The camp beyond the city: Kakuma and the development of a camp ecology

by Bram J. Jansen

Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya is emblematic for the debate about the ambiguous phenomenon of the protracted refugee camp. This can be depicted as both an emergency measure with its perils and plight on the one hand, and its longevity, development and normalisation on the other. With its origin in 1992, located in the arid lands of northern Kenya, the camp is a quintessential example of the protracted refugee camp that becomes a solution in itself.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

The small genre of research and media attention that has emerged on Kakuma indicates that the nature and future of these camp-cities, rather than temporary and exceptional, have become a norm as lived experience under humanitarian camp governance, as an assemblage of state, UN, NGO and refugee management and influence, for a period of time that may be stretched indefinitely. I have written a book, which will be published in June 2018, in which I approach this lived experience as a form of humanitarian urbanism. The camp has taken on an urban-like form, as a result of what Massey in her book For Space (2005) refers to as a ‘throwntogetherness’, in a dense, non-agricultural, informal settlement, that is characterized by the meeting of both curtailing and enabling forces, and human agency.

Transformations of Kakuma Camp: from hardship to ‘normalcy’ and opportunity?

Kakuma is emblematic in a variety of ways. It illustrates a chronology of camp development, and ideas of refugee care and its contestations, and experiments with new forms of camp governance. But it also allowed us to reflect more conceptually on what these places come to represent and what they develop into as time passes. Reading up on Kakuma, one moves from accounts centred around violence, hardship, and marginalisation, to a more ambiguous state of newness and alternative inclusion and sociability. The camp is iconic for the history and images of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Somali Bantu resettlements, and the tragedy of the resurgence of war in what became South Sudan in 2011, and the enduring fragility and insecurity in Somalia and DR Congo.

Simultaneously it moved from a quintessentially violent and abusive place, to an emergent social form as something much more in between and ambiguous, now almost permanent but with an enduring sense of uncertainty, as I have elaborated in a recent article. The camp, at the time of this writing, is larger than ever with a population of over 170,000 in 2017, and arguably growing.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

A variety of studies over the years indicate how people make sense of life in and around Kakuma camp and how for instance economic life and education create a sense of ‘normalcy’ in the everyday experience of camp inhabitants. This indicates the ambiguous position of the camp as a temporary humanitarian measure, yet also a site that has developed over time into something more resembling a shantytown, or indeed an urban centre in the desert with a distinct shape of education and healthcare service, aesthetics, and politics.

In addition, over time the camp has become a stepping-stone for many to end up in the US, or other western countries, either via resettlement or onward migration by other means. The camp then also represents a site where refugees meet migration opportunities, creating the possibility for so-called ‘mixed migration’. This also indicates that it is not so much people’s displacement that becomes protracted, but rather the camp itself.

The humanitarian urbanism of camps

The camp, more than a protective measure, represents an assemblage of ideas, practices and opportunities, of people that may be indicated as poor, dispossessed and warehoused, but who nonetheless live their lives in this particular landscape or manage to find their way onwards. Humanitarian urbanism denotes this assemblage. The camp is viable, and its normalisation is simultaneously a terrifying and a salving thought. It represents a form of global governance for populations on the move, but caught in the middle until a way out presents itself.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

It is also emblematic for a humanitarian governance in which international humanitarian concern produces and maintains a particular space for life, that may prove to be legitimate not by intention but rather by practice. This is because a camp that was never intended to remain this long, somehow turned out to be a reasonable yet highly particular settlement, in which forms of self-regulation and subsistence co-exist and interrelate with routine humanitarian governance. Whether this form of humanitarian governance is durable is an entirely different matter, with the most pressing question being from whose perspective we approach this – humanitarians, refugees, and Kenyans all have different expectations, interpretations, and experiences with the camp as a social environment.

While the normalisation of the camp may be shocking, it appears that such camps have become common features of global politics, not least because of the effects of the youth bulge in Sub-Sahara Africa, and an anticipated sharp rise in climate-induced migration in the years to come.

The camp as experiment slowly comes to terms with the existence of a category of people whose lives are shaped by mobility and uncertainty that has become routine and permanent

The camp is also an experiment, with new forms of humanitarian action, refugee management and technology, and private sector involvement. The camp as experiment slowly comes to terms with the existence of a category of people whose lives are shaped by mobility and uncertainty that has become routine and permanent, in what Agier refers to as ‘banal cosmopolitanism’. Reluctantly, the informal economy and the way this sustains the camp, also as an effects of the communication revolution with its remittances and global social networks, shows the inevitability of the place.

