Refuge. How the State Shapes Human Potentia: 6th Global Migration Lecture with Heba Gowayed

Event Reports

What happens to one’s human capital once one leaves their home country? What is one’s human capital in the host country? In a comparative ethnography Heba Gowayed, the Moorman-Simon Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, addresses these questions by comparing how Syrian refugees navigate social services, immigration law, as well as racism after they have arrived in the United States, Canada, and Germany. Gowayed presented and discussed her book Refuge. How States shape Human Potential (published earlier this year), at our 6th Global Migration Lecture, which took place online on May 17th, 2022 and was moderated by Volker Heins, member of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Duisburg-Essen and Affiliate Professor of Political Science.

Gowayed’s research includes ‘semi-skilled’ Syrians who were either resettled or sought asylum in the above-mentioned countries between 2015 and 2016. In observing these cases she suggests that human capital, which is often seen as a crucial determinant of immigrant and refugee outcomes in politics, is in itself shaped and structured by the state through ‘state incorporation policies’ - that is, policies regarding access to the labour market, language classes, social assistance, and benefits, are both racialized and gendered, and capable of shaping human capital in various ways. She mentions that research in the field of economics often perceives human capital as something migrants bring with them and consequently measures it in years of education and experiences. Refuge, however, suggests a shift in this perspective and highlights how such capital can be created, transformed, or destroyed through the incorporation policies of the host countries.

Gowayed showed how human capital can be both determined and altered by states. While in Germany and Canada, Syrian families would take language classes as a step toward incorporation, those in the United States often found themselves under a great deal of urgent financial pressure, necessitating an immediate entrance into the labour market at or below minimum wage. Gowayed also spoke about the ‘salvation’ aspect of refuge, particularly in relation to the migrants’ experience in America. She mentioned the fact that the difficult labour conditions are not something that these families would have expected when coming to the United States, asserting that even if one were to explain to people in the process of resettlement that they will live in poverty in a wealthy country, it would still be unimaginable that they would suddenly become low-income labourers: ‘Entering American poverty is no one’s salvation’.

A further exploration of the complexity of human capital focussed on the migrants’ experience of the German ‘credentialization’ system. Gowayed pointed out that the German state would require migrants to already have occupational credentials for various jobs, for instance to be able to work as a truck driver or hairdresser. This requirement makes the transition of human capital into the host country much more difficult, as many or all of credentials needed to enter the job market would, at the outset, be lacking.

The intersection between class and race was considered during the webinar and it was argued that the German system, although unfavourable to migrants, renders skills more valuable in all social classes through credentialization. Anja Weiss, Chair in Macrosociology and Transnational Processes, University of Duisburg-Essen, distinguished, for example, between function and recognition. She emphasized the German tendency ‘to recognize it first’, i.e. to check what credentials exist, rather than valuing functionality and focusing on whether they know if a person has the practical skills it takes to work in the profession or not. Overall, the discussants agreed that such fixation on credentials may be problematic, but the system per se is not be the problem. As Gowayed put it, the issue is not so much how skills are valued through credentialization in Germany, but from the ‘lack of a ramp into the system’, which ultimately diminishes the human capital of these Syrian families.

Apart from the intersectionality between class and race, the nuances of racialization through the binary black-white perspective were also questioned, as it was pointed out that there are many types of racism when it comes to contexts of migration. Gowayed suggested that because race is socially constructed, she acknowledges it as deeply contextual. However, she invites us to consider the world in terms of borders and to look at ‘the ones waiting at the borders’, drawing attention to the fact that ‘the vast majority of displaced people in the world are black and brown’. She stresses the importance of the current Ukrainian case in relation to race, as it reveals how refuge could be dealt with differently in our bordered world.


Bianca Sola Claudio