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Narratives of hospitalities and hostilities
Potentialities of becoming

Dismantling Hospitality - Literary Representations of EU Asylum Policy in Dina Nayeri’s Refuge

Déconstruire l’hospitalité : représentations littéraires des politiques d’asile en Europe dans Refuge de Dina Nayeri
Jessica Small


Lorsqu’on se réfère aux États-Nations qui accueillent des réfugiés comme des États hôtes, nous faisons forcément référence à des notions telles que l’hospitalité, que le dictionnaire Oxford définit comme l’accueil et le soin apportés aux invités ou aux étrangers avec générosité et bienveillance. Cependant lorsqu’on étudie de près les conséquences des politiques actuelles de l’Union européenne telles qu’elles sont représentées dans le roman Refuge de Dina Nayeri, on s’aperçoit qu’il s’agit d’un système très éloigné des adjectifs cités plus haut. Inspiré de la propre biographie de l’auteure, ce roman décrit le parcours d’un réfugiée iranienne en Europe et tente de rendre compte de ce que signifie être migrant.e au fil de ses rencontres avec d’autres personnes issues de la diaspora iranienne réfugiée aux Pays-Bas. À travers les amitiés que forment les personnages du roman de Nayeri, les lecteurs se font une idée très vivante des conséquences néfastes de certaines politiques comme le règlement de Dublin auquel il est fait référence bien que de manière détournée. Ce chapitre propose une lecture comparée de textes issus du droit et de la littérature romanesque pour étudier les relations entre hôte qui accueille et hôte accueilli. L’objectif est de montrer la manière dont la fiction donne voix aux victimes de ces politiques et fournit un accompagnement vis-à-vis de lois qui par nature excluent le type de langage nécessaire pour rendre compte de ce que vivent les êtres humains. En outre, le roman de Nayeri pose la question du sens des mots utilisés pour parler d’hospitalité dans le contexte actuel des politiques européennes concernant les réfugiés.

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  • 1 The Ungrateful Refugee saw her win the 2019 Kirkus Prize, and has been listed as a recommended read (...)

1The question of hospitality—or its absence—in the reception of asylum seekers in the European Union is a central concern in the work of Iranian-born novelist and essayist, Dina Nayeri. Indeed, the increased acclaim1 she is currently experiencing is a result of her recent work of non-fiction, The Ungrateful Refugee (Nayeri, 2019c) which explores the experiences of asylum seekers in refugee camps at EU entry points in Greece, intertwined with her own testimony of her childhood years as an asylum seeker and refugee, in the wake of her escape from post-revolutionary Iran at the age of eight. Her latest work of fiction, Refuge (2017), can be read as a searing condemnation of the failures of host countries to adequately care for those that seek protection on their shores. Based heavily on its author’s own lived experience, the novel follows the journey of Niloo, a young woman who despite her successful academic career has not been able to process her feelings of displacement and trauma following her childhood as an Iranian refugee in the US. Now living and working in the Netherlands, Niloo’s quest to rediscover her roots draws her to form friendships with fellow members of the Iranian diaspora, through whom she witnesses the devastating impact of racism, slow bureaucratic procedures and inadequate health care afforded to asylum seekers. The novel’s climax sees one of her friends, an asylum seeker called Mam’mad, driven by despair to commit suicide by self-immolation, in a plotline that mirrors the real-life death of Kambiz Roustayi in 2011. This act signifies the ultimate failure in hospitality and throws into question the very relevance of the host/guest metaphor in the context of asylum procedures. The “EU rules” (Nayeri, 2017: 88) that dictate the conditions through which asylum claims should be processed across EU Member States, such as the Dublin Regulation (Official Journal of the European Union, 2020), are referenced, re-phrased and held up to critical examination in the novel, so that it becomes an affect-based accompaniment to the legislative text that gives voice to the victims of its shortcomings. As the EU now sets about implementing its New Pact on Migration and Asylum (European Commission, 2020), it is timely to examine whether the changes in policy redress the failures in hospitality portrayed in Nayeri’s fiction.

