transnational Development and Collaboration (CTDC) – discuss the importance of decolonial approaches to studying refugee migration. In so doing, they draw on their research, consultancy and advocacy work at CTDC, a London-based research centre which focuses in particular on dynamics in Arabic-speaking countries and which is “dedicated to promoting gender equality, women’s rights, the rights of sexual minorities and marginalised groups including refugees and asylum seekers” ( Nof and Nour’s conversation took place in November 2019 and was structured by questions sent to them in advance by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh. What follows is an abridged version of the transcript of the conversation initially edited by Prof.  Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Mette L. Berg for the Migration and Society Journal, Vol 3, Issue 1.

If you find this post of interest you can access further readings on this topic in our ‘Thinking through the Global South‘ series or in the recommended reading list at the bottom of the post.

Decolonial approaches to refugee migration: Nof Nasser Eddin and Nour Abu-Assab in conversation

By Dr Nof Nasser Eddin and Dr Nour Abu-Assab, CTDC co-founders and co-directors

‘Studies of policy, political and programmatic responses to migration and displacement often have a strong northern bias, prioritising the perspectives and priorities of diverse stakeholders associated with the north. What is your position with regards to such critiques of northern bias or Eurocentrism in studies of migration and displacement?’   

Nof    Most studies have focused on the “refugee crisis” between Southern and Northern countries. This undermines the importance and extent of south-south migration and displacement flows. Long before the current “refugee crisis”, there have been migrations from, for example, the first and second Iraq war, where many Iraqi refugees fled to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon. Most Iraqis didn’t want to leave those ‘transit’ countries. 

Nour    In terms of how the refugee, borders and nation state is conceptualised, global northern states are framed as if they’re the best place to be for all these disadvantaged refugees. This resembles narratives of economic migration as well, as if the northern context is the ideal, in terms of governance and resources, and why so many people want to go there, even though this is not necessarily true. 

Nof    We need an intersectional lens here. We have to look at different experiences and why certain people choose to take that route and others don’t and acknowledge the agency of displaced people – a lot of refugees bluntly asked us: why would they want to go to the west? We have to be aware of the way that people are treated and the rhetoric that is used.

Nour    Yes, anti-migration and anti-refugee sentiments revolve around resources, in one way or another. Policymakers in northern countries try to make people believe their situation is the best.

Nof    I don’t think there’s a binary: ‘we want to leave the south to go to the global north for a better life, for a better education’. We often forget how many people have migrated from the global north to the global south. For example, when Israel was established in 1948, a lot of Jewish migrants and a lot of white Jews came from the global north to Palestine.

Nour    Taking it further, Jewish migration flows into Palestine date back to the late 18th century, early 19th century. Australia can also be considered an example of north-south migration, as can migration to South Africa by white colonialists. This makes migration studies very political. It can serve the agendas of governments invested in stealing the resources of other nations, and is used to portray the north as the haven, versus the south.

Nof    We are completely against that binary and that’s why a decolonial intersectional feminist approach is very important. It makes us think about the reasons behind migrations and about listening to the voices of people in the global south, of refugees and migrants. We cannot create change without listening.

Nour    We also need to be careful. Not all southern approaches are anticolonial. The west is centred in the minds of many as the ideal. Just because someone falls within the global southern category does not mean they can ‘do’ decolonial work. We need to refrain from recreating these binaries within identities, from tokenism and mere representation that are speaking to the agendas of the colonialists.         

Nof    Absolutely, some people in the global south can be complicit with certain ideologies and terminologies and the imposition of hegemonic western ideologies. Some people resist it, some negotiate it, there isn’t one agency or one political agenda in the global south. 

Nour    The global south also have a 10% of the ruling class that controls …

Nof    … Who are complicit … 

Nour    … with colonisation. So that southern-ness needs to be …

Nof    Unpacked and deconstructed …

Intersectionality and decolonial perspectives

Nour    Studies of migration and displacement, as a field, needs to be decolonised, i.e. rather than just describing people’s lives, we need to shift the attention to something else. 

Nof    Yes, we need to look at the experiences of different refugees from an intersectional feminist and decolonial perspective and look at the system or systems of oppression that make our struggles much more unified.

