Performance anxieties: Interpellation of the refugee subject in law

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Journal Article
Canadian Journal of Law and Society, 2015, 30 (1), pp. 91 - 107
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Copyright © 2014 Canadian Law and Society Association/Association Canadienne Droit et Société. Refugee law posits the refugee as a rights-bearing subject prior to legal recognition. The determination procedures from which legal protection may be availed to a person escaping persecution demand that the applicant be recognizable as a subject entitled to law's power to name her as a refugee. In this article, I draw on speech act theory to investigate the rhetorical structure of refugee recognition. Viewed as a performative speech act, refugee subjectivity emerges as a result of repetition and citation of tropes of refugee-ness, which function to legitimate and naturalize certain representations as evidence of the grounds for protection. This places applicants in a paradoxical position: they must attempt to deliver their evidence as a performance of refugee-ness, but in making the narrative recognizable and understandable according to the norms of the legal process, the singularity, and possibly the authenticity, of the account may be lost. The argument is supported by empirical research conducted at the Australian Refugee Review Tribunal.
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