Recipes for hospitality

  • 2 My emphasis.

2There are two distinct forms of hospitality that merit consideration when assessing the pertinence of this metaphor in relation to the reception of asylum seekers. The first is hospitality in the traditional sense: what Lashley refers to as “social” (Lashley & Morrison, 2000: 5) hospitality that we might also characterize as “personal”; the social practice occurring between individuals, families and friend groups and their guests, in homes or homely settings. Definitions of this form of hospitality emphasize the qualities of generosity and compassion that it encompasses. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “the reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers, with liberality and goodwill2 (Oxford English Dictionary, online), whilst Lashley stresses the need for “a genuine regard for the guest as an individual” (Lashley & Morrison, 2000: 15). Telfer states that qualities of a good host include concern or compassion, the desire to meet another’s need” (Tefler, 1996: 87). The second form is the commercialized hospitality of the hospitality industry, a relationship between service provider and customer which Rosello describes as “imitat[ing] the signs of generosity the better to justify an exchange of goods that continues to seduce customers precisely at the moment it makes them forget that they are paying for the attention they receive” (Rosello, 2001: 34). We will return to this second form of hospitality later, first examining the model for personal hospitality proposed by Refuge in the form of meal-sharing within the Iranian community.

Laying out the sofreh: a model of hospitable practice

3The novel offers a blueprint for hospitable practices expressed through a system of food-related metaphors. Nayeri’s prose is infused with detailed, sensory descriptions of food, the preparation of dishes and the pleasures of eating. Much of the novel’s dialogue takes place in scenes centred around meal-sharing: a central convention of hospitality. Aside from fulfilling the requirements of generosity and compassion towards the other in the form of providing for their essential needs, Tefler notes how such practices carry “a symbolic significance […] of trust and closeness between host and guest” (Tefler, 1996: 84). It is thus no coincidence that Niloo describes her anthropological research as being focused on “the early primate families, the procuring and sharing of food” (Nayeri, 2017: 84), reflecting how her adult life is shaped by a striving to rediscover a sense of welcome and belonging lost to her since her childhood departure from Iran. She finds this in the form of hospitable food-sharing offered by the Iranian community she befriends.

4During her first visit to the zakhmeh—the poetry-reading group where a community of Iranian refugees assemble—she is immediately offered sustenance:

An older Iranian man with bushy white sideburns offers her a bowl of lentil soup. His spoon is still in the soup and he has taken a few mouthfuls. She smiles, remembering that offering a child food from one’s bowl is familiar, uninhibited gesture that her grandfather and every Ardestooni man used to make. (Nayeri, 2017: 75–76)

5The immediacy of the sharing represents intimacy and an equalising of power between host and guest. The act triggers in the guest a feeling of being at home, demonstrated by the instant recollection of childhood memories that evoke family and community.

  • 3 Green herb frittata or Kuku Sabzi is typically served at Nowruz (Persian New Year), while pickled o (...)

6The same qualities are apparent when Niloo visits Mam’mad’s home for the first time: no sooner has she crossed the threshold than “he offers her a treat from home, sour cherry sharbat […] Lunch is already set up on the floor, a green herb frittata and garlic pickle that he has made on a hot plate” (Nayeri, 2017: 145). The host has anticipated the every desire of his guest, down to the homely delicacy that immediately engenders feelings of pleasure and belonging. Much research has been done on the preparation and ingestion of food as a potent vector for memory and productive nostalgia amidst diaspora groups (Hage, 2010: 416–417), clearly apparent in those scenes. In addition to the listing of traditional Persian dishes3, this hospitable practice is further situated within an Iranian context through the description of the seating arrangement: “The three perch on cushions, on their haunches, eating off the sofreh […] It thrills Niloo” (Nayeri, 2017: 146).

  • 4 It is mentioned 16 times in total.

