Reflective Practice and the Contribution of Refugee-Researchers

to Critical Understandings of the Refugee Integration Process

By Veysi Dag

Kurdish diaspora activists created a mountain, surrounded with images of the Kurdish martyrs, symbols of the homeland and wild landscape of Kurdistan. This image was taken at the Ahmet Kaya Kurdish Centre in Paris in May 2019. Photo credit: Veysi Dag.

You are not the first person who comes to interview us. We share our experience with researchers, but nothing happens because we believe that they do not present our problems or make our problems visible. We have lost our faith in humanity because we lost our families, home and now ourselves. We feel isolated and ignored. We are constant refugees in exile since we escaped from Syria because of war but we are also looking for a way to escape from the challenges that we face in connection with the paperwork, bureaucracy, isolation, uprootedness and lack of understanding in this country!

These words belong to members of Kurdish refugee groups that I interviewed in different cities. They express their frustration about researchers that fail to bring up refugee grievances rooted both in the homeland and in new societies. Following my engagement with Kurdish refugees, I realise that these statements also reflect my own previous experience of being a refugee; I was tortured and jailed in Turkey and lived permanently in fear. I was anxious about being captured and deported while seeking to escape to a safe country behind a border, where I was forcibly cut off from my homeland. This status has not changed as I am willing but unable to go back to my homeland in Turkey, but I fear that I would likely face persecution, torture, imprisonment and perhaps even death due to my critical stance towards the Turkish regime. Due to my refugee background, I have also often faced challenges and felt a lack of recognition, support and opportunities as a researcher, even though I have been awarded a PhD in Germany. This has occurred despite my legal status as a German citizen, my academic education, my multi-lingual social status, and my freedom of mobility.

My experiences, which are rooted both in my homeland and in Germany, have now become the field. I place my experience in relation to those of the Kurdish refugees I have interviewed, as an object of study. These memories of suffering transgress space and time in my life and constantly come up in my dreams, during conversations with other refugees, and in my social interactions. These experiences connect me with the refugees I have interviewed, with the homeland, and with friends who have been tortured, disappeared or had their lives taken in Turkey. The connection between my experience as a researcher with a refugee background and the experiences of recently arrived refugees with precarious status leads to two questions: What types of impact has my research on Kurdish refugees had on me personally as a researcher? How does my positionality as a Kurdish researcher with a refugee background have an impact on the data interpretation and analysis that aims to acquire and produce critical knowledge on refugees? In answering these questions, I must consider the decisive role I play as a refugee researcher in producing knowledge on refugees for decision makers in the field of migration and refugee integration. My approach to this research topic is therefore not neutral, but is shaped by my subjective experiences, biases, and normative believes. Yet, my positionality as a researcher with a blurred outsider-insider view is crucial to my interpretation of the knowledge I have gained. While objectivity in research should typically be valued, I argue that through bringing in my own position as a refugee researcher, I can contribute to a deeper understanding of the importance of self-reflectivity in field research and also bring a critical perspective to established discourse on the integration of recently-arrived refugees.

Research on Kurdish Refugees – The Context of the Study

In 2019, I embarked on ethnographic fieldwork on the function, role, and politics of pre-established Kurdish diasporic associations in European cities. My research focused on processes of reception, incorporation, and settlement of recently arrived Kurdish refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Turkey since the ‘European refugee crisis’ of 2015. It also examined the relationship between diasporic associations and recently arrived refugees, as well as the approaches of both the diasporic associations and the refugees toward local and national authorities. In the context of this fieldwork, 235 in-depth interviews with both newly arrived refugees and diaspora leaders were conducted alongside focus group discussions and participant observation across 17 European cities[1]. The research revealed a wide range of challenging experiences rooted in both the homeland but also in the process of encountering bureaucratic obstacles as a refugee, such as paperwork and regulations. In addition, refugees encountered a lack of understanding and social isolation during the process of adapting to their new environments. The aim of my research was to understand and explore the role of Kurdish diasporic associations as part of a larger study of multi-scale forms of integration governance[2] in Germany, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, France, and Italy.