Camp ecology beyond the camp: blurring boundaries with the host community

Already in the late 1990s reports suggested that refugees were better protected and serviced, or included in some semblance of governance, than the ‘local’ Turkana populations. Fifteen years later, an increasingly convincing empirical body of evidence supports the idea that the camp is beneficial for local lives and for the economy of Kenyans beyond the camp. These benefits have led to the recognition of the camp developing its surroundings, and, in combination with its long duration, inspired a new hybrid settlement approach next to the small Kalobeyei settlement some 30 km to the north. The term ‘hybrid’ indicates that the camp seeks to uplift the lives of both local and refugee populations in terms of infrastructure, care and, arguably, governmental control.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

This then indicates a new area of interest in discussing the idea of how humanitarianism as a governmentality spills over into the official outside of the camp, or rather, how the camp ecology expands and spills over into non-camp space. Much research has focussed on the social and legal contours of the camp phenomenon, a bit less on the socio-spatial, or material dynamics. Camps such as Kakuma show how UNHCR, NGOs and emerging social entities from the camp ecology come to co-govern people outside of its initial mandate by expanding the camp both in a symbolic and physical sense, and both in intended and unintended ways.

This view on the camp beyond the city may show us something about the future of camps and humanitarian governance

The limits, shape, and resistance to this expansion/intrusion is unclear, and spatial approaches to understanding refugee camps are just emerging. Martin studied the blurring of the camp with its outer environs in Lebanon, and argues that the spatial organisation of the camp should be seen more as a ‘campscape’ rather than a demarcated camp in isolation. The socio-economic landscape of camps such as Kakuma flow over and blend with the regions in which they are located. Its routine humanitarian presence and the forms of governance this produces come to impact on space and people beyond the strict boundaries of the camp, and will presumably increasingly diversify its areas of attention from human centred needs such as education, social change and healthcare, towards broader ecological concerns such as the environment and cultural and nature conservation. This view on the camp beyond the city may show us something about the future of camps and humanitarian governance.

About the author

Bram J. Jansen is a lecturer of Disaster Studies at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he teaches and writes on humanitarian and forced migration issues. He conducted ethnographic fieldwork in East and the Horn of Africa, mostly in Kenya and South Sudan. His thematic interests include aidnography, protracted refugee camps, humanitarian governance.

Links to recent publications

The humanitarian protectorate of South Sudan? Understanding insecurity for humanitarians in a political economy of aid. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 55(3), 349-370, 2017.

The refugee camp as Warscape: violent cosmologies, “rebelization,” and humanitarian governance in Kakuma, Kenya. Humanity 7(3): 429-441, 2016.

Risky relations? Aid, security and access for recovery in South Sudan. In: Dorothea Hilhorst, Bart Weijs, Gemma van der Haar (Eds.) People, Aid and Institutions in Socio-economic Recovery. Facing Fragilities. London, Routledge: 173-190, 2016.

’Digging Aid’: the camp as an option in East and the Horn of Africa. Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2, 1 June 2016, Pages 149–165, 2016.

Short pieces

The protracted refugee camp and the consolidation of a ‘humanitarian urbanism, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2017.

Researching (with) refugees? Ethical considerations on participatory approaches

by Ulrike Krause

Empirical field research is a central part of forced migration and refugee studies, and scholars have discussed diverse ethical concerns and (potential) effects of fieldwork. In addition to guidelines for ethical research procedures (see here and here), a number of articles, comprehensive volumes, and special issues of journals have been published with a focus on forced migration.

A question that I have been particularly concerned about is the impact my research can have on refugees. Over the past years, I have explored critical issues such as violence for which I carried out fieldwork with Congolese and South Sudanese refugees in Uganda. But what happens when we carry out research about refugees? How can we – in reverse – conduct research with refugees, and which benefits and risks do participatory approaches bear?

Drawing on academic debates as well as my fieldwork experiences, I argue that building trust is fundamental for fieldwork in order to gather data. However, trust building could be seen merely as a tool for data collection which bears the risk of an objectifying approach to research about refugees. In lieu of perceiving refugees as ‘data sources’, research with refugees and thus participatory approaches not only transform refugees’ positions to active participants, but can also further the scope of findings.