7The sofreh is an underlying motif throughout the text4, its presence heralding scenes of meal-based enjoyment amidst Iranian family and community groups. The word carries semantic connotations of hostly practices that extend to intimate sharing. Shirazi (2005) explains:

In the Iranian culture, sofreh is a generic term for a cloth on which food is served; the Iranian counterpart to set the table” would translate “spread the sofreh”. It has other literal and metaphorical meanings; for example, sofreh-e mehmani andakhtan refers to a party in which a meal is served to invited guests, and sofreh-e del (spread of the heart) means confiding ones innermost thoughts and feelings.

8Refuge’s depictions of the sofreh weave these associations together to form a metaphor for welcome, trust, confidence and companionship. As such the novel seems to propose the food-sharing customs of the Iranian community as an exemplar for enacting hospitality.

Cookies and culture clashes

9In contrast to this, Niloo’s encounters with the purportedly (in)hospitable conventions of her country of residence are portrayed in a negative light. In a chapter drily entitled “The Hospitality of the Dutch”, Niloo appals her Iranian friends Mam’mad and Karim with accounts of her experiences of Dutch hosting. “When the Dutch invite you to lunch […] they serve you one slice of bread, ham or cheese, not both […] then, to top off the insults, one cookie next to your coffee” (Nayeri, 2017: 151). The revelation appals both men: “Shameful!” (Nayeri, 2017: 152) However well-intended, such hospitality fails to meet their expectations because it contravenes their conception of generosity: it is not unreserved but predetermined and limited. Insufficient care is given for the potential needs of the guest: Mam’mad marvels “what happens if you’re at a Dutch house and want a second cookie?” (Nayeri, 2017: 152) Whatever the accuracy of such stereotypes, in the characters’ minds Dutch practices are inhospitable, in opposition to their own hostly heritage. The solitary cookie functions metaphorically as a symbol of the wider failings in hospitality on the part of their “host” country. The chapter continues by examining the reception of asylum seekers in the Netherlands, and the EU in general, which is portrayed as similarly systematic and lacking.

Fiction and legislation: a comparative reading

10Through the stories of Mam’mad and Karim, Refuge depicts a system of asylum procedures that fails to live up to definitions of hospitality, leaving refugees in material and mental difficulty. The novel connects such experiences to the EU regulations pertaining to asylum adhered to by its Member States, through Niloo’s references to “EU rules” (Nayeri, 2017: 89). By comparing the “rules” in question with the novel’s depiction of their application, we see how Nayeri’s fiction holds a critical mirror to EU policy.

Disputing the threshold

  • 5 As of September 2020, the EU is moving away from the Dublin Regulation protocols, as we will examin (...)

11Hospitable encounters begin at the threshold. From this first stage, there is a marked difference between a successful host and a poor one; the former waits door ajar to welcome their guest into their home; while the latter may leave their guest waiting in the cold for a period before letting them in. In the case of refugees seeking asylum in the European Union, their threshold has hitherto been determined by the contentious Dublin Regulation.5 First put in place in 1997 and subsequently amended in 2003 and 2013, the Regulation establishes the principle that only one Member State is responsible for examining an asylum claim, and outlines the criteria and mechanisms for determining which state this should be. Refuge expresses this simply through the exposition of Niloo’s internal musings as she ponders Mam’mad’s situation: “the EU rules require refugees to seek asylum from the first member country on whose soil they land” (Nayeri, 2017: 88). Unless asylum seekers can prove they have family members in a different EU member state, asylum claims must be processed in the first nation where an application was made. The regulation’s preface explains that a key objective is to “prevent abuse of the system by the submission of several applications for asylum by one person” (European Union Law, 2019). Already, there is a difference in tone between these two texts: the neutrality of Nayeri’s prose contrasts with the undertone of suspicion in the EU’s anticipation of misconduct. There is an absence of trust on the part of the host towards their guest.

