Why Being Forced to Leave Your Home is So Harmful

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Descriptions of the harms experienced by refugees very often refer to terrible events that cause them to flee their homes, the horrors they experience while in flight, and the horrors and alienation they experience when they reach places of relative safety. The horror and alienation of the refugee experience is devastating. It’s hard to believe that there is yet another important harm: the harm of leaving the home. Understanding the damage of being forced from the home can help in assisting refugees to regain their sense of self and self-effectiveness. Refugees need to not only find a welcoming and safe community; they also need to establish a new home.

In this essay, I explain how the home can feature prominently in the cognitive functioning of its residents. Removing persons from their home can make them feel disoriented, frustrated, and unable to be effective in their plans and pursuits. These effects are compounded for vulnerable people such as refugees.


Home as ‘Extended Mind’

Imagine adding together long strings of numbers.  Some people can solve this kind of problem in their ‘heads’.  Most of us, though, need to write down the numbers to remember them and add them together.  We partially externalize the process of problem solving by using paper and pencil.  There is no functional difference, then, between the processes of doing addition ‘in one’s head’ and doing it on paper; the paper is part of our cognitive processes.  Similarly, other mental items, such as memories, values, and desires can be stored and processed externally.

We externally store mental items where they are accessible to further manipulation. Features of the environment that embody this information become an active component of our ‘extended mind’.

According to Clark and Chalmers, an external item can function as a cognitive process if it:

  1. is reliably available and typically invoked.
  2. is deemed about as trustworthy as something retrieved clearly from biological memory.
  3. contains information that is easily accessible.

The home space supports our extended mind (Nine 2022). The home is usually a trustworthy, reliable space, where inhabitants control objects and their arrangement. In homes, “patterns for how to live are largely settled… Even if we do not like our ‘house rules’ or do not feel it to be a place ‘run by us,’ we still typically experience this not as an imposition from the outside, but rather simply as ‘the way things are with us’… and it is a way that an alien other cannot easily penetrate; it is my, our, own” (Jacobson 2011, p. 4).  Inside, inhabitants feel that the place is their own; they understand and identify with the rules and norms governing the space, and they see themselves reflected in the home’s material goods and organization.



Homemaking is a construction activity that outsources mental functions to the home.  Homemaking—the acts of cleaning, preparing meals, doing laundry, decorating, etc— “consists in the activities of endowing things with living meaning, arranging them in space in order to facilitate the life activities of those to whom they belong, and preserving them, along with their meaning” (Young 1997, p. 151).  Through the presentation, functional use and storage, and arrangement of goods, the home continually creates and reinforces experiences, beliefs, and values that feature prominently in the family members’ lives.  Homemaking is a dynamic kind of outsourcing of cognitive functions onto the home environment.


Mental Content

The home can play a role in the development of a person’s formative memories, beliefs, and values.  The outsourcing of memories to our home environment is the easiest to describe. We rely on the active tools—alarms, notes, organized goods—to remember when we want to do things and how we like to do them.  We also rely on the passive aspects of the home—its smells, arrangement, pictures, and decorations—to activate other memory-related mental functions.

Home organization provides a reliable cognitive crutch for conveying and reminding inhabitants of values through the prominent display of symbols or methods of household organization.  Values can be outsourced to the environment through the allocation of space and resources to certain activities or people over others.  Certain resources may be allocated to male members or elders to continually convey respect to these inhabitants.  Even household structures transmit certain values.  Through the considered placement of windows and walls to enhance privacy, traditional Islamic homes relate the value of modesty more than traditional western homes, for example.


Evaluation and Revision

We also have the ability to outsource mental processes onto our environment.  Chinese school children learn to perform mathematical functions using an abacus instead of doing it in their ‘heads.’  The use of an abacus demonstrates the way that the physical manipulation of external objects forms mental processes.  Parts of the abacus remain stable while others can be manipulated to perform the calculation.  In similar ways, we often re-evaluate our beliefs and values through a process of manipulating isolated items while at the same time holding other aspects of our belief system constant.

Individuals control their own space and belongings so that they can engage in reflection with their beliefs and values that are mediated by their relationship with their belongings (Weir 2008, p. 16). We can manipulate certain objects while the larger environment remains constant, and this change can reflect and even constitute a change in one’s belief system.  In a Catholic household, the family displays a shrine to reinforce their religious convictions.  After a while, the members of the family may no longer wish to observe Catholicism and reflect on this decision by thinking about whether or not to put away these symbols.



Practical rationality is the human capacity to act on considered reasons. We use our environment to help them act in ways that we want to act—in ways that us achieve goals, avoid procrastination and other unhelpful actions. Heath and Anderson (2012) distinguish three types of environmental fixes that support practical rationality: triggers, chutes, and ladders.

Environmental triggers set automatic or habitual processes in motion. An attempt to change habits, by exercising first thing in the morning for example, will be difficult if one first engages a trigger, such as looking at your phone. Looking at your phone prompts engagement with other forms of communication, such as an email. Avoiding the phone trigger routine may be necessary to change habits so that you habitually exercise.

