Unexpected agency on the threshold: Asylum seekers narrating from an asylum seeker centre

Halleh Ghorashi*, Marije de Boer, Floor ten Holder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Several studies have described the condition of asylum seekers as being on the threshold or in-between structures. Victor Turner’s concept of liminality and Agamben’s state of exception have been used extensively to analyse this condition, mostly to show the negative implications of the ambiguous legal (non-) status. This article argues that the condition of liminality provides an intensified doubleness of impossibility and possibility for action, which casts a different light on conceptualizing agency. Without disregarding the downside of this liminal, in-between condition, the article shows that the lack of ‘normalized’ connectedness to the new structure combined with physical distance from the past structure, enables reflection and feeds the power of imagination. This can lead to alternative (yet conditional) forms of agency, such as delayed agency and agency from marginal positions. Through the narratives of asylum seekers living in Dutch asylum seeker centres, the article shows the potential of transforming non-places, such as asylum seeker centres, into those in which existential meanings can emerge (even if partial). Considering these sources of agency has great implications for the short-term well-being of asylum seekers and the long-term inclusion of refugees in their countries of residence.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)373-391
Number of pages19
JournalCurrent Sociology
Issue number3
Early online date21 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2018


This research was part of a project ‘de Werkelijkheid’1 (the reality), which was financed by three organizations (Dutch Refugee Council, Vrolijkheid and UAF). We were asked to research asylum seekers’ living conditions in a Dutch asylum seeker centre (AZC). By using Turner’s (1994) concept of liminality as a potential source of pain and creativity, we sought to gain access to a more comprehensive and layered understanding of refugees’ challenges and resilience strategies in AZCs. This research received funding from the Dutch Refugee Council, Vrolijkheid and UAF.

FundersFunder number
Dutch Refugee Council, Vrolijkheid and UAF
University of Alaska Fairbanks


    • (delayed) agency
    • Asylum seekers
    • in-between structures
    • liminality
    • narratives
    • non-places
    • normalized power
    • refugees


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