12Beyond the inequalities in reception created by this regulation between those EU Member States located at entry points (Greece, Italy) and those further inland, organizations working with refugees in Europe have long denounced the difficulty it causes for asylum seekers residing in a Member State other than the first one they entered, since their lives are put on hold, overshadowed by the threat of deportation. The original regulation text avoids mention of the impact upon the individuals concerned, centring “the application” (for asylum) itself as the object where Member States are the subject:

Where an application for asylum is lodged with the competent authorities of a Member State by an applicant who is in the territory of another Member State, the determination of the Member State responsible shall be made by the Member State in whose territory the applicant is present. The latter Member State shall be informed without delay by the Member State which received the application and shall then, for the purposes of this Regulation, be regarded as the Member State with which the application for asylum was lodged. (Official Journal of the European Union, 2020)

13The personhood of asylum seekers has been stripped away in favour of the administrative processes that they represent: this is, after all, a legal text, the purpose of which being to provide clarity to EU nations as to the nature of their responsibility. Words that pertain to the experiences of the individuals implicated in this policy—such as detention, removal, deportation—are absent, and merely implied as a logical conclusion. But fiction allows for exploration of the human impact of the policy, which leaves refugees—in the words of a 2018 report (Défenseur des Droits)—“destined to a life of perpetual roaming, no opportunity to integrate and with living conditions so hard and so desperate that their physical and mental health are seriously impacted”. Through the character of Karim, Nayeri demonstrates the ways in which the Regulation leaves refugees struggling without access to essential services.

14From Niloo’s (and our) first introduction to Karim, we see that he does not benefit from economic or cultural capital: “a rural Iranian” (Nayeri, 2017: 145), “his hands hint at rough farm work” (Nayeri, 2017: 146). We can thus deduce that he is likely to be at risk of forced removal, since as Niloo reflects, for Iranian refugees “without connections” (Nayeri, 2017: 88), their first country of entry is “almost never the Netherlands” (Nayeri, 2017: 89). But here, he has found friends and a community. Being amidst them “dissolve[s] the grimness of the passing weeks for men like […] Karim, their lives dripping away day after day in limbo” (Nayeri, 2017: 207). He even has work, paid cash-in-hand for waiting in a restaurant. How could Karim’s life be different, we are invited to consider, if he could be granted asylum in his country of residence, instead of being subject to the fearful wait for a deportation order? Nayeri’s fiction fills in the perspectives and experiences that are missing in this legislation, problematising this policy through the personification of its human impact.

15If the location of the threshold can be a point of contention, so too are the exchanges that take place upon it. Since successful personal hospitality requires trust, so the forms of interrogation that occur during asylum interviews are incompatible with any metaphors of a welcoming host, door ajar. Refuge depicts the difficulties asylum seekers often face in explaining their trajectories, deterred not only by language barriers but by the painful impacts of trauma. We see how Karim is affected by Niloo’s question of how he came to be in the Netherlands without his family: “‘I escaped with a smuggler.’ Karim speaks so quietly that she has to strain to understand him. His eyes remain on his plate as he chews his bread slowly.” (Nayeri, 2017: 146) His difficulty in talking about his experiences is demonstrated by the breakdown in communicative practices of clearly enunciated speech and eye contact, the strain to continue eating. Ample studies have proven that being forced to recount traumatic experiences can be an extremely painful or indeed impossible process for the survivor. Culbertson (1995) writes that as a result:

The survivor most often […] becomes silent about his victimization […] This silence is an internal one in which the victim attempts to suppress what is recalled (so as not to relive the victimization countless times), or finds it repressed by some part of himself which functions as a stranger, hiding self from the self’s experience according to unfathomable criteria and requirements.