A ‘chute’ is an environmental feature that can help to make a task easier.  Task-specific organization helps a person just get on with doing what they want to do.  Placing favourite books near the dinner table makes it easier to read with your children right after dinner.  Similarly, ‘ladders’ make it more difficult to perform certain tasks.  Putting alcohol in hard-to-reach places makes it harder to imbibe, because doing so requires more effort than if the alcohol were easy to reach. Through effective homemaking, families and individuals support reflective decision-making by structuring their environment to make certain actions easier or more difficult.

Homes feature as cognitive supports—they represent, remind, facilitate, and obstruct various behaviours, beliefs, values, and plans.


Cumulative Harms

Disruption of the home environment can cause a decrease in one’s sense of self and personal effectiveness because during the disruption a person is separated from cognitive supports.  Some of these effects are minor.  But even under supportive, voluntary circumstances, the effects of losing a home are cumulative and have secondary effects. Losing one’s home means losing access to well-established physical cues, embodied plans, and organization.  Without the physical support of, for example, a stocked and organized kitchen, there are more ladders in the way of a family’s behaviours reflecting their preferred traditions and goals. The break-in routine can affect the children’s nutritional health, which can in turn affect their daily mood and performance in school and other activities. Failure to act in expected ways can introduce stress into the family, with parents getting angry with children, and children feeling unsafe, unsettled, and confused.  This stress could also affect the family in other ways. An organized home filing system can serve as a ‘chute’ for completing tasks, such as meeting deadlines or filing forms.  Losing this cognitive crutch during the move can frustrate the completion of these tasks and result in financial costs or employment delays.

And because moves involve a change of the entire house, all of these disruptions may happen at the same time, cumulating in ways that can in turn augment their aggregative effects. The stress of upset family relationships could make it more difficult to find the energy to set up functional home spaces.

These cognitive frustrations and their knock-on, cumulative effects can be stressful, and help explain why moving home is considered to be a major life event that earns 25 stress points on the Holmes-Rahe stress scale, a clinical tool to predict stress levels and accompanying illness (1968).  Almost all events at the top of the Holmes-Rahe scale mark major changes in the home environment, either by moving or by adding or subtracting significant members to the home.   The aggregate of harms from being forced from home can have a significant effect on a person’s well-being.


Security and Vulnerability

Vulnerable people, especially refugees, can be affected disproportionately by the harms of being removed from their homes. Vulnerability is the diminished capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recover from the impact of a natural or man-made hazard. It arises from poverty, isolation, insecurity, and defencelessness in the face of risk, shock, or stress.

Recall the three criteria for places to function as part of the extended mind; the place must be typically invoked, trustworthy, and easily accessible. Both vulnerable and nonvulnerable people experience removal from their home as a loss of invokability and accessibility. In addition, the removal of vulnerable people will undermine the home’s ability to provide a trustworthy space.

Vulnerability can create loss of control over the home environment.  Even ‘settled’ refugees sometimes have to share a home space with other families in order to make rent. Others may have to accept intrusive rental conditions, where the landlord or others may enter their home.  Some may live in places where their home is often burgled or under government regimes where they lack home privacy. These circumstances erode the control that families have over their own home space and its contents.

Moreover, families need not only to have continued access and control, but also to believe that these conditions exist.  Vulnerable people often believe that they face housing insecurity, that they may have to move repeatedly and will be unable to establish a real home.

The overall implication is that refugees and other vulnerable people disproportionately suffer the harms of being removed from their homes. They may be less prepared to invest in cognitive home-making in new domiciles.  The fact that they do not have the same opportunities as non-vulnerable people for accessing extended cognitive support doubly disadvantages them – by taking away the possibility of a functional, supportive home, and by divesting them of the possibility of extended cognitive support to help them cope with and regain resilience.

Regaining a permanent, trustworthy home is a key element in refugees regaining what they need to rebuild themselves and their families.




Works Cited

Clark, Andrew and Chalmers, David “The Extended Mind” www.nyu.edu/gsas/dept/philo/courses/concepts/clark.html#n1

Heath, Joseph and Anderson, Joel, “Procrastination and the Extended Will,” in The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 233–52.

Jacobson, Kirsten, “Embodied Domestics, Embodied Politics: Women, Home, and Agoraphobia,” Human Studies 34, no. 1 (February 22, 2011).

Rahe, R. H., “Life-Change Measurement as a Predictor of Illness,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 61, issue: 11P1 (1968): 1124-1126

Nine, Cara, Sharing Territories: Overlapping Self-Determination and Resource Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), Chapter 5.

Allison Weir, “Home and Identity: In Memory of Iris Marion Young,” Hypatia 23, no. 3 (2008): 16.

Iris Marion Young, Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy, and Policy (Princeton University Press, 1997)

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