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The asylum procedure as a hope-generating machine

Over the past few years, the European Union has used deterrence as its main strategy to prevent an influx of refugees, becoming more hard-handed as the number of refugees has increased. A faulty asylum procedure creates false hope to those who are then met by an untimely death or horrific conditions upon reaching Europe instead of ‘making it’ as a handful of refugees before them did. This hope-generating machine divides instead of unites, diminishing the collective power of refugees to challenge the EU’s migration policy.

Eu refugee policy migrant
Activists have taken to the streets in Amsterdam and Utrecht in the Netherlands to protest conditions in refugee camps, particularly Moria, and the EUs migration policy. Pictured here are protesters at Neude Utrecht. Photo: Dorothea Hilhorst.

Some days ago I reread Power, Community and the State[1], a book by former colleague at Wageningen University Monique Nuijten, to contribute to a publication celebrating the author’s work on the occasion of her retirement. Back in 2003, Nuijten described how the Mexican state acted as hope-generating machine that disciplined and divided poor peasant communities. While rereading the book 17 years after it first appeared, I was reminded how much the world has changed in the last two decades. I also realized how appropriately the idea of a hope-generating machine describes the asylum system in Europe.

Power, Community and the State is written in a time when arguments that we had entered a deterritorialized and transnationalized world seemed compelling. The book quotes Hardt and Negri’s view[2] that ‘sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule’.

How dreamily naïve such a quotation sounds today. In contrast to what was then hoped would be a move toward greater global unity, today’s world manifests itself as reterritorialized and renationalized, especially when seen through the eyes of migrants. Most passports in the world do not travel far. Borders that seemed to have disappeared have been reinstated as real physical borders, paper borders, iron borders, or even—when we read about the plans for barriers miles away from coastlines or hear of surveillant ships shooting at migrant boats at open sea—borders of death[3]. As Linda Polman accurately remarked, ‘[t]he Human Rights Commission of the United Nations stated in 2018 that Europe has developed a refugee policy that implicitly and explicitly accepts death as an effective anti-migration instrument.’[4]

Yet the core idea of Nuijten’s book about the state as a hope-generating machine is more relevant than ever —certainly for the millions of migrants seeking entry into inaccessible states. Oliver Bakewell noted how prospective migrants in East Africa are completely devoted to collecting papers and building a portfolio for an envisioned migration. During his presentation at the Forced Migration Studies Association Conference in Thessaloniki in 2018, Bakewell echoed Monique Nuijten, who said that ‘[t]he culture of the state is central to the operation of the bureaucracy as a hope-generating machine. The hope-generating bureaucratic machine gives the message that everything is possible, that cases are never closed […]’ (p. 196). With reference to the migration policy in East Africa, Bakewell seemed to expand on her argument that ‘[s]tate intervention in Mexico tends to have a divisive effect on the population, and to frustrate independent collective organising efforts “from below”’ (p. 198).

What the example of East Africa shows is that, rather than seeking out their brothers in fate and rising to protest, migrants are driven by the hope of becoming one of the lucky chosen few, doing everything in their power to mould their individual behaviour and attitudes to the requirements imposed or favoured by the migration machines. The annual lottery that hands out 55,000 Green Cards to hopefuls wishing to enter the United States—with a 1.33% chance of people in the most eligible countries getting one—is indeed the ultimate hope-generating machine, steering millions of people away from engaging in protests and activism in their own countries against conditions they are fleeing from, and instead motivating them to be left at the hands of ‘fate’ in the form of a lottery, as in the US Green Card Lottery, and to maintain immaculate track records and build their individual case files to be considered ‘good citizens’.

Stories of refugees ‘slipping through the cracks’ of Europe’s asylum system and starting afresh continue to fire the continent’s hope-generating machine.

