Refugees and Religion

By Birgit Meyer

The volume Refugees and Religion: Ethnographic Studies of Global Trajectories (co-edited by Birgit Meyer and Peter van der Veer, and available as open access from Bloomsbury) disputes a hard and fast distinction between migrants and refugees by showing how shifting legal arrangements as well as people’s varying statuses make the concept of ‘refugee’ dynamic. Politically, the current ‘refugee crisis’ has been responded to by a nationalist upsurge across Europe, where the questions of migration and the accommodation of Muslims have been shaping the political landscape for more than a decade. This volume places the contemporary trajectories of people fleeing from oppression, conflict, and a host of other problems, and who seek refuge in Europe, in a broader historical and comparative perspective. It addresses past experiences with accommodating refugees in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia, World War II, and in the context of the Cold War, which are usually barely thematised and tend to be ‘forgotten’ in current debates.

Refugees and Religion: Ethnographic Studies of Global Trajectories, ed. by Birgit Meyer and Peter van der Veer, London : Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

The central concern of the volume is to assess the multiple ways in which religion plays a role in prompting people to flee and seek refuge as well as in their accommodation. Its thirteen chapters call for explicit attention to religion, which forms an important dimension of all the stages of migrants’ trajectories, including their asylum applications and their reception and accommodation in secular European societies. In public debates, religion features mainly as a problem associated with certain groups of refugees – especially Muslims. But there is more to religion. A closer analysis of the secular frame is required, which considers secularism, historically, as a way of regulating and handling religion, and which is now often taken for granted. The volume makes religion visible in this secular frame by asking: How did and do refugees practice their religion – be it Islam, Christianity, or Buddhism – in their trajectories? Which frames were and are employed by institutions in Europe – and particularly in Germany – to determine what is (and is not) religion according to the law? And how are the limits of religious authority, religious practice, and religious speech delineated legally? 

Beyond Crisis

With this volume, we adamantly position ourselves against a conventional crisis discourse. Framing the arrival of more than a million people at Europe’s increasingly guarded borders in 2015 as a ‘refugee crisis’ does not refer primarily to the critical situation of the refugees and migrants, but above all to the problem Europe has with their presence. It is a European ‘crisis’ about refugees – a situation in which politicians and policymakers fail to offer refugees decent and fair treatment as required by international law and the UNHCR. This is still the case, as Lesbos and other camps on the European borders show.

Far from being neutral, the term ‘crisis’ has been employed as rhetoric to diagnose a particular situation as dangerous. As argued by Reinhart Koselleck, the concept of crisis enshrines multiple, long-standing layers of meaning, including legal, medical, and theological ones.[1] The framing of a particular situation as a crisis signals that the situation is at a critical crossroads, at which a legal-political decision must be taken. Alternatively, crisis is likened to a dangerous disease approaching its tipping point – life or death – or to the verge of apocalypse, which signals the end of the known world. The political use of the term ‘crisis’ connotes a view of Europe as an ailing body that is threatened with invasion by strangers, and even raises catastrophic ideas about the pending downfall of the Occident.

Having gained prominence through the political theologies of far-right populist groups like PEGIDA, such views now resonate in broader society. The use of the term ‘crisis’ involves a diagnostic act that may legitimate massive political consequences and evokes emotions that are difficult to control. Ironically, in March 2019, the European Commission declared the end of the ‘migration crisis of 2015’ – largely as a consequence of the ‘Turkey deal’ in March 2016 – even though people still die in attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea, go through terrible hardships fleeing from Syria, and are kept in deplorable camps at Europe’s borders or in Libya. Clearly, the concept of crisis as a frame provides a powerful narrative to insist on the need for immediate action – and even a state of emergency – in a situation of life or death, in order to cure the body politic. This sense of exceptionality and extraordinariness also makes it seem as if the refugee issue is a solely recent phenomenon in the wake of globalisation.

