Refugee Tales

The Refugee (Tale) Paradox: Narratives of Vulnerability and Aspirationality




paradox, refugee regime, borders, worthiness


The global refugee regime can be characterized by central paradoxes, similarly to how our societal narratives around displacement and refuge are fundamentally contradictory, yet immanent to the system they help to maintain. Following Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘aporia of human rights’, I discuss one particular salient set of contradictions as the ‘refugee paradox’. It describes a set of policy expectations and narratives around the figure of the refugee as vulnerable and hence deserving of protection, yet self-sufficient and self-reliant; one who must be happy to have survived and not aspire to much more, but, once the asylum status is approved, must display agency and aspirations for upward mobility; a victim of their circumstances, yet a role model of integration and economic success in the host society. I analyse the discursive charging and real-life consequences of the refugee paradox with a particular view to discourses of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’, or ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ refugees in the present geopolitical landscape. Existing interventions, be they local aid, humanitarian intervention or political activism, necessarily move within the narrow confines of this paradox and therefore seldom accomplish more than symptom control. Thus, at its core, the refugee paradox is naturalized and serves to legitimate the status quo.

Author Biography

Judith Kohlenberger, Vienna University of Economics and Business

Judith Kohlenberger is a post-doctoral researcher at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU), Institute for Social Policy. Her research focuses on forced migration and dimensions of integration and belonging, including health, education, and gender. Her latest book Das Fluchtparadox (Kremayr & Scheriau, 2022) explores the contradictory policies and narratives on displacement and the displaced.





Refugee Tales