16Where traumatic experiences have been internally suppressed then, a great deal of sensitivity and expertise is needed in conducting interviews requiring survivors to recount these events. The Common European Asylum System outlines the obligation of EU member states to “give the applicant a fair and effective opportunity to present the grounds for their application” (European Asylum Support Office, 2014) and European Asylum Office Support guidelines offering member states advice on the conduct of asylum interviews suggests that “the case officer, who notices in his/her preparation that the applicant has been subjected to such serious forms of violence or has shown signs of trauma, should remind him/herself to factor this in during the interview and show particular care and sensitivity in such circumstances” (European Asylum Support Office, 2014: 3). But through her characters’ voices, Nayeri questions how sufficient such recommendations are, and even if they are actually put into practice. Experienced and frustrated, Mam’mad explains Karim’s difficulties to Niloo:

The embassies and the agencies are run by poorly educated Western bureaucrats. If your translator has an American or Dutch accent, like yours or Siavash’s, your story gets believed. If not, then not. […] And […] these fools, they completely ignore the quiet torture victims who are too traumatized to relive anything, and don’t know any good translators anyway. […] Karim has told his story ten different times. Every time they ask for details, he flinches and says something vague, and they think he’s making it up. (Nayeri, 2017: 147–148)

17The injustice of the ignorance towards torture survivors is made to feel corporeal through Karim’s “flinch”, a visible manifestation of the pain he encounters during the interrogation. Such emotive writing enhances the sharp contrast of this account to the Dublin Regulation’s requirement for “equal treatment for all applicants and beneficiaries of international protection” (Official Journal of the European Union, 2020).

  • 6 In 2017 an asylum seeker from Afghanistan was 21 times more likely to gain protection in Switzerlan (...)

18Equally striking is the extent to which control has been removed from the storyteller. They must communicate through an intermediary whose retelling is likely to be disbelieved if it is not sufficiently Western in content and voice. The use of the passive mode (“your story gets believed”) demonstrates how the story becomes a separate entity, extracted from its speaker and no longer their property. Woolley explains how the importance of such a story surpasses and defines the individuals being forced to recount them: “Required to provide a single, linear and verifiable narrative at the outset of an asylum claim, refugees must narrate themselves into existence as legitimate beings” (Woolley, 2014: 20). Furthermore, detailed research compiled by the organization La Cimade seems to confirm Mam’mad’s denunciation of a systematic inequality in the success of asylum claims, demonstrating that there is consistent variation in the likelihood of certain EU nations to “believe” the accounts of asylum seekers compared to others.6 The portrayal of the reception of asylum seekers at the threshold is thus starkly different in the fictional and legislative texts.

19Readers of Nayeri’s non-fictional work will notice that Refuge’s description of asylum interviews is drawn heavily upon refugees’ testimonies of such experiences in EU entry points (Nayeri, 2019: 205–229). By incorporating lived experience into her novel, Nayeri adds authority to her prose, further validating the challenge that she poses to her readers here: to be critical towards legislation, to not simply accept a language of fairness and equality as reality but to research the actual nature of encounters upon the thresholds of EU Member States.

Caring for the “guest”

20The same approach is used when examining the level of care received by the guest while residing in Member States. If hosting requires “liberality and goodwill” (OED, “hospitality”) in the reception of guests, ensuring their essential well-being is an evident prerequisite. For the most part, the Dublin Regulation (Official Journal of the European Union, 2019) appears to fulfil this requirement, stating:

Member States shall ensure that applicants receive the necessary health care which shall include, at least, emergency care and essential treatment of illnesses and of serious mental disorders.
Member States shall provide necessary medical or other assistance to applicants who have special reception needs, including appropriate mental health care.

21The notion of “liberality” is perhaps lacking in this assurance of basic health care needs, but the regulation in this instance would largely seem to conform to the host-guest metaphor. Yet Refuge, in a re-writing of testimony collated from asylum seekers in the Netherlands, (Nayeri, 2019: 205–229) depicts an entirely different set of circumstances in which individuals are subject to dangerous levels of anguish and depression without aid.