Building trust in environments of distrust

The relationship between scholars and participants in research projects is ambiguous, influenced by power dynamics, concerns, and objectives. Scholars and participants are likely to pursue differing aims by carrying out or taking part in research, but scholars have to build trusting relations with participants to collect data. While this applies to most research settings, it is critical in forced migration studies. Building trust is not only complicated by the very conditions which are often core in research projects: refugees’ contexts and experiences. Moreover, due to their often traumatizing experiences, careful and suspicious behaviors can have become a survival strategy for refugees. Scholars thus have to build trust with refugees in environments of distrust and it is their responsibility to develop appropriate research designs.

Scholars have to build trust with refugees in environments of distrust and it is their responsibility to develop appropriate research designs

Such trust building has also been central for my fieldwork. In my research, I have, among other themes, focused on sexual and gender-based violence against women in refugee camps as well as the role of refugees’ social organization for their protection and coping. Most refugees I spoke with in Uganda had been facing violence not only during conflict and flight but also in exile. For them and their safety, being careful in what they said and how, had become crucial which required me to proceed sensitively to prevent (further) harm.

Building trust is a time-consuming process which often stands in contrast to timely and financially limited research endeavors. It requires researchers to let some things go, to refrain from asking certain, perhaps too personal questions, and thus “to leave some stones unturned”, as Malkki has phrased it. One may wonder how I refrained from such ‘too personal’ questions while researching sexual and gender-based violence. This was in fact a key question during the preparation and realization of fieldwork to prevent possible retraumatization. Through discussions with team members about possible ways forward, we decided to use, among others, open conversations in the form of ero-epic dialogues according to Girler instead of structured interviews with refugees. These long conversations enabled us to take the time needed to build trust and to be responsive to dynamics in dialogues. Moreover, in lieu of direct questions about participants’ own experiences, I formulated general questions which enabled respondents to tell as much as they felt comfortable with.

While I continued to be concerned about preventing retraumatizating effects during field research, a number of refugees explained that these dialogues constitute a way for them to talk, a chance to tell their stories. Thus, similar to other studies, the research process was perceived as beneficial by participants.

Research about or with refugees?

But how is trust linked with research processes? Isn’t it that scholars build trust for the sole purpose of collecting data? From an ethics point of view, this must be reflected critically as it essentially means that refugees are degraded to mere ‘data sources’. As such, refugees become objects and Doná criticized that they are left with “no power over the creation or production of knowledge about them”. Researchers, on the other hand, become intertwined in what Rousseau calls “the position of voyeur, a position which instrumentalizes the suffering of another person, by making it and him an object of study”. This objectification in research about refugees is inherently connected to issues of power and representation as well as a prioritization of research interests over those of refugees.

With such arguments, scholars in forced migration studies not only criticize research about refugees as ‘invisible’ actors’, but also shifted towards research with refugees. By employing diverse bottom-up and participatory approaches, researchers strive to tackle top-down hierarchical structures. In scholarly debates, a number of benefits (but also limitations) of participatory approaches are pointed out. In addition to minimizing risks, ethical challenges as well as power and knowledge divides, they are said to support refugees’ agency and empowerment. Harrell-Bond and Voutira note that refugees’ research engagement is crucial but constitutes “the ultimate Herculean labour” while Jay Marlowe et al. underline that refugee peer researchers can contribute with diverse insights, offering “important relational and methodological resources to a particular project”.

During research in Uganda, I drew on these insights and put an emphasis on working together with refugees. While ero-epic dialogues provided space for refugees to speak about their worries and ideas, I also carried out surveys in the project about violence. These surveys were done in direct collaboration with refugees as peer-researchers. They started with a week of training in which we discussed the project, procedures and ethical concerns. In these discussions, refugees noted a number of aspects (e.g., about framing questions and further preventing harm) which led to re-conceptualizing the survey. Refugee peer-researchers thus had a direct impact on the project. In my current work about refugees’ social organization, I again work directly with a refugee peer-researcher who is not only involved in data collection but also analysis (as this is ongoing, I cannot yet draw conclusions).

