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Despite the proliferation of specialised agencies designed to reduce the prevalence of refugees worldwide, the number of individuals fleeing persecution is increasing year on year as endemic violence in countries such as Iraq, Somalia and the Syrian Arab Republic continues. As a result, media broadcasts and political dialogues are saturated with discussions about these “persons of concern”. Fundamental questions nonetheless remain unanswered about what meaning these actors attribute to the label ‘refugee’ and what intent, other than paucity of knowledge, might be driving the term’s use or manipulation. Though this is evidently important in the public arena, where incorrect conflations fuel mistrust and misunderstandings, the ramifications of these divergent understandings at the level of multi-lateral politics have yet to be critically explored. This article applies Barthes’ theory of the multiple orders of the sign to address this. Using the case study of the negotiations preceding the invocation of the Cessation Clause for Rwandan refugees, it illustrates how the word refugee is susceptible to numerous, simultaneous understandings, and discusses the implications of these manifold interpretations for how durable solutions are envisaged and negotiated in the refugee regime. In the case of Rwandan refugees in Uganda, this has meant that over a decade of stalemated discussions between the Governments of Uganda and Rwanda and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees over their future have been broken by a series of bilateral concessions that, whilst diminishing the political significance attached to this protracted caseload, have failed to address the continuing precarity of their situation. By conceptualising the word refugee as a sign according to the Saussurean model of semiotics, this paper therefore argues that despite the term’s established legal-normative definition, its inherent malleability makes it susceptible to processes of political instrumentalisation. This elevates the refugee as a rhetorical figure above the refugee as a physical-legal body entitled to certain forms of assistance.

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