22As we become acquainted with Mam’mad and Karim, it becomes apparent that both are suffering from mental illness. In Niloo’s first luncheon with the two, she observes Mam’mad’s “paranoia” (Nayeri, 2017: 32), while Karim appears “pale and worn down”, a “nervous expression tightening his gaunt face” (Nayeri, 2017: 32). These indicators develop into more concrete signs of clinical depression as the novel develops: pessimistic after an asylum interview, “the despair in his voice saps [… Niloo] of the will even to keep walking, as if someone stuck a tube in her arm and syphoned off all the wonder and resolve. She has never lived with such absolute lack of hope” (Nayeri, 2017: 153). The state of overwhelming hopelessness is rendered tangible in the grim simile, with its medical overtones underlying the interconnectedness of mental and physical suffering in cases of severe depression. Recognising her friends’ need for help, Niloo looks into state support; but to no avail. In her words, “no Westerner has ever wanted to be involved […] The state provided shelter for a time, bureaucrats gave legal advice, charities gave clothes, but the hands that delivered these institutional offerings kept a cold distance” (Nayeri, 2017: 159–160). The language of hospitality evoked through “offerings” is ironic; the symbol of the outstretched “hands” so often used to express compassion are paradoxically “cold”, devoid of human warmth.

Mam’mad/ Kambiz Roustayi

23Refuge takes its portrayal of a disconnection between the hospitality suggested by the Dublin Regulation and actual asylum seeker experiences in EU countries to its full, horrific conclusion with Mam’mad’s suicide. The death of a guest represents the ultimate failure in hospitality. Tefler outlines how “traditionally the most important responsibility of all was for the guest’s safety—hospitality was a kind of sanctuary, and the host was thought of as having undertaken a solemn obligation to make sure no harm came to his guest while under his roof” (Tefler, 1996: 96). Where a guest’s demise occurs in the home of the host, and indeed is a direct result of the host’s neglect, any notion of “sanctuary” has been violated. Nayeri exploits the full potential of present tense narration in her depiction of the event to plunge the reader into the immediacy and horror of the scene. As events unfold, a dramatic shift in tone amplifies the sense of alarm. Before the news breaks, the setting is picturesque, rendered gentle through imagery that plays on warm colour: “Yellow light from the closed bookshops and chocolatiers […] paint the cobblestones and the bridges in soft faded hues, like a photo from a dusty stack” (Nayeri, 2017: 218). Niloo and Siavash—another friend from the Iranian community—flirt, discussing romance and love as “a couple is kissing hungrily against the wall of a closed café” (Nayeri, 2017: 218). Then, as Siavash receives a text, the peace is instantly ruptured by a string of expletives: “Holy shit […] Oh fuck fuck fuck […] Mam’mad is losing his shit in Dam Square” (Nayeri, 2017: 219). Like Niloo, we are left uncertain of what is occurring, but the use of language at its most crudely impactful leaves no doubt as to its urgency. The exposition is sudden: “When they arrive in Dam Square, people are already hurtling toward him, trying to quench the flames with jackets and sweaters, with water from bottles. They beat him with fabric, and he falls to the pavement, still aflame. Some people gather and watch, hands clasped to their mouths” (Nayeri, 2017: 219). The syntax, fast-paced in its strings of subordinate clauses, heightens the chaos of the unfolding scene with no pause for explanation, so that we understand what is happening as we see the “flames” (Nayeri, 2017: 220) alongside Niloo. The reader occupies the same position as the stationary onlookers, simply watching, aghast.

24When Niloo is finally able to approach Mam’mad, all aspects of his personhood have been destroyed: his “face is a ruin of soot and blood and charred flesh, his eyebrows and eyelashes gone” (Nayeri, 2017: 220). The physiognomy so associated with self-expression has morphed into a war-torn landscape, its human features dissolved into mere “flesh”. The framing of the eyes, more expressive still, are simply “gone”. Not only has the guest been killed, he has been immolated, his entire self-obliterated.