Another example is from Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh who has developed a throughout participatory approach in her research about South-South Humanitarian Responses to Displacement from Syria. She cooperates with refugees in all stages in her project, i.e. data collection, analysis and publication. As a part of that, she does not believe that ‘her’ research speaks about or for refugees, but she has conceptualized the ‘third voice’ through which she speaks together with them. The ‘third voice’ therefore constitutes a joint voice that emerges in the process of shared experiences, collaborative interpretation and analysis of data.

Quo vadis?

Carrying out research with refugees can easily be captured in a romanticizing idea of a process apparently free of tensions, highly productive to gain substantial insights and generate new findings. However, it can actually be quite the opposite. From related discussions of working with ‘local assistants,’ we know that – despite productive and fruitful experiences – top-down hierarchies often remain, while conflictive tensions can arise between ‘local’ colleagues and participants.

In a similar vein, participatory research with refugees can be linked with potential harmful effects and distinct limitations. Conducting research requires knowledge about academic standards, methods and procedures (including ethical reflections) and scholars are responsible for ensuring that all team members meet the criteria. This could mean additional work for scholars to train refugee peer-researchers. Moreover, working in multi-cultural research teams can create tensions, e.g., due to different customs or modes of language. Such differences need to be negotiated among teams but most research projects lack sufficient time and funds. Finally, context conditions such as conflict settings may prevent a truly participatory approach as scholars may not be able to conduct long interviews or work with refugees in collaborative ways.

Despite these challenges and although participatory approaches may not entirely prevent power asymmetries as scholars remain in decision-making roles, research with refugees can help to alleviate top-down hierarchies and provide platforms for refugees to be actively involved. Refugees can make their voices heard and dynamically influence research instead of ‘passively enduring’ questions. By involving refugees, scholars can build trust with peer-researchers on procedural basis and reflect on appropriate, context-specific ways to do so with participants. While refugees can strengthen their academic knowledge, research projects can be informed by their local expertise. They can bring issues to light which might have otherwise been overseen. By that, working with refugee peer-research holds the potential to further the scope of findings.

This post draws on a recently published paper entitled ‘Researching Forced Migration. Critical Reflections on Research Ethics during Fieldwork’, published in the RSC Working Paper Series.

About the author

Dr. Ulrike Krause is a Research Fellow at the Center for Conflict Studies, Marburg University and PI of the project entitled Global Refugee Protection and Local Refugee Engagement funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. She is also a Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on forced migration and refugees, particularly humanitarian refugee protection, conflict displacement nexus, resilience, gender as well as violence, with a regional focus on Africa, especially East Africa and Uganda.

Personal profile

Photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

Can international frameworks or compacts reduce onward migration?

by Jessica Hagen-Zanker                                               Banner photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

Over the past few years, I, along with colleagues at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), have been researching how refugees and migrants make their migration decisions. This has led to new insights on how international policies, frameworks and Compacts shape these decisions.

Where do people want to migrate to?

Our findings show migration decisions are influenced by the broader public policy environment. People want to go where there are labour market opportunities, where their children can go to school, and where they feel welcome.

The majority of refugees and migrants don’t plan to come to Europe, at least initially. Most people go to neighbouring countries in the region first, hoping to find work and build a future there. Many of our interviewees told us that they prefer staying close to their country of origin, because of similarities in culture and language. Data analysed by the UN shows that 82% of African migrants stayed in Africa in 2013.

Gabriel Pecot for ODI
Daily life in Adi Harush refugee camp. Photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

But people move on when they’re unable to make a living, when their children are prevented from accessing school, and when their ambitions are not met. This came out very clearly in our research with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia. There, underlying labour constraints and mobility restrictions compelled many Eritreans to move on.

What is the role of Partnership Frameworks and Job Compacts?

People want access to jobs and basic services. If the aim of policy-makers is to reduce migration flows to Europe, the logical solution is to provide those services in the region where most migrants come from. This is where Partnership Frameworks and Job Compacts come in.

Ethiopia_AdIHarush__Ashmelas_03, edited
Photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

Building on the 2015 EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, Migration Partnership Frameworks aim to reduce irregular migration by addressing its ‘root causes’, breaking up smuggling networks and strengthening borders. They do this through capacity building, return agreements, new legal migration channels, and new financing instruments, in target and origin countries such as Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal.

