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This essay examines how and with what consequences people become labelled as refugees within the context of public policy practices, Conceptual and operational limitations to the existing definition of refugees are noted. These, the paper contends, derive from the absence of a systematic study of labelling processes in the donative policy discourse associated with refugees. The paper outlines the conceptual tools of bureaucratic labelling - stereo typing, conformity, designation, identity disaggrcgation and political/power relationships. These tools are then deployed to analyse empirical data collected from a large refugee population in Cyprus, supplemented by selective secondary research data on various African refugee populations. The analysis proceeds in three parts. First the formation of the label is considered in which stereotyped identities are translated into bureaucratically assumed needs. The label thus takes on a selective, materialist meaning. Alienating distinctions emerge by the creation of different categories of refugee deemed necessary to prioritize need. Next, reformation of the label is considered. The evidence shows how latent and manifest processes of institutional action and programme delivery, reinforce a disaggregated model of identity; in this case disturbing distinctions are made between refugee and non-refugee. Third, the paper considers how labels assume, often conflicting, politicized meanings, for both labelled and labellers. The paper concludes by emphasizing: the extreme vulnerability of refugees to imposed labels; the importance of symbolic meaning; the dynamic nature of the identity; and, most fundamentally of all, the non-participatory nature and powerlessness of refugees in these processes.

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Journal article


Oxford University Press

Publication Date



4 (1)


39 - 62