Daniela Koleva / Migrants, Refugees, and Games of Othering: An Eastern European Perspective

Illustration by Shawn Boyd.

Migrants, Refugees, and Games of Othering: An Eastern European Perspective (published in NDQ 84.1/2)

Daniela Koleva

At the 2016 Modern Language Association (MLA) convention in Austin, Texas, along with sessions addressing my professional interests of African-American and American literature, I was drawn to presentations on travel, migration, and border crossing. The papers in these sessions employed the investigative categories of identity, space, place, and culture to examine historical and contemporary events in fiction and nonfiction. My intellectual interest in the topics of migration, traveling, and border crossing—similar to many other attendees, I am sure—was driven by the surge of refugees and migrants pouring into Europe by sea and land for a second consecutive year since August 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Germany’s open-door policy for refugees. As a European and native of Bulgaria, a country less affected than some by the mass movement of aspiring asylum seekers but nonetheless a potential target for rerouting of the migrant and refugee flow through its territory, I was doubly interested to hear academic readings of the transnational phenomenon referred to boldly by the mainstream Western media, official institutions of the European Union (EU), and leading European governments as the “refugee crisis,” an apparent misnomer in the context of later sociological findings revealing the profiles of the people participating in the massive transcontinental journeys into Europe.

Data accumulated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other institutions invoked a “migrant and refugee crisis” to address the vast movements of people from Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa to and across Europe (“Desperate Journeys” 1). The shift in terms indicated the trajectory of attitudes and positions of global, regional, and small players as the crisis deepened in 2016. The transnational dimensions of the problem—people blocked at EU external borders and legal admittance of those who had already reached the EU interior—triggered sharp, contradictory reactions spanning the Atlantic and reverberating along a resurrected East-West European axis, with strong echoes in non-EU neighbor states. In short, an aspect of transnationalism such as mass migration, under the pressure of extreme political and social tensions in the EU, invoked various discourses of othering to propagate moral and political judgments of “right” and “wrong” approaches to handling the crisis in Europe.

The purpose of this essay is to trace acts of othering shaped by powerful discourses and implemented to ensure stable political leverage and pursuit of national interests in the context of an expectant structural revision of the EU. The migrant crisis at its peak between 2015 and 2016, and the subsequent EU responses by early 2017, reveal the need for transforming the cohesive and convergent policies affecting EU member states and asylum seekers and grantees, along with a potent reorganization of the existing asylum mechanism operating in the EU.

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Daniela Koleva is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of North Dakota. Her scholarly interests are African-American literature, Eastern European studies, literary theory, and the history of nationalism.

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