Nour    We need to start producing knowledge that actually points out these intersecting and interlocking systems that create these differential experiences and interrogate why some destinations are considered safer than others, and in what ways global north countries and governments are involved in creating forced migration and displacement. 

Nof    Intersectionality nowadays is used to single out experiences rather than looking at how, regardless of our sexualities or colour or race or gender identities, we, as people, share the same struggles, and how the same structures of oppression are affecting us, albeit differently. We are trying to fight against these structures of oppression, and that’s how we should approach intersectionality. We start fighting each other rather than the structures that actually separate us. Intersectionality can be used to ‘divide and rule’ in a way, and serve a Eurocentric global north paradigm when we talk about refugees.   

Nour    We need to nuance it a bit better and create a different discourse around it that does not satisfy an outsider’s gaze. We need to start working against the system itself. Surely this is not what Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) meant when she came up with the term intersectionality, it has been appropriated… 

Nof    … by western hegemonic discourses. Even if we look at the queer concept, it’s against borders, it’s anything which is not normative. 

Nour    Outside of normative identities … 

Nof     … imposed on us by governments, by the state system, by laws, by patriarchy, capitalism.  Now unfortunately this has been hijacked and it’s only used as a label for queerness and sexual orientation.

Nour    The next question is

‘How, if at all, do you engage with constructs such as the global north and the global south and the west in your own work?’

We often interrogate our usage of these terms, because they do not necessarily reflect the world we live in. These ‘spatial binaries’, the spaces people occupy, no longer hold truth because the majority of societies are actually mixed … we’ve always had hybrid identities, and it’s the failure of the nation states, for example, that makes us think …

Nof     … With these terminologies that replicate and reinforce binaries. If we over-use the global north and global south they could be used as a cliché. If there is only one global north and one global south – what about the global east and west? We need to be critical of the usage of these terms over and over again.

Against binaries

Nour    We need to refrain from recreating spatial geographical binaries. We often use the global north and the global south as ideological terms rather than geographical ones. 

Nof    We cannot really separate geography from politics, we always have to think about these terms from a geopolitical perspective.

Nour    Often disadvantage, oppression, etc., are associated with the global south, and in both popular and hegemonic discourse people rarely talk about …

Nof    … Poverty in the west for example.  We have to look at these structures from a very classed, gendered, sexed, racialised, perspective, even within the global north.  The idea that the global south is the misery is a very colonial perspective. That’s why we need a decolonial lens, to unlearn that our standards are not those of the west or the global north. I still use colonialism, not neo-colonialism, because in certain countries we are still being materially colonised.

Nour    We don’t want to think that we want our countries to be at the same level as the west or operate in the same way for example. 

Nof    Copying state systems, copying laws. The next question is:

‘You have written on the importance of decolonial approaches to research – why is this approach important to scholars, policymakers, and practitioners working on migration and displacement?’ 

This is a very important approach because it makes us unlearn  what we have been taught throughout history, because it’s intergenerational and because it’s about historicisation, about going back in history to reclaim what has been going on in these places. 

Nour    We also need to put an end to the appropriation of such terms. It can be used as a mere cliché and have nothing to do with an actual process of restorative justice in the places that were colonised.

Nof    When you have had years of colonialism, people start to think that our standard is to abide by western hegemonic discourses or to follow the west. We need to make clear that we have agency and we are agents of change. Decolonial projects help us heal and think that we can change our realities. 

Nour    We really need to start producing knowledge that addresses the causes of oppression, that addresses the main routes of the problems.

Nof    It’s about finding solidarity  rather  helping  and saving.  Look at the structures of oppression rather than the symptoms.  Decolonising is also reclaiming and producing knowledge in our language, knowledge and experiences.  

Nour    We also need an intersectional decolonial approach that looks at the intersection of interlocking structural oppression.

Nof    Absolutely. When we think about decolonising, it needs to be accompanied by a process of de-canonising: we need to stop looking at the canon that is hegemonically western or global northern.

Nour    Yes! That’s where our feminist consciousness comes into play. It’s about raising the voices of people who are at the receiving end of colonialism. It’s about how they themselves describe their lives from their material experiences. It’s not ‘giving voice,’ but voicing the experiences of these people, and that is a decolonial approach.  