25Mam’mad’s story is a re-telling of the real-life suicide of Kambiz Roustayi, whose death haunts Nayeri’s writing. An Iranian asylum seeker who had lived in Holland without documentation for eleven years, Kambiz Roustayi died in identical circumstances in Dam Square, Amsterdam on the 6 April 2011 (Nayeri, 2017: 321). An acquaintance of Roustayi, Nayeri was deeply affected by his death (Small, 2019). Whilst certain details are changed- Roustayi was not an aged academic but a young electrician, whose involvement in journalistic circles put his life at risk in Iran (Nayeri, 2019: 217–218), and his death occurred in 2011 and not 2009—the novel’s depiction of the events and the responses it elicited is faithful to reality. Indeed, his voice is woven into the novel. One recognises Roustayi reflected not only in the character of Mam’mad, but also that of Karim. Frank van Haren, Roustayi’s asylum lawyer, told Nayeri that Roustayi would respond to positive comments surrounding his case with the question: “Do you really believe that?” (Nayeri, 2019a, 222). Nayeri quotes Roustayi verbatim in the words of Karim, during a conversation in which Niloo tried to lift his spirits by telling him that things will work out for him. He responds: “Do you really believe that?” (Nayeri, 2017: 153) Nayeri uses fiction not only to give a lasting voice to an individual who was condemned to be voiceless, but also as a means of conveying the devastating emotional toil he experienced, so that the reader may more easily empathise with his situation in a way that is not always apparent in fact-centric non-fiction. Indeed, fiction provides a space where Roustayi’s story can function as an emotive metaphor that gives voice to all asylum seekers desperate for acknowledgement in unwelcoming nations: “‘I am here!’ Mam’mad cried out in his final act. We are all here, still waiting” (Nayeri, 2017: 223).

26The tragic conclusion of Mam’mad’s plotline in Refuge represents the ultimate dismantling of the host-guest metaphor pertaining to the EU’s asylum regulation. Nayeri’s stance is clear: imagery of personal hospitality is insufficient. Should new metaphors be found?

Re-visiting the metaphors

Commercial hospitality and the New Pact on Migration and Asylum

27This is precisely what Rosello proposes with her advocacy of commercial hospitality as a new lense through which to examine receiving countries. If the “liberality and goodwill” of personal hospitality is too far removed from the reality of the reception of asylum seekers, “recognising that the foreigner is locked in a commercial logic with the so-called host-nation would at least allow cultural commentators to articulate a description of the immigrant as ‘paying’ guest” (Rosello, 2001: 35). Indeed, she suggests that “avoiding the vocabulary of exchange may be a cynical deception when the constant reference to state hospitality tends to hide the profoundly economic and financial logic of state-organised migrations” (Rosello, 2001: 35). Interestingly, the EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum seems to comply with Rosello’s metaphor. Centered around the replacement of the Dublin Regulation with a more equitable system of attributing asylum claims across Member States, the New Pact manifests a shift in tone towards refugees and migrants that highlights their potential economic and societal benefits for receiving countries. Section seven of the communication from the European Commission to the European Parliament on the terms of the New Pact, entitled “Attracting Skills and Talent to the EU”, explicitly outlines the EU’s need for such “paying guests”:

Europe has an ageing and shrinking population. The structural pressure this is expected to create on the labour market is complemented by specific skills shortages in different localities and sectors such as health, medical care, and agriculture. The contribution of legally staying migrants to reducing skills gaps and increasing the dynamism of the EU labour market was recognised in the recently updated Skills Agenda for Europe. (European Commission, 2020)

28Instead of operating within a systematic metaphor of the migrant as a personal guest, emphasis is laid on the requirement for the guest to contribute, and the gains to be made by them doing so. The transactional nature of the exchange is further clarified as the communication states its desire “to attract highly skilled talent” (European Commission, 2020), insisting that “the reform must bring real EU added value” (European Commission, 2020). As a result, an attempt must be made to improve the conditions for migrants of the kind that we have seen highlighted in Refuge: “This requires more inclusive admission conditions, improved rights, swift and flexible procedures, improved possibilities to move and work in different Member States” (European Commission, 2020). The logic is entirely in keeping with Rosello’s notion of commercial hospitality: if a hotel wishes to attract clients, for example, it must ensure that its facilities are of a high enough quality.