It is widely acknowledged that Europe’s policies towards migration can be summarized by the word ‘deterrence’. The European Union as well as its individual member states, perhaps with the exception of Germany, seem united in their determined aggression in seeking to expose and render as visible as possible the cases of failed migration that result in tragic and horrifying death by drowning when crossing the Mediterranean Sea or being stuck in a horrific limbo in refugee camps such as Moria. In these camps, refugees seem to have the same function as the shrivelled human heads on stakes that used to decorate the walls of medieval European cities to deter vagabonds from passing through the gates. The purpose of these efforts is similarly to deter would-be migrants from trying to reach Europe. Nonetheless, there are always a number of people who manage to slip through the cracks of the system and are granted asylum, and so the hope-generating machine continues to churn out hope, fed by ‘success stories’.

For a long time, I thought maintaining the appearance of a just system of asylum was a concession to the many Europeans who are supportive of refugees. In the Netherlands, for example, the government insists that there is no social support base for migrants. This, however, is far from the truth. Recent research[5] from the University of Groningen found that, although the support base for migration is shrinking in the Netherlands, 45% of the population still supports government assistance to refugees. Another 25% of the population is willing to support such assistance to refugees provided that strict measures are taken to protect society from asylum seekers who ‘misbehave’. Thirty Dutch municipalities have declared their willingness to receive refugees from Moria.

The bold statement of the right-wing Dutch government that there is no support base for refugees is no more than a malicious manipulation of the truth by a government that plays to the populist far right, where it fears it is losing votes. I always assumed that the small numbers of successful asylum cases in Europe were a triumph of the countless refugee-friendly lawyers, volunteers, and left-wing politicians making noise on behalf of refugees. I assumed that they occasionally managed to beat the system.

Upon closer inspection, and after rereading Power, Community and the State, I realize more clearly that those asylum seekers who successfully slip through the system are not a mistake or a failure of the deterrence machine. It is much more likely that the machine is built in such a way that, once in a while, a lucky individual comes out with a residence permit. Thus, refugees that slip through the cracks, and are granted a residence permit to continue their life in Europe—are also the symbols of hope that keep inspiring migrants to bet on obtaining a residence permit. .

It may very well be that the machine is designed in this way to discipline the migrants in Moria and other places where they are living a non-life.

When stuck in these camps, they continue to hope that they can eventually ‘move on’ and start the asylum procedure, and so they continue to wait, and to hope. And those that reach a country where their asylum procedures are started are told by their friendly lawyers to keep their heads down, behave well, and do whatever they can to enhance their chances of being granted a residence permit. Knowing one or two people who succeeded before you further feeds that hope. And as long as migrants have this hope, they are prevented from being united to fight the cruel reception they get in Europe.

[1] Nuijten, M. C. M. (2003). Power, Community and the State: The Political Anthropology of Organisation in Mexico. London, UK and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.

[2] Hardt, M., and Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[3] Henk van Houtum & Rodrigo Bueno Lacy (2020) The Autoimmunity of the EU’s Deadly B/ordering Regime; Overcoming its Paradoxical Paper, Iron and Camp Borders, Geopolitics, 25:3, 706-733, DOI: 10.1080/14650045.2020.1728743

[4] Linda Polman Tegen Elke Prijs. Essay Vluchtelingen en Europa. Groene Amsterdammer, 01-10-2020.

[5] Toon Kuppens et al. (2019). Ongenoegen, migratie, gastvrijheid en maatschappelijke onrust. Onderzoek Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, in opdracht van het Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek- en Documentatiecentrum.

About the author:


Thea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

This article is based on a contribution of the author to the Liber Amicorum for Monique Nuijten of Wageningen University.

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Prioritising ‘well-being’ amongst refugees living in fragile settings through the framework of culture and inclusion

A focus on improving the well-being of vulnerable groups such as refugees and migrants is crucial for at least two reasons: managing the trauma of crisis and disruption that has severely affected the lives of such groups, and confronting new challenges arising in displacement, including ‘social and cultural barriers to integration, low socio-economic status, acculturation stress, exclusion and discrimination’.[i] This blog explores how a project run by Holly Ritchie in a fringe area of Nairobi, Kenya seeks to counter the precarious position of Somali refugee women by placing their well-being first, with particular emphasis on the role of culture and inclusion.

