Politicizing Refugees’ Identities: Performance, Theatre and the Body

  • Abstract:

    Doing something with or about the body is a performative act. Doing self-harm to one’s body is a deeply political message that refugees have used when literal speech was impossible. Self-harm became a form of testimony, of making a plea for social recognition and regaining control when all power seems to reside outside the body. This has happened multiple times in recent history: refugees were sewing lips, eyes and ears in Australia Woomera camp (2002), they went on hunger strikes (2006) and set themselves on fire in UK (2003-2005). Tibetans inside Tibet and since recently also Tibetans living in exile in India, set themselves on fire as an extreme form of protest against Chinese occupation of Tibet. From March 2009 until March 2018 there have been reports of 152 Tibetans who have self-immolated in China, acts condemned by the Tibetan Government in Exile and by the spiritual leader of Tibet, the XIV Dalai Lama. In this paper I argue that these acts speak about a politicized and performative form of identity that refugees embody in the 21st century, in both European and non-European contexts. If the washed-up body on the Turkish beach of the little Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, on 2nd September 2015, was the peak of a dehumanised political response to the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe, I argue that the politicization of refugees’ bodies continues elsewhere, as long as the political takes over the human, moral and legal dimensions of migratory movements, denying the human need to live in safe and free spaces.