Refugee Literature

Defining refugee and literature 

First and foremost, to understand what refugee literature is, it is necessary to define the term ‘refugee’. There are a variety of words, such as immigrant, asylum seeker, migrant, refugee, etc. that refer to people who do not live in the country where they were born due to personal, socioeconomic, political, or religious reasons. There are instances in media when these terms are used interchangeably or little attention is paid to the subtleties of their meanings. 

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the status of a refugee is defined as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.

Seventy years later, UNHCR updated their definition of refugees as:  

people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. They often have had to flee with little more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind homes, possessions, jobs and loved ones. Refugees are defined and protected in international law (UNHCR Australia, n.d.).

Secondly, the concept of ‘literature’ should also be defined, as its scope is diverse and multi-faceted. Literature encompasses a wide range of creative and intellectual expressions, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, essays, and more: it is “a lively and complex negotiation of text, author, reader and society”.  (“Literature,” 2018). Literature is therefore considered an art form and a reflection of human experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

Whether exploring the complexities of the human experience, challenging societal norms, or simply providing an enjoyable escape, literature plays a crucial role in shaping and reflecting the diverse aspects of human culture and thinking.

Refugee Literature 

Refugee literature, also called ‘refugee narrative’, is a diverse scope of literary works, both fictional and non-fictional, not restricted to any genre or form of artistic expression which centres around the experiences of refugees. Although there is no universal definition of this term, refugee literature has ties with postcolonial studies and therefore can be summarized as “literary works written by and about refugees” (Bakara, 2020, p. 290). 

According to Gikardi, only after the Second World War refugee literature received moderate visibility, though it “tended to lose their specificity as such by being folded into the emergent category of postcolonial literatures” (2010, p. 24). Therefore, themes that are commonly found in refugee literature include (Frangos & Ghose, 2022):

  • Displacement and loss: many works highlight the physical and emotional upheaval experienced by refugees when they are forced to leave their homes and familiar surroundings.
  • Identity and belonging: refugee literature often explores questions of identity, belonging, and the search for a new home. It delves into the challenges of adapting to a new culture while trying to preserve one's own identity.
  • Trauma and resilience: however, many works also focus on the resilience and strength of individuals and communities in the face of adversity.
  • Cultural clash and integration: these works may explore the clash and blending of cultures as refugees encounter new environments, traditions, and ways of life. The process of integration and adaptation is a recurring theme.
  • Human rights and social justice: some refugee literature addresses broader issues of human rights and social justice, shedding light on the political and social factors that lead to displacement and the challenges faced by those seeking asylum.

Yet over the last couple of decades, more political and critical refugee literature has been in resurgence (Espiritu, 2006, p. 412–415). In an epoch marked by perpetual war and rising inequality across the globe, the ideas and impact found in writing by and about refugees have become sources of intellectual and aesthetic resistance to both xenophobic nationalism and neoliberal globalization. 

Exploding stereotypes of refugees as ‘silent emissaries’ and suffering innocents, writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen, Roxane Gay, Warsan Shire, Abu Bakr Khal, Ahmad Almallah, and Jehan Bseiso have reclaimed the refugee’s authority to challenge nationalism and national sovereignty as only legitimate grounds of political community. Bakara stresses the fact that refugee literature is “no longer bound to representing the traumatic events that legitimate asylum claims, the new refugee literature works instead to participate in the creation of diverse political futures, for refugees and citizens alike” (2020, p. 291). 


(2018). Literature. In McArthur, T., Lam-McArthur, J., & Fontaine, L. (Eds.), The Oxford Companion to the English Language. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 10 Nov. 2023.

Bakara, H. (2020). Introduction: Refugee Literatures. Journal of Narrative Theory, 50(3), 289–296.

Espiritu, Y. L. (2006). Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship. Journal of Vietnamese Studies, 1(1-2), 410–433. 

Gikandi, S. (2009). Between roots and routes: Cosmopolitanism and the claims of locality. In J. Wilson, C. Sandru, & S. Lawson Welsh (Eds.), Rerouting the Postcolonial New Directions for the New Millennium (pp. 22–35). London: Routledge.

Frangos, M. C., & Ghose, S. (2022). Why Refugee Genres? Refugee Representation and Cultural Form. Springer EBooks, 1–21.

Refugees. (n.d.). Retrieved January 15, 2024, from UNHCR Australia website.

UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 28 July 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137.