Nof    Yes, it’s about their voice being acknowledged as a valid source of knowledge. 

Nour    Understanding systems of oppression the way people understand them and putting it out there to policy makers is very important. I think what the majority of people often struggle with is how to operationalise decolonial approaches and how to make it work in practice is …

Nof    The challenge. 

Nour    Yes. We cannot decolonise without processes of self-reflection, self-critique.

Nof    And taking responsibility is very important because it also gives responsibility and agency to us as people who were and are still colonised. When we liberate ourselves and take responsibility, we are not seen in that binary. There isn’t a saviour/victim paradigm.   

That also pushes us not to abide by NGOs and practitioner and academic institutions that impose a certain western hegemonic discourse that is very masculine actually.

Nour    Absolutely, the saviour/victim binary makes the process of doing programmes or projects around refugees very commercial and capitalist. We need to start positioning ourselves within the research rather than merely saying we’re doing this research ‘for’ this group of people. Our personalities and stories as researchers, as people doing non-governmental or charitable work, are the reason we do the work we do.  It’s really important to acknowledge that as a process of learning, rather than a process of saving.

Nof    And unlearning too. Decolonialism is really important because it allows us to define ourselves, to find the terminologies that we feel comfortable with. A CTDC research project on non-normative sexualities and gender in Arabic-speaking countries found that people couldn’t identify within the LGBTQ+ letters. We built our research, theories and conceptualisation of gender and sexuality based on that finding. 

Nour    We even reframed our projects to match that finding. 

Nof    Exactly. Decolonialism allows people to define themselves and find their own terms and terminologies. 

Nour    To decolonise any project that you are embarking on – because it’s really difficult to decolonise projects that already exist -, we need to think about five major points:

1) Historicising the issue: to ask what’s the history of that phenomena we’re studying, what’s the history of that oppression we want to tackle, how did it emerge in that specific context?

2) Politicising the topic: thinking about all of the political agendas that are involved in it. When we think about refugees, there are also political stakeholders that are involved in the process of creating the reasons for migration, creating the reasons for refugeehood, etc. 

Nof    3) Contextualising: we have interlocking and intersecting structures of oppression that we are fighting against and we are trying to unify our struggles, but, at the same time, each context is different. We can go together and protest against the same structures of oppression, but we cannot hijack other causes.

Nour    I think this also happens when people become fixated on describing lives or describing things, rather than talking about the reasons that have created them. 

Nof    When we hijack and appropriate, we are reinforcing a monolithic way of looking at the global south, when we need to be really careful not to put the global south or global south struggles in one box. 

Nour    4) Globalising: thinking about the global structures that create the specific phenomena that we’re trying to address. This is very relevant to the politics of care and also politics of consciousness, because when we globalise we can also understand more. For instance, when we buy cashews at the wholefood store, we understand where these cashews came from. 

Nof    It pushes us to think about our consumption, our choices. 

Nour    And our positionality within a global context is important. The system that governs us all, all over the world, disconnects us from our practices and behaviours in a way. We stop interrogating. It’s like a puzzle and we need to put all the pieces together – this would make good research, this would create good policies.

Nof    We always get asked in talks, especially, to be honest, from people who are white: how can we help? And I said: you cannot ask this question, you’re part of that structure.

Nour    Exactly.

Nof    Don’t disconnect from the structure that gives or does not give you privilege; instead, think about how you are part of that structure, because positionality is a key. 

Nour    Yes. Understanding that race is an issue for white people as well. Sexuality is not only an issue for queers: it’s an issue for heterosexual people who, for instance, are expected to get married, which is itself oppressive. This is how we think about tools for decolonising within these spaces.

5) Language: It is an important tool, the history of the language, especially when research is being done within a context where we are unfamiliar with the language.

Nof    When we think about language we think about context, we think about history and we think about politics or politicising. For example, in our work we struggle with the word ‘gender’. In Arabic-speaking countries it appeared through NGOs in the ‘90s.  But it didn’t resonate with people.

Nour    And it creates knowledge gaps. 

Nof    Of course. Gender has often really only been related to women, a misconception  that creates a disconnect with people and the compartmentalisation of people’s experiences. 

