Refugees: Belongings and Loss

In sociology, we distinguish between two general types of refugees: anticipatory and acute,  both of which I discuss below. This typology helps us to think about the resources that facilitate the refugee journey. Some people leave with their families and belongings relatively intact, which can support their resettlement in another country. Others flee with very little belongings and they are lucky to have their families with them.

The refugee process renders tremendous loss and trauma, but the material and social assets that people are able to take with them can make a significant difference on resilience.

Anticipatory Refugees

These are people who have the time and resources to plan their escape. They usually leave at the beginning of a crisis by plane or through a formal immigration scheme, such as a skilled migration or family reunion program. They are able to pack their belongings and take their families with them.

These asylum seekers tend to live in urban areas, they are generally professionals or they have relatively secure employment, and they have higher rates of education. Having a stronger socio-economic base improves the chances that they can travel from their country of origin to another country in relative safety. This also improves their resettlement chances in another country, where they will be able to apply for asylum onshore.

Acute Refugees

These people flee their nations at the height of a crisis. They are usually urban poor or they live in rural areas, and they tend to be less educated and have fewer resources. As they have endured a natural disaster, political conflict or humanitarian crisis longer, they are likely to have faced prolonged persecution, torture or to have been personally touched by conflict and loss. All of this increases the likelihood that they may have lost family members. 

Acute refugees typically do not have time to pack and so most of their belongings are left behind. This includes personal documentation, which becomes problematic later in their resettlement. As they come across bureaucratic process, they will be required to prove their identities and the legitimacy of their asylum application. These refugees are also likely to travel indirectly to their point of final destination. This usually means spending years in a country of first asylum or in a refugee camp, before they are resettled elsewhere. This prolonged process compounds trauma.

The photos below represent acute refugees, for whom personal belongings are scant, and even more valuable.

There are over 1 million displaced people who have fled the Central African Republic since 2012. The United Nations Human Rights  asked a group of refugees, “What is the most important thing you brought with you?” Their answers, represented in these photos, range from pictures of family members who were killed, to their national ID card, to their family, and a sewing machine. One man, Benjamin, says, “My sewing machine “is my life, it is my blood. I use it to be able to buy food for my family.” – UNHCR

Photos: UNHCR.

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