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This paper revisits the concept of refugee labelling I elaborated nearly two decades ago. In radically different conditions, the contemporary relevance and utility of the concept are re-examined and re-established. Formulated at a time of regionally contained, mass refugee migration in the south during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the paper argues that the concept still offers vital insights into the impacts of institutional and bureaucratic power on the lives of refugees in a globalized era of transnational social transformations, mixed migration flows, and the continuing presence of large scale refugee migration. The core of the paper argues that the ‘convenient images’ of refugees, labelled within a co-opting humanitarian discourse in the past, have been displaced by a fractioning of the label which is driven by the need to manage globalized processes and patterns of migration and forced migration in particular. The paper re-evaluates the concept using the three original axioms—forming, transforming and politicizing the label ‘refugee’. The core argument is that in the contemporary era: a) the formation of the refugee label reflects causes and patterns of forced migration which are much more complex than in the past, contrasting with an essentially homogeneous connotation in the past; b) responding to this complexity, the refugee label is transformed by an institutional ‘fractioning’ in order to manage the new migration; c) governments, rather than NGOs as in the past, are the pre-eminent agency in the contemporary processes of transforming the refugee label, a process driven by northern interests; d) the refugee label has become politicized by the reproduction of institutional fractioning and by embedding the wider political discourse of resistance to migrants and refugees.

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Journal article


Oxford University Press

Publication Date



20 (2)


172 - 192