"Other" women in flight : sexual minority and polygynous refugee women


University of British Columbia

Date Issued


Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy - PhD




Refugee law scholarship is largely focused on the application of refugee law and the refugee status determination processes of Western host countries. This geographical focus of the majority of scholarly work stands in stark contrast to the global distribution of refugees, the majority of whom are hosted by countries of the Global South. This dissertation exposes this imbalanced knowledge production in refugee law, specifically the way in which the unacknowledged bias in the study of refugee law as applied only in select Western countries, limits and indeed distorts our understanding of international refugee law. This distortion has particular consequences for some of the most vulnerable and least mobile refugees residing in host countries of the Global South. This dissertation is based on a qualitative data analysis of interviews I conducted with refugee service providers and refugees in South Africa, supported by a study of the existing literature and legislation. This dissertation presents an alternatively located, feminist study of the understanding of especially ostracized women; polygynous and sexual minority refugee women, within the South African asylum system. I conclude that a variety of factors contribute to the invisibility of these women to service providers, factors which are influenced by and familiar to Western refugee law studies; stereotypical expectations of the refugee figure and of polygynous families and of queer identity, compounded by the socio-economic isolation of these women refugees. I identify particularly relevant distortions in the current study of refugee law, including the neglect of the nexus between economics and experiences of persecution, especially of continuing persecution within host states. I also problematize the reliance on an identity-politics framing of persecuted identities in the study and application of refugee law, which especially disadvantages refugees with intersectional vulnerabilities. The refugees most impacted by these systemic problems in our understanding of refugee law; the economically disadvantaged and those with intersectional vulnerabilities (including, and amplified by, economic disadvantage), are similarly those whose very disadvantage and vulnerability limit mobility. They are thus those most likely to be underrepresented in the distant and expensive states whose asylum systems form the predominant focus of refugee law studies.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International




Law, Peter A. Allard School of