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Constructing a refugee: the state, NGOs and gendered experiences of asylum in the Czech Republic

By Alice Szczepaniková


This study is an exploration of an institutionalised world that refugees inhabit in today’s Europe. It argues that the institutional system that organises the reception of refugees and their settlement in a receiving country is based on historically and politically contingent constructions of “a refugee”. The research was conducted in the Czech Republic – an emerging country of immigration and asylum at the semiperiphery of the European Union. It draws on qualitative empirical data generated in interviews and participant observations among state officials, intergovernmental and nongovernmental workers, asylum seekers and refugees from Armenia, Belarus and Chechnya. The thesis brings together the key actors that shape the construction of “a refugee” and examines the key sites of the refugee system where this construction takes place: asylum and immigration legislation, refugee determination process, refugee camps and nongovernmental spaces of assistance and public representation of refugees. “A refugee” is analysed as an idealised concept that underlies asylum policymaking; as an object of governance that shapes institutional practices; and as a lived and performed gendered experience that forms and transforms identities. The dominant view of refugees as people of little or no choice is challenged by presenting them as knowledgeable actors who act strategically in an unevenly contoured terrain of the refugee system. Also the view of institutions as operating in a consistent and unified manner is questioned. Their actions are described as often contradictory and dissenting voices are incorporated into the analysis. Moreover, the institutions of the refugee system are presented as tied together by mutually constitutive relationships in the context of unequal power relations

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