The role of semiotics in connecting the spaces, words and embodied experiences of refugee politics

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Despite the every‐day prevalence of the term ‘refugee’, fundamental questions often remain unasked. What meanings do actors associate with the label? What intentions might be driving the word's use and/or manipulation? And what implications might the existence of multiple interpretations have for the persons under discussion and the processes within which they sit? Though this is evidently important in popular accounts, where the term's misuse fuels anti‐immigration sentiments and societal mistrust, the ramifications of these multiple interpretations for assisting refugees and negotiating durable solutions have lacked critical exploration. Existing approaches to understanding the politics of the refugee regime have tended to focus on physical sites of contestation, such as refugee camps. This article re‐introduces semiotics as a heuristic framework through which to understand how the word ‘refugee’ in itself constitutes a disputed arena, and to explore what impacts this has on negotiations over their future. This approach is used to explain the controversial negotiations surrounding the invocation of the Cessation Clause for Rwandan refugees in Uganda. Extensive resistance to the cancellation of Rwandan refugees’ statuses has not been met by commensurate attempts to explain when, why and how this process unfolded. Through conceptualising the word ‘refugee’ as a sign according to the Saussurean and Barthean models of semiotics, this piece charts the multiple meanings that this label signified alongside its established legal‐normative definition, and discusses what implications this had for how durable solutions were negotiated. Disaggregating the label provides a route through which to explore what enables the conceptual and spatial dissonance that plagues certain attempts to conclude protracted refugee situations. The piece concludes by discussing the analytical possibilities that emerge from re‐engaging with socio‐semiotic approaches, including through proposing greater engagement with the political geographies of words and their meanings.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)303-316
JournalTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers
Issue number2
Early online date8 Dec 2016
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2017


  • refugee
  • semiotics
  • Rwanda
  • Uganda
  • cessation clause
  • political geographies of words


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