The Insider-Outsider Perspective

Subjects of investigation in this research discussed ‘push-factors’ such as ongoing violent conflicts, political persecution, and homeland politics, as well as the personal impacts of various factors that emerge in the integration process in new countries. These factors included: their asylum status, bureaucratic and language obstacles, social isolation, and a general lack of practical assistance in integration-related areas[3]. One of the aims of the research project was to examine these factors from the viewpoint of refugees and provide decision makers, scholars, and the general public in receiving countries an insight into the refugees’ perspectives. I draw on my own experience of being a refugee and having suffered from a painful integration policy, which I experienced as being one-sided. In many cases, the political and institutional actors engaged in decision making and decision implementation around refugees’ integration policies fail to recognise the background, experiences, and vulnerable circumstances of refugees. This approach may impede refugees’ smooth incorporation into the social, political, cultural, and economic structures of receiving societies. Therefore, the refugees in question often struggle for recognition by the authorities and for their understanding of the cultural, political, and social factors related to conditions in their countries of origin and settlement. Through the struggle, refugees promote their own integration from below. My interpretation is based on the fact that I have also faced the difficulties of some of the existing ‘integration’ policies, which often also include experiences of discrimination, exclusion, and marginalisation, and even interactions with authorities that produce feelings of worthlessness. Despite my ambitious efforts to engage in ‘integration from below’, I sometimes encountered situations in which I was discouraged from learning German or prevented from studying or exerting a policy impact on issues relevant to refugees and migrants in Germany. I also personally experienced discriminatory practices in some of my interactions with state authorities and public institutions, including universities and funding institutions.

In my experience, these exclusionary practices triggered a sense of frustration and ultimately, the inability to express suffering. Hence, I could strongly identify with the severe distress of both the established and newly arrived Kurdish refugees and their trauma. As in my case, those I interviewed, for example, felt not only forced to leave but also banned from their ancestral homeland. Like me, the Kurdish refugees in question—both those outside and within the diasporic associations— had been living in countries outside the Kurdish region for more than half of their lives but often without a clear legal status. The consequences of this is that, as I realised through my previous experience as a refugee, they have had to endure a long-term condition of feeling vulnerable, insecure, and unprotected. They are affected by repressive politics in their countries of origin and are still obsessed by news about the tragic events in these countries, especially as it relates to what they feel to be their Kurdish brethren in the Middle East. Thus, they lead a ‘life in transit’ as I did when I left Germany for a restless life all over the place. I feel always ‘on the move’ both in the physical sense but also in the mind. This experience has constructed and re-constructed my personality and positionality, and also affects how I conduct my research on Kurdish refugees.

The Impact of Being a Refugee-Researcher

The negative implications emerging from the experience of being a refugee and the development of a high level of self-consciousness have enabled me to deal with the predicament faced by the refugees I encountered in my research. I could understand the uncertainties surrounding their lives in the present and future in new countries from a refugee perspective. I ultimately decided not to distance myself from my own personal experiences and the narrative of suffering that I share with Kurdish refugees. Instead, I actively reflected on the experience of Kurdish refugees and coped with the personal repercussions. I did this in order to be better able to affect the perceptions and attitudes of authorities, decision makers, and individual citizens towards refugees. By doing so, I demonstrated that refugees have the agency to critically define the notion of ‘refugee’ based on their own experiences. My own case and those of many other refugee researchers should make clearer that refugees seek to influence political decision-making at various levels, including beyond borders and through critical knowledge production that aims to understand the challenges and conditions faced by refugees from more humane and ethical perspectives.

As a refugee researcher, I point out that refugees should not just be assumed as victims who rely on the compassion and empathy of other human beings, but rather I try to challenge notions of helplessness to create a political space for their rights, protection, self-expression, and self-representation. Moreover, the autonomous efforts of refugees to create a political space of equal expression are meaningful. The creation of this political space helps them to overcome their dire predicament and their collective narrative of suffering and allows them to express and share their critical self-knowledge in order to be seen, heard, and felt. When Kurdish refugees critique researchers for not including them in the production of knowledge, they are pushing back against the idea that they are solely a source of data and not producers in their own right.