Somalian Refugees in the park
Credit: Holly A. Ritchie

Well-being is considered a vital component of human mental and physical health. Whilst a universally accepted definition is still lacking[2], from a social science perspective, well-being may be understood as a multidimensional concept of ‘living well’, combining notions of objective and subjective well-being[3].

Typically, refugee well-being has been approached from a mental health angle, with aid responses including counseling and community-based psychosocial services. Increasingly, however, there is emphasis on more practical interventions to coping with life in displacement. Social support is viewed as instrumental to refugee well-being, including formal social support from institutions and organisations, as well as informal advice and guidance from family, friends and networks[4]. There is also a growing focus on the economic well-being of refugees and immigrants, i.e. ensuring that basic survival needs are met, and facilitating access to sustainable incomes and assets to prosper through livelihoods assistance; this has been particularly highlighted during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Yet there is still a lack of understanding about the impact of such support on refugee lives, and particularly the influence of culture, i.e. in how they access and receive support, and how this shapes socio-economic life.

In a recent blog post, I drew attention to my research with female refugees and enterprise[5] and emerging links to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs). I shared empirical insights from a small self-funded project that I set up in 2018 with a group of Somali refugee women[6] living in Eastleigh on the outskirts of Nairobi in Kenya, in particular the influence of mobile technology on women’s self-reliance and protection. Known as ‘Little Mogadishu[7], Eastleigh is a commercial hub for Somali business and home to high numbers of Somali refugees. Poor Somali refugee women in Eastleigh tend to work as petty traders although they face restrictions in their daily work without business licenses and suffer local intimidation due to (Somali) cultural norms.

Motivated by my studies, the refugee project was conceived to promote the ‘well-being’ and leadership skills of Somali refugee women as a foundation to building resilient livelihoods and promoting community inclusion. Drawing on an integrated perspective of ‘wellness’ in contrast to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[8], I adopted a holistic approach to developing different facets of human well-being. This incorporated five core dimensions[9] in a ‘wheel of well-being’, including physical well-being, social well-being, financial well-being, environmental/community well-being, and a sense of purpose.[10]

In addition to well-being training, the project has sought to organise cultural community initiatives, including women’s poetry circles building on Somali oral traditions and a love for poetry[11], to commemorate important days such as Women’s Day, 16 Days of Activism and World Refugee Day. The group has also participated in short courses on ‘Trauma-informed Yoga and Healing’ by visiting yoga instructors. In addition, the project has supported the active involvement of the refugee women in city cultural events, including refugee runs and forest walks. With a strong focus on stimulating livelihood opportunities on the back of the various ‘well-being’ trainings, a savings scheme was introduced, and with technical support, the group has now set up a small, collective tie-dye business.

Using insights from my doctoral thesis into transforming norms and habits[12], the project aimed to engender shifts in various dimensions of well-being through drawing on progressive cultural ideas and beliefs and constructive narratives that could promote behavioural change, particularly in less educated and conservative settings. An innovative training methodology was developed that aimed to explore and carefully unpack each well-being theme through the prism of positive traditional and modern cultural and religious sayings, proverbs or passages, including from Somalia and the Koran where possible, but also from broader cultures from around the world.[13] Such an approach was intended to permit cognitive and ideological depth to the creation of new daily habits and practices.

For example, in exploring the importance of exercise and physical fitness in ‘physical well-being’, an old simple saying in Somali was offered by a member of the group: ‘If you do not know your responsibilities and your body, you will die before your clothes are old’. The facilitator also shared key Islamic references and mainstream quotes from the well-being industry, for example, ‘Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person’s physical, emotional, and mental states’.

Meanwhile, to support women’s work and economic inclusion as part of ‘financial well-being’, we discussed the role of Khadija, the wife of Prophet Mohamed, as a businesswoman, and the importance of work permitting ‘zakah’, or almsgiving, that is considered one of the five pillars of Islam.