Against Historical Amnesia

As suggested in Peter van der Veer’s text in the volume, already in the aftermath of the Reformation, “the idea of purification by expulsion became a legitimate aspect of statecraft” and the religious refugee a mass phenomenon.[2] European nation-states, following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, organised religious co-existence, which, as historian Wayne te Brake points out in his contribution, is fragile: the striving for the purity of the nation and tolerance vis-à-vis persons perceived as Other are at loggerheads.[3]

In the framework of the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, this history, which contains insights relevant for today’s world, tends to be forgotten. Moreover, 2015 looks less exceptional in light of the aftermath of World War II, when millions of refugees were on the move from Eastern Europe. In Germany specifically, in 1950, there were twelve million refugees (the so-called Heimatvertriebene) from Eastern Europe (four million in the eastern German Democratic Republic and eight million in the western Federal Republic of Germany). Framing the arrival of refugees in 2015 as an unprecedented crisis also instils forgetfulness about relatively recent accommodations of refugees during the Cold War: Vietnamese migrants who fled communism were welcomed more easily than is currently the case with migrants from the Middle East and Africa. As Kontingentflüchtlinge (i.e., a group that was collectively allocated asylum), there was no need to submit individual asylum applications. Now, Christian refugees from the Middle East are more likely to be granted asylum than their Muslim counterparts from the Middle East and Africa. To draw out these differences, this volume employs a comparative approach to the accommodation of refugees and migrants from Vietnam, with contributions by Phi-Vân Nguyen, Thien-Huong Ninh, Janet Hoskins, and Tam Ngo and Nga Mai, and from Africa, with research by Alessandro Gusman, Johara Berriane, and Abdoulaye Sounaye. Additionally, the chapters by Heleen Murre-van den Berg, Salah Punatil, Alexander-Kenneth Nagel, and William Wheeler consider political spaces of reception.

Mobilising theory

This volume identifies a tension between the fixing policies of nation-states, on the one hand, and, on the other, religion as a principle of movement and mediation between a here and there, immanence and transcendence, and beginning and end. As interplays of flows and closures, the contributions have each traced specific itineraries of refugees. Together, they offer a picture of a world entangled with connections and relations, as well as borders and boundaries. Theory, here, is to be rendered mobile to make sense of this interconnected and plural world from multiple locations, and must be grounded in the practices and experiences of people on the move.

However, as is deeply engrained in the European sociological imagination, it is easier to think in terms of bounded units than in ideas of motion. Yet, this imagination is always haunted by the presence of Others, who challenge conventional ordering principles. Political measures taken to prevent or at least channel movement are an important research topic. But, as the volume shows, such research cannot be done successfully from a sedentary logic, for which movement is a problem. While we need to study the fixity and order imposed by nation-states, it is also necessary to move beyond the methodological and epistemological nationalism that still informs a great deal of scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. Itinerant or nomadic logic is an alternative possibility, if only to better understand the flows and closures to which the study of people on the move, and refugees in particular, draws attention.

Of course, anthropology has long challenged the sedentary logic at the core of Eurocentric modes of knowledge production. The insight that Europe is a postcolonial frontier zone calls for a sustained effort in the social and cultural sciences to mobilise theory to make critical sense of our simultaneously open and closed, interconnected world. The research on the refugees-and-religion nexus presented in this volume underscores the pressing importance of this endeavour.


[1] Reinhart Koselleck, “Crisis”, Journal of the History of Ideas, 67/2 (2006): 357–400.

[2] Peter van der Veer, “German Refugees and Refugees in Germany”, in: Birgit Meyer and Peter van der Veer (eds.), Refugees and Religion: Ethnographic Studies of Global Trajectories (London, New York, Oxford, New Delhi, and Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021): 34–47.

[3] Wayne P. te Brake, “War, Forced Migration, and the Politics of Religious Diversity”, in: Birgit Meyer and Peter van der Veer (eds.), Refugees and Religion: Ethnographic Studies of Global Trajectories (London, New York, Oxford, New Delhi, and Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021): 15–33.

Birgit Meyer is Professor of Religious Studies at Utrecht University. She trained as a cultural anthropologist and worked on lived religion in Ghana for more than 30 years. Alongside this, she contributed to the development of a material approach to religion. Currently, she chairs the research program Religious Matters in an Entangled World. She is also the chair of the Academic Advisory Board of the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Citation: Birgit Meyer,Refugees and Religion, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.07.2021,

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Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 5. Juli). Refugees and Religion. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von

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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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  1. 22. Juli 2021

    […] was co-edited by Meyer and Peter van der Veer and published by Bloomsbury (open access). Click here to read the […]

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