The Personal Impacts of Conducting Field Research and my Positionality as a Refugee-Researcher

During this fieldwork, I have experienced highly emotional moments and feelings of helplessness as I listened to stories relaying the tragedy of being uprooted, lost, discriminated against, and neglected in a new environment. They have experienced a calamity owing to the fact that the Kurdish people are stateless, and in consequences of this, being refugees seems to be an essential factor for their survival. Kurdish refugees have an uncertain status, collective narratives of suffering, traumatic experiences, and ongoing situations of precarity, all of which lead to a condition of extreme vulnerability. Kurdish refugees are often assigned a low status and are treated as minorities that belong to deprived communities or classes. They are often marginalised in both their new home and their homeland. To put it simply, my interviewees were often forced to live on the periphery of societies in which they are present everywhere but welcome nowhere.

These circumstances have left a deep emotional impact on me and further shaped my positionality, sparking my own self-reflectivity during the data collection process. The stories I encountered often evoked my own past trauma as they fit within a collective narrative of common suffering and shared memory. This has a direct impact on my research and the way in which I approach Kurdish refugees. The position I try to represent in my research is not related to my common ethnic background as a member of the ethnic Kurdish community, but rather to the collective social and political consciousness that arises out of the experience and narrative of suffering. I hold this position along with others who have been forced to escape regardless of their ethnic, social, symbolic, or political identity. I have decided to emphasise my position of being a refugee in order to recognise refugees’ common struggles against injustice, coercion, and victimhood that are often caused by the actions of state institutions.

In the process of undertaking field research, I have developed a sense of academic commitment and responsibility to communicate the obstacles and hardships of Kurdish refugees and to raise awareness amongst decision-makers, as well as the general public. This involves a critique of the unfavourable integration policies and perceptions of the general public towards Kurdish refugees, which in turn shape refugees’ social, political, and institutional adaptation to receiving societies. My sense of responsibility also extends to promoting an understanding of the implications of Kurdish statelessness, which is rooted in countries of origin, and places the Kurdish refugees and diasporic associations in a dire predicament. I aspire to shed light on the ways in which Kurdish refugees have been unable to express their collective experience of suffering due to their marginalisation. Finally, I seek to support their collective efforts to create a political space for their integration from below that will allow them to obtain both their recognition and visibility.

Veysi Dag is a postdoctoral researcher on the research project, ‘Migration Governance and Asylum Crises (MAGYC)’ at SOAS, University of London. Prior to his academic career, Veysi worked for a pro-Kurdish newspaper in Turkey. He spent 11 months as a political prisoner in Turkey. After his release from prison, he escaped to Germany as an asylum-seeker. In 2005, he began to study Political Science at the Free University of Berlin and International Relations at the University of Kent in Canterbury. In April 2016, he completed his doctoral thesis from the Free University of Berlin and worked at the Department of Political Science of the FU Berlin as a research associate. Veysi´s research interests include studies of migration and diaspora, social movements and transnationalism, comparative politics with a focus on refugee and migration policies in Europe, peacebuilding and conflict transformation, and regional policy analysis with a focus on Middle Eastern politics and the Kurdish-Turkish conflict.


I’d like to express my gratitude to Fiona Adamson for her valuable comments on the final draft of this piece. I also thank members of the editorial team of the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration for their editing and constructive feedback.


The author acknowledges the support provided by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Program

[1] Berlin, Munich, Landshut (Germany), Stockholm, Malmo, Lund (Sweden), Bornholm (Denmark), Salzburg, Vienna (Austria), Paris, Nice, Antibes, Cannes (France), Ventimiglia, Rome, Grosseto, Bari (Italy).

[2] My field research took place from March to August 2019 as part of the European Union-funded Horizon 2020 project on ‘Migration Governance and Asylum crisis’ (MAGYC).

[3] These areas include housing, the labour market, education, social security, and everyday experiences of discrimination and exclusion.