Refugee Routes: Telling, Looking, Protesting, Redressing – An Academy in Exile Book

By Egemen Özbek

Refugee Routes, edited by Vanessa Agnew (Universität Duisburg-Essen and Australian National University), Kader Konuk (Universität Duisburg-Essen), and Jane O. Newman (University of California, Irvine), is the first volume in the Academy in Exile book series, published by transcript Verlag in 2020.[1]

As Vanessa Agnew highlights in the Introduction to the volume, Refugee Routes is a response to the ever-growing number of refugees and internally displaced people around the world. Refugee Routes makes an intervention in the scholarly discourse and public debate about displacement, refugeeism, and the rights of those seeking refuge. The volume emphasizes the need for a proper historicization of refugeeism and migration in Europe and beyond. Calling for the integration of the memories of refugees into collective historical consciousness and the building of a commemorative culture centered on migration heritage, the volume questions longstanding identities and narratives to imagine societies more accommodating to the displaced. Agnew introduces the notion of ‘emplacement’ to counter displacement, and examines the tension between these two concepts. The volume further addresses the ‘growing crisis of human mobility’, proposing a critical approach to official and popular responses to people who seek refuge for reasons that range from persecution, war, and genocide to climate change and economic deprivation. Contributions to the volume thus concentrate on refugees’ right to move, right to arrive, right to appear (or disappear), right to space, and right to be recognized as dignified human beings. The contributions reveal manifold ways in which states violate these rights through mechanisms and techniques geared towards adjudicating between ‘desirables’ and ‘undesirables’, controlling migrants’ movements and access to space, making them simultaneously visible and invisible, limiting their access to the public sphere, and regularizing their stories. The so-called invisibility/surveillance nexus, border externalization, mandatory incarceration, offshore processing, and third country resettlement are among these mechanisms. Entangled in hostile immigration regimes that marginalize, criminalize, and dehumanize them, irregular migrants and asylum seekers strive to keep moving, appropriate space, appear and disappear, and establish solidarity networks. Migrant subjectivities are significantly more complex and multi-layered than their representations in the dominant discourse. Refugee Routes seeks to amplify these quiet voices and their experiences, often encountered in cultural and artistic mediations.


Zeynep Türkyılmaz’s chapter combines historiographic and anthropological perspectives to historicize the Ezidis’ experiences of survival and refugeehood in the face of exterminatory attacks from the Ottoman period to the post-2014 genocide at Shingal committed by Islamic State. Distinguishing between the community’s historical survival strategies through mobility and forced displacement imposed on the community, Türkyılmaz demonstrates the impact of different refugee routes on the Ezidi community over a period of 200 years. 

Vanessa Agnew and Egemen Özbek’s contribution focuses on the movement of people across the vast topography from the Middle East to Western Europe a century ago and in the present. The authors build connections between visual interventions then and now, seeking to bear witness, invoking memories of refugeehood encapsulated in Armin T. Wegner’s photographs of the Armenian genocide, and exploring art’s potential to mediate and articulate the experience of displacement of refugees from Syria in the present. Shifting the emphasis from the responsibilities of host societies to the rights of the displaced, the authors revisit Kant’s ‘right to arrive’ as a potential response to the humanitarian crisis.


Based on his personal experience of persecution and exile in Kenya, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o reflects on the impact of scholar rescue efforts on scholarship and critical thinking generally. Noting that the hunting of scholars and knowledge deemed dangerous/untamed has a long history and takes myriad forms, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o states that helping a scholar or an idea in flight can contribute to the ‘common good’ by sustaining their creative potential.

Nazan Maksudyan recounts the story of her great-grandmother, Antaram, who survived the Armenian genocide after being forced from her hometown in Çengiler in western Anatolia in 1915. Antaram lost most of her family and ended up as an orphan in the camps in Syria. After the end of the war, Antaram and her husband settled in Istanbul. Antaram stayed in that city for the rest of her life, never going back to her hometown where she used to live with her parents as part of a large and lively Armenian community. She stayed put in Istanbul and planted deep roots as if to defy the genocidal policy amounting to a catastrophic uprooting. 