Similarly, Job Compacts aim to deal with protracted refugee situations by bringing together host country governments and bilateral and multilateral actors. To date, Compacts have been set up in Jordan, and proposed for Ethiopia. Building on existing economic, political, diplomatic and trade incentives, these Compacts establish mutually-reinforcing and binding financial and policy commitments. Such Compacts tend to involve a mix of development aid, loans and investment opportunities for target countries. They have multiple objectives:

  1. Give financial support to host countries to provide basic services;
  2. Foster economic development and job creation; and
  3. Stabilise host countries by reducing tensions between host and migrant populations.

At its most basic level, it’s aid to reduce onward migration.

On paper, they may look like win-win solutions. They appear to be a practical, politically viable and constructive way to support countries with large refugee and migrant populations, and provide access to needed jobs and basic services. In theory, therefore, such Frameworks and Compacts have the potential to reduce onward migration.

But do they work?

Our research in Jordan and Ethiopia shows that this potential depends on the Compacts’ design and delivery. Four issues could limit their success and/or create opportunities for policy-makers:

 1. Information and communication

Very little information on government policies actually filters down to people, which means that such information is less likely to feature in their decision-making. In Jordan, we found that people seem unaware of even the most basic details of the Job Compact, including which sectors are covered and the fact that work permits are subsidised in the first two years. In order for refugees and migrants to be able to make informed decisions about their future, information about the initiative should be transparent and accessible. Importantly, the Ethiopia Compact is intended to strengthen information sharing and communication.

Ethiopia_AdIArush__DailyLife_103, edited
Photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

 2. Assumptions about jobs

There are many assumptions underlying the decision to provide certain types of jobs. Firstly, that aid can create new jobs, and at a level high enough to make a difference. Many of these countries, such as Ethiopia, have been struggling with limited development and high un- and underemployment for years. Creating jobs isn’t going to be an easy or fast process.

Secondly, that the jobs created are the jobs people want. In Ethiopia, work permits will only be offered in factories in special economic zones; people may not be able to take advantage of their skills, or high levels of education. Often the jobs provided in factories don’t make people better off than irregular work in the informal economy, as shown by Chris Blattman and colleagues in a six year study of Ethiopian sweatshops. It also matters how these jobs are communicated, framed and perceived: is it decent work, or is the activity considered demeaning? Geography is also important: Syrian refugees in Jordan cite ‘factory location’ as a factor, with people not wanting to take on long travel times or be separated from their family.

Finally, that access to jobs reduces aspirations to move on. This will only happen if the jobs provided meet their expectations and skills.

 3. Social tensions

Opening up basic services may lead to overcrowding and lower quality services for the host population. In Kenya, the presence of Kakuma camp has contributed to a shortage of natural resources and another study showed overcrowded and deteriorating school quality in area part of Nairobi hosting a large refugee community. In a context where significant numbers of local people are also affected by poverty, vulnerability and unemployment, this could lead to a rise in social tensions. These Frameworks and Compacts therefore require sensitive management.

Gabriel Pecot for ODI
Photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

4. Confidence in government

Migration decisions are not just driven by economic factors, but also by confidence in government, rule of law and perceptions of security. Therefore, job creation might need to go hand in hand with governance and institution building.

Understanding the relationship between aid and migration

Experts agree that development aid will most likely increase migration, rather than reduce it. However, this relationship is far from clear-cut. Specific programmes, if designed and delivered well, may convince some people to stay in the region, but they can’t be assumed to have swift or immediate effects.

Specific programmes may convince some people to stay in the region, but this relationship is being used in simplistic ways for political gains

Yet this relationship is being used in simplistic ways for political gains, threatening the effective and appropriate implementation of aid. Furthermore, the emphasis of programming delivered as part of Partnership Frameworks so far has been on addressing irregular migration, including containment and control, much more than actually delivering development and alternative migration pathways.

Finally, we must remember that both aid and migration are important in their own right, contributing to holistic economic and social development. As such, it is vital that such Frameworks and Compacts draw out the development potential of migration, rather than trying to curb it.

Gabriel Pecot for ODI
Photo by Gabriel Pecot for ODI

About the author

Jessica Hagen-Zanker is a Research Fellow leading ODI’s migration research.

Jessica’s research has focused on understanding how migration and other policies affect migrant decision-making, impacts of migration on migrants and their families, the interlinkages between migration and social protection, and remittances, covering a diverse range of countries, including Albania, Ethiopia and Nepal. She also has extensive experience in the design and analysis of household surveys, conducting systematic literature reviews and the analysis of social protection programmes and policies. Jessica holds a PhD in Public Policy from Maastricht University.

