At the Well blog


From waiting in the camps to dying in exile – four arenas of endings in refugeehood 

Photo of the Endings team in Kamari by Rewan Kakil (2023)

Examining endings is significant because an ending is often a prerequisite or enabler for a new beginning – something that both refugees and societies are looking for. But does refugeehood ever end? And if so, how, when, and where?

In the Endings project, we address the theoretical and empirical gaps connected with refugeehood, time, and endings by combining research and arts. We do not presume to know when or where the ‘end’ may come, but explore various endings through four inspiring arenas: the legal status, experiences, camps, and dying. In this text, we discuss these arenas – the where – and their importance to endings in refugeehood.

Ending as a legal status and as an experience

From the point-of-view of the receiving societies, refugeehood is often understood as a legal status. Indeed, this perspective is important, as it provides the person certain rights, such as a right to safely abide, to work, and to (re)construct one’s future in the country of asylum. Vice versa, ending the legal status takes those rights away.

In certain cases, the ending of the legal status can be related to accessing more permanent rights through citizenship, but it can also mean staying in the country of asylum on a more or less insecure status, or deportation to the country of origin. In any case, the ending tangibly affects the terms in which the (former) refugee is allowed to stay, or it may force them to leave behind the life they have built and start anew somewhere else.

Therefore, in this project, we also delve into the other side of the administratively produced decisions – the humane, the individual, the emotional, the impactful on the whole lives of refugees and those who were once refugees – by rewriting some of the legal decisions into poetry.

Although refugeehood is often discussed in terms of the legal status, it is essentially a question of human lives and rights, and therefore of the experiences of those living it in the first person and of their close ones. Yet those least touched by refugeehood often exert most power over it by drafting laws, enacting policies, framing the narrative, and so on. 

For example, it is a common idea that people move from refugeehood to citizenship, and that refugeehood ends when one obtains the citizenship of their country of asylum. Yet, the realities of (former) refugees are usually more nuanced, and seemingly paradoxical experiences of inclusion and exclusion, of safety and danger can actually coexist in people’s lives. 

Examining the experiences therefore unveils the complexities and the humanity hidden behind the legal categories, and the policies aimed at keeping certain people out of certain spaces.

Steps (photo by Rewan Kakil 2024)
Photo by Rewan Kakil (2024)

Ending of the camp and of life

The reception centre – or camp, as it is more colloquially known – is for many refugees the first place to experience life in exile, and also the uncertainty of their new lives. The centre is where the refugees first encounter the waiting: for the lunch time, for the asylum interview, for the decision of asylum or deportation. Indeed waiting becomes the main theme of the camp life. 

As camps are opened and closed, those waiting are moved to other camps, sometimes with just a day’s notice, usually without their consent. The camp is therefore also a place of (re)displacement and disempowerment, where the possibilities of those waiting to control their own lives are diminished by administrative management and decisions. 

For those waiting in reception centres, the closing of the centre therefore ends life as they knew it, and forces them to take on new beginnings elsewhere, in a new place of displacement and waiting. In this project, we aim to break the silence and invisibility the reception centres hold within their walls and to restore the stories of those deciding, experiencing and witnessing their closures.

While the reception centre can be seen as the beginning of life in refuge, dying in refuge is its ultimate ending. Indeed, not all refugees find an ending in their lifetime, as more and more of the world’s population grow old and also die in exile, and elderly refugees face particular challenges of integration or finding an alternative end to their refugeehood. 

This also creates an imperative for elderly refugees to create novel transnational strategies for dying and mourning in exile, as one for example has to decide whether to be buried in the soil of the country of asylum or that of origin – and how to organise this in practice. When loved ones die or are dying in the country of origin, one has to decide whether to farewell and mourn them from a distance, or risk returning to do so.

Welcome to experience the endings with us!

In the Endings project, we document, study and also challenge these four arenas of endings in refugeehood through research, poetry, and audio and visual arts. And, by the end of the project in 2026, we hope to be able to give some answers and perspective on whether refugeehood actually ends, and if so, how, when, and where. 

The first outlooks on this will be seen in our art exhibition, to be organised in the Brinkkala gallery in Turku in November and December 2024. Welcome!