Meltem Gürle’s short story, set against the background of recent academic purges in Turkey, reflects on a couple’s anxieties related to exile, migrating to a new language, and travelling to Turkey that involves the risk of not being able to leave. Being expelled from their academic positions in Turkey has a haunting effect. However, while going back to Turkey is an option, returning to academia there might not be. 


Christian Steckenbiller’s contribution proposes a spatial reading of Jenny Erpenbeck’s Gehen, ging, gegangen (2015) and Bodo Kirchhoff’s Widerfahrnis (2016) and argues that these works spatialize and historicize current human displacement and responses to it, and invite their readers to understand contemporary refugeeism and forced migration against the background of historical colonialism. In Steckenbiller’s interpretation, these works shift the attention to refugees and irregular migrants’ freedom of movement and their appropriation of space.

Hande Gürses analyses an undocumented asylum seeker’s effort to re-root himself in Quebec, Canada, in Philippe Falardeau’s 2011 movie Monsieur Lazhar. Assuming the role of a teacher by adopting his deceased wife’s CV, Bashir Lazhar finds a job to replace a teacher who committed suicide in her classroom. In Gürses’ reading, the encounter between the students and Bashir Lazhar, who lost his family in Algeria, provides possibilities of collective working through and of narrating loss. Emphasizing the parallels between the power dynamics between Bashir and the students, and the asylum system and Bashir, the film highlights the obstacles they encounter when narrating their stories and exerting their agency. 


Debarati Sanyal critically engages with the convergence between biopolitical theory and humanitarian reason in responses to irregular migrants. This convergence manifests itself in discourses of security management and in theorizations of refugees and refugee camps like the ones in Calais. Sanyal stresses that an overemphasis on state capture reduces the refugee to ‘bare life’, while constructing refugees as passive victims in need of saving glosses over alternative ways of being and resisting. By focusing on Sylvain George’s experimental documentary Qu’ils repose en révolte: Des figures de guerre I, Sanyal investigates how cultural forms such as cinema and photography provide more nuanced representations of refugees and the camps in contrast to the essentialism and reductionism of contemporary theories and state practices. 

Aslı Iğsız concentrates on the emergence of categories like ‘desirables’ and ‘undesirables’ in international legal and political thinking. She argues that this coincided with demographic policy and mass displacement in the aftermath of the Second World War, with significant implications for refugees and asylum seekers in the present. Iğsız further argues that in the current human rights regime, refugees, seen as ‘human capital’, are judged on the basis of their labor capacity, in addition to their cultural, religious, and linguistic adaptability, at the expense of their fundamental rights to move and seek refuge.    

Claudia Tazreiter investigates the bordering practices adopted in the European Union, North America, and Australia in response to displaced people. Tazreiter argues that states depict asylum seekers and their arrival in military terms and represent them as invading groups. Such a depiction allows states to implement measures including removal, detention, and punishment. To analyse the impacts of such punitive policies, especially prevalent in Australia, Tazreiter studies visual and literary interventions, such as movies including Behrouz Boochani and Arash Kamali Sarvestani’s Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, Eva Orner’s Chasing Asylum, and the exhibition All We Can’t See. These works document and relate refugees’ own stories and experiences within the Australian regime of refugee management that relies heavily on border externalization and off-shore detention to marginalize and dehumanize irregular migrants. 


Harriet Hulme focuses on the Refugee Tales project that incorporates group walks and storytelling to raise awareness about the policy of indefinite detention in the United Kingdom and to demand an end to this policy. The literary works that came out of this project, Refugee Tales I and Refugee Tales II, consist of stories by professional writers produced on the basis of stories they were told by those entangled in UK immigration policies or by people with first-hand knowledge about the asylum process. Hulme raises the issue of ethics with a discussion of Emmanuel Levinas’ and Hannah Arendt’s views on telling someone’s else’s story. Instead of attempting to resolve the conundrum, Hulme proposes upholding this tension as constitutive of an ethics of storytelling. 