Personal hospitality as duty

29Such a discourse has been advocated by humanitarian organizations working with refugees and migrants, including the charity Help Refugees, whose feedback report to the European Union in the consultation stage of the New Pact urged the Union to emphasize to its members the way in which migration “provides unique skills and capabilities which could enrich hosting communities” (Van der Steenhoven, 2020). Yet its focus on profit-driven arguments is incompatible with Nayeri’s view on the language we should use in relation to this topic. In a 2017 essay in The Guardian newspaper, she criticized what she perceived as a “troubling change in the way people make the case for refugees” (Nayeri, 2019b):

Even those on the left […] point to photographs of happy refugees turned good citizens, listing their contributions, as if that is the price of existing in the same country, on the same earth. Friends often use me as an example. They say in posts or conversations: “Look at Dina. She lived as a refugee and look how much stuff she’s done.” As if that’s proof that letting in refugees has a good, healthy return on investment. But isn’t glorifying the refugees who thrive according to western standards […] akin to holding up the most acquiescent as examples of what a refugee should be […]?

30To Nayeri, a discourse that centers around gains in capital necessarily undermines the moral arguments for providing for asylum seekers, centered around the human rights of individuals and the duty of receiving countries to meet them. She phrases it simply: “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone in danger knocks” (Nayeri, 2019b). It is noteworthy that she returns to the metaphor of personal hospitality here, presenting it as a practice of moral imperative. In so doing, she echoes centuries-long ideas around the responsibility to host. Lashley notes that:

In contemporary pre-industrial societies, and earlier historical periods […] the duty to provide hospitality, act with generosity as a host and to protect visitors was more than a matter left to the preferences of individuals. Beliefs about hospitality and obligations to others were located in views and visions about the nature of society and the natural order of things. (Lashley, 2000: 5–6)

31If Nayeri’s fiction dismantles the personal hospitality metaphor in relation to asylum practices in the EU, then, it is not because she finds its principles in any way wanting: but rather, because she seeks to demonstrate that current practices are so inapplicable as to deny us the right to use it.


32Refuge reads as an impassioned challenge to EU legislators, exposing the flaws in asylum protocols through the creation of characters whose emotive trajectories personify the hardships caused by inadequate or unmet policy. It gives voice to those perspectives that EU regulation—written by and for EU members—does not include. Through a language heavily loaded with affects, it affords readers an emotional engagement with the issues at hand, far removed from the legalistic language of the regulatory texts. Its highly politicized message is clear: unless systematic changes are made and enforced, the EU’s treatment of asylum seekers renders it incompatible with the role of “host”.

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1 The Ungrateful Refugee saw her win the 2019 Kirkus Prize, and has been listed as a recommended read for 2019 by LiteraryHub, The New York Post, and Electric Literature amongst others.

2 My emphasis.

3 Green herb frittata or Kuku Sabzi is typically served at Nowruz (Persian New Year), while pickled onion—Torshi Seer—is a common condiment in Persian cooking.

4 It is mentioned 16 times in total.

5 As of September 2020, the EU is moving away from the Dublin Regulation protocols, as we will examine in part III of this paper.

6 In 2017 an asylum seeker from Afghanistan was 21 times more likely to gain protection in Switzerland than in Bulgaria (Haas & Faron, 2019).

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Référence électronique

Jessica Small, « Dismantling Hospitality - Literary Representations of EU Asylum Policy in Dina Nayeri’s Refuge »ILCEA [En ligne], 50 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Jessica Small

PhD Candidate, Univ. Grenoble Alpes, ILCEA4, 38000 Grenoble, France.

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