Queer theories and decolonial approaches

‘How do you view the relationship between intersectionality, feminism, queer theories on the one hand, and decolonial approaches to research in this field on the other? Why is this important for understanding and responding to migration and displacement?’

Nour    I don’t see any separation, we cannot really disconnect intersectional feminism from decoloniality.

Nof    Feminism is about looking at different experiences of marginalised groups.  When we think about feminism as a lens we look at the structures of oppression that marginalise people.

Nour   Absolutely. And what I want to add is that the word ‘queer’ emerged as anti-identity. Where queer studies are heading towards now is queer as in LGBT identities rather than a political standpoint, rather than rejecting boxes and normativities imposed by the different systems we live in.

Nof    Exactly. We don’t conceptualise using a queer theory lens. We prefer using an intersectional decolonial feminist lens because it goes beyond the boxes and identities. Especially because queer has been associated with white theorists, the production of knowledge is being done only by white queers that can homogenise the experiences of queer people.

Nour    We think that intersectionality and feminism resonate with the decolonial approach because they come from the perspective of the marginalised rather than the perspective of those who are dominant. 

Nof    With feminism, we try to look at the erasure of knowledge and experiences of silenced women.  The same with decoloniality, we try to look at the knowledge and experiences of those indigenous people.

Nof    The next question is

“Could southern decolonial or anticolonial or other approaches lay the foundations for policy and programmatic responses to migration and displacement that resist rather than reinforce neoliberal hegemony.”

Nour    They can definitely, but we also need to think about an actual dedication to reframing policy, and what programmatic responses mean, look like and how they should be led. This can change things, but we cannot just keep doing what people currently do. Policy and response needs to be designed from the beginning through a decolonial approach. That will require not just unlearning, but also a tearing apart of politics. 

Nof    We see civil society organisations in the global south, which are replicating structures of oppression, replicating, for example, LGBT discourses. It depends on who’s doing it, it depends if people are really willing to change.

Nour    The problem with NGOs – and we talk about the Arabic speaking region  – is that they are even governed from within using a neoliberal approach.

Nof    Because they are also confined and conditions by funding and they cannot really change within these discourses because of that funding. Also a lot of these organisations think that they cannot negotiate and resist the funders’ agendas.  In our trainings and our work, especially with new organisations we talk about resisting these agendas, pushing back and creating change.

Nour    But we also can’t deny that some people benefit from that system. This is actually one of the reasons we refrained from doing LGBT work: the whole discourse of identities is neoliberal anyway. That reinforcement of neoliberal and liberal thinking around sexuality and colonialism and compartmentalised struggles is the reason why we started self-critiquing as well. 

Nof      We also started thinking – and this is why part of decolonialism is about politicising – that we cannot think about LGBT and sexuality without politicising.

Nour    Yes, and whether we like it or not, but the majority, for example, of LGBT organisations promote an Islamophobic discourse that…

Nof    … is serving consequently a neoliberal hegemonic discourse. 

Nour    And this conversation makes us also question what are the possibilities of getting away from neoliberalism as a system of oppression?  It makes you feel that the whole world needs a reset.

Nof    Yes, and if we look at what’s happening in the world now, what we’re witnessing in Lebanon, Ecuador, Chile, Palestine, people are protesting the same structure of oppression and that gives us a lot of hope, thinking about all of these non-normative people – queers, domestic workers, women, refugees, people from impoverished classes… they are revolting against the same system. 

Nour    They are revolting against neoliberalism … 

Nof    Exactly, a neoliberalism that is sexist,  homophobic, racist, and classist. 

Nour    And this is the thing: we want to talk about policy and programmes but we also want to question the intentions of these programmes and policies.

Nof    Yes, are these programmes and policies and NGOs really challenging the structures of oppression? That’s a question that we need to continue asking. 


If you found this post of interest you can access further readings on this topic in our ‘Thinking through the Global South‘ series or in the recommended reading list below:

Carpi, E. (2020) Spaces of Transregional Aid and Visual Politics in Lebanon.

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2018) In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Fiori, J. (2020) Migration, Humanitarianism, and the Politics of Knowledge – An Interview with Juliano Fiori

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring Refugees’ Conceptualisations of Southern-Led Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N (2018) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

Featured image: List of NGO’s, Baddawi Camp, N. Lebanon. (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, (2019).

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