Clara Zimmermann focuses on another project, the Civil March for Aleppo, bringing together movement and narratives as a critique of European countries’ responses to human displacement and mobility during the ‘long summer of migration’ in 2015. Zimmermann tests Slavoj Zizek’s ‘zero-level protest’ theory and finds that this conception does not do justice to the Civil March, in which protesters walked from Berlin to the Syrian border in 2016-17. Instead, she demonstrates that social movement theory and the concepts of ‘eventful protest’ and ‘networking in action’ better capture the long-term transformative potential created by the Civil March. 


Kader Konuk engages with the scholar rescue initiatives that supported German and German-Jewish intellectuals fleeing the racial policies of the National Socialists. Against this historical background, she reflects upon the conditions of exile, then and now, and proposes ways of preserving and disseminating knowledge in exile. These offer a model for scholar rescue operations in the present in response to both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms of repression. Highlighting the fact that the current flight of scholars is caused by state actors criminalizing civic engagement for democracy, secularism, and peace, Konuk draws attention to the need to preserve knowledge traditions that can be grouped under the term critical thinking. Mindful of the tension between the utilitarian and humanitarian arguments used to justify scholar rescue, Konuk suggests that the best response lies in building scholarly cohorts to preserve threatened bodies of knowledge. 

Jane O. Newman looks back at the historical responses to the exile of scholars in the United States in the aftermath of the Second World War, with a view to reflecting on the challenges we face today. Newman shares Arendt’s critique of universalist discourses such as human rights to justify scholar rescue initiatives. She does so on the grounds that these discourses tend to fail to influence nation states. Instead, Newman reminds us that it was the cooperation of non-state actors, universities, research institutes, and libraries that sustained scholars and knowledge in exile. Newman makes the case that the transformation of US academia by German-Jewish intellectuals constitutes the inspiration and model for building the ‘new institutional architecture’ to rescue scholars and scholarship in the present moment.  

The Refugee Routes volume is part of Academy in Exile’s focus on Migration, Refugee, and Exile Studies. Building upon the research and methodologies developed in Exile Studies, AiE expands the field beyond 1945 to connect it to the burgeoning field of Migration and Refugee Studies, with the promise of producing greater insight into the reasons underlying various forms of forced migration. To this end Academy in Exile explores new ways of documenting, analysing, teaching, and commemorating contemporary experiences of displacement.

As part of this intellectual program, a new online course, Refugee Routes, has been developed by Vanessa Agnew, in conjunction with AiE fellows, and is being offered in Winter 2020/21 through the Universität Duisburg-Essen. The course, like the book itself, makes an intervention into contemporary thinking about refugees and refugeeism in general. 

[1] The author gratefully acknowledges Vanessa Agnew’s assistance in editing this blog post.

Refugee Routes is the first volume in the Academy in Exile book series at transcript. The Academy in Exile (AiE) was founded in 2017 as a joint initiative of the Forum Transregionale Studien, the Universität Duisburg-Essen (UDE), and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities Essen (KWI), with the support of the Volkswagen Foundation. Please find more information here.

Egemen Özbek is a researcher at the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen and an Academic Coordinator/Co-Editor of the Academy in Exile Book Series. He holds a PhD in cultural mediations from Carleton University specializing in the collective memory of the Armenian genocide in Turkey. He studies the politics of memory through the interplay of denial and coming-to-memory of the genocide. Specifically, he focuses on annual genocide commemorations organized in Turkey. He has a BA in cultural studies (2004) and MA in modern Turkish history (2006). He has been teaching courses on modern Turkish history and memory of political violence since 2006.

Citation: Egemen Özbek, Refugee Routes: Telling, Looking, Protesting, Redressing – An Academy in Exile Book, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.02.2021,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 4. Februar). Refugee Routes: Telling, Looking, Protesting, Redressing – An Academy in Exile Book. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 23. Mai 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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