Somali poem

Adding momentum to the religious and cultural dialogue and encouraging storytelling and reflection, the women’s poetry events have provided a further platform to exchange and share Somali songs (and dance), and traditional and contemporary poetry, especially as a means of feminist inspiration. At a more profound level, the poetry sessions have endeavoured to strengthen the women’s personal and cultural identity, enhance female solidarity and networks, and help make sense of life as Somali women, as Muslims and as refugees in a challenging environment.

Whilst subtle, the development and practice of cultural well-being in particular may boost refugee women’s confidence, solidarity and initiative and can have knock-on effects to other dimensions of well-being and dynamics of inclusion. For example, a stronger sense of cultural identity and self-assertiveness may further enhance informal social support between the refugee women, e.g. through improved local exchange, information and guidance, and can strengthen emerging social relations and networks, thus fostering social well-being. This may provide a platform for improved economic well-being and even collective enterprise. An increase in women’s social networks may also lead to increased technological participation[14] towards improved digital well-being.

Yet, ultimately, to facilitate broader processes of community integration in turbulent contexts such as Eastleigh in Nairobi, it is clear that cultural and religious diversity needs to be recognised and embraced with institutional-level support to promote greater acceptance of marginalised groups, including refugees. This may then permit the development of cross-community well-being that can allow its members to collectively thrive and prosper.


[2] Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J., & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), 222-235.

[3] McGregor, J.A. and Pouw, N. (2017) ‘Towards an economics of well-being’, Cambridge Journal of Economics 2017, 41, 1123–1142

[4] Social support may pertain to three forms of social assistance, including basic compassion and warmth, information and good advice, or more practical everyday life support. Knoll N, & Schwarzer, R. (2005) Soziale Unterstützung. Göttingen: Hogrefe.

[5] Ritchie, H.A. (2018a). Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration? Disasters, 42(S1), S40−S60.

[6] The immediate group includes 20-25 women, but the project aims to reach at least 100 refugee women, with participating women encouraged to pass on basic summary messages to at least three other women in their households or neighbours (through tea parties).

[7] An estimated 100,000 refugees reside in Eastleigh.

[8] McGregor, S.  L. T.  (2010). Well-being, wellness and basic human needs in  home economics [McGregor Monograph Series No. 201003]. Seabright, NS: McGregor Consulting Group. Retrieved from

[9] This is not exhaustive and further dimensions of wellbeing have been conceived, including spiritual wellbeing and emotional wellbeing.

[10] To date, the group has looked at the first four components. Physical wellbeing incorporated physical and mental wellbeing, with an emphasis on diet and complementary ‘healthy’ spices and herbs, fitness and relaxation/meditation. Financial wellbeing incorporated work and income, savings and budgeting. Social wellbeing included family relations, friends and networks. Environmental wellbeing has explored the physical nature of homes and living spaces, neighbourhood and community, and the importance of green spaces.

[11] Kapchits G. (1998) The Somali Oral Traditions: a Call for Salvation. In: Heissig W., Schott R. (eds) Die heutige Bedeutung oraler Traditionen / The Present-Day Importance of Oral Traditions. Abhandlungen der Nordrhein-Westfälischen Akademie der Wissenchaften, vol 102. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

[12] Ritchie, H.A. (2016) Institutional Innovation and Change in Value Chain Development: Negotiating Tradition, Power and Fragility in Afghanistan, London: Routledge

[13] Whilst many of the women were illiterate, a flipchart was used to aid discussion and brainstorming, and create as visual focal point for attention (with a translator).

[14] Ritchie, H.A. (forthcoming) ‘ICTs as frugal innovations: Enabling new pathways towards refugee self-reliance and resilience in fragile contexts?’ in Saradindu Bhaduri, Peter Knorringa, Andre Leliveld Cees van Beers, Handbook on Frugal Innovations and the Sustainable Development Goals. Edward Elgar Publishers.

About the author:

Holly A Ritchie is a post-doc Research Fellow at the ISS and a CFIA Research Affiliate.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.