Personal profile

Recent publications

Journeys to Europe: the role of policy in migrant decision-making. Research reports and studies. February 2016. Jessica Hagen-Zanker & Richard Mallett.


Researching migrant arrivals, births and burials across the Mediterranean

by Sine Plambech

Plambech, FB 27 July, edited

Life-changing events happen to migrants on their journeys towards Europe. These experiences are rarely what the migrants envisioned at their departure. Some migrants die trying; others become pregnant or give birth en route, giving life to children who are thereby born as migrants.

In this post I reflect on my impressions from recent fieldwork in Italy, and on how to study and account for the experiences of migrants upon their arrival to Europe.

Plambeck, waiting room, edited
Catania waiting room

The Sicilian city of Catania, Italy, is one of the main ports receiving migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. More than 100.000 migrants have arrived by sea to Italy this year. I spent my summer in Catania, doing fieldwork among arriving migrants. Rather, as I have previously done, emphasising departures or the lives migrants lead at their destinations, this part of my research has emphasised the study of arrivals and the life changes migrants experience upon arrival as essential for discussing migration politics.

We talk about the deaths at sea – the drownings, the search and rescue. We also talk about the violence that occurs in Libya, and the politics of ‘governing’ migration, the Sahel strategies, Libyan deals, Turkey deals. At the harbour in Sicily I saw how the drama of high seas rescue missions and the disembarkation ritual are observed by the border police, journalists, volunteers, visiting politicians, activists and researchers like myself. They all take part in one of the most visible and dramatic aspects of migration politics, spectacles that often overwhelm the quieter yet crucial politics and experiences of births and burials along the way.

I started working on Nigerian women’s migration in 2009 and have over the years done fieldwork in Southern Nigeria and in the Red Light District of Copenhagen among Nigerian sex workers. My work in Italy and Sicily widened my field as the Nigerian women migrants most commonly transit through Sicily on their way to Northern Europe. In Sicily I interviewed IOM, UNHCR, local NGOs, leaders of refugee camps, Italian researchers, the grave-diggers at the local graveyard, and most of all the migrant women themselves. The MIGMA-project (Transnationalism from above and below – Migration management and how migrants manage), of which this fieldwork was a part of, is concerned with return migration from Europe back to Nigeria. Yet, my argument is that to understand why so few migrants, and in this case Nigerians, are willing to return, we have to understand the arrivals and the existential experiences of life and death that migrants go through on their journeys.

As I said, I have worked on Nigerian women’s migration across the Sahara and the Mediterranean for several years. To get access to the field I made use of pre-established connections among migrants in Italy. Through my work I advise a number of NGOs and Government institutions on migration and human trafficking who were very helpful in getting access to the port and refugee camps. Yet, since many researchers and journalists over the past couple of years have wanted to study the “migration crisis” I needed to wait and write more letters than usual, asking for access, at times to no avail.

Studying the arrivals of newborn migrants

Within the context of the Mediterranean migration crisis, the arrival of so-called “irregular” migrants are structured as part of the humanitarian and administrative response of European states. The vulnerability and special needs of pregnant migrants have lately received increased awareness by NGOs working with migrants in the Mediterranean. Migrant mothers with newborn babies are directed to special reception units where they receive social and health support and monitoring. These mothers are also granted a half-year permit to stay, which is most often prolonged several times. The fact that mothers with small children receive these permissions to stay has led anti-immigration supporters to perceive of such pregnancies as an intended strategy, and the children born by migrating parents have been labelled as “anchor babies” or “passport babies”, implying that they are conceived to aide their mothers in their efforts to remain in Europe.

Looking at the arrivals of migrant mothers, it seems clear to me however that, if this really is a “strategy”, these women quickly realize that it is a complicated one. Their life in Europe is generally more difficult when they have a baby. As mothers they also face specific kinds of both state and NGO controls and restrictions. For instance, they cannot leave Italy and they have to stay and take care of their baby. So even if having a baby allows them to stay in Europe, it limits their mobility (though some still travel onwards to Northern Europe) and their options when it comes to being able to get a job because of their migrant motherhood status.

The argument that women are arriving pregnant and using anchor babies overlooks how difficult it can be to reach Europe without getting pregnant

Furthermore, we need to understand the interlinkage between reproduction and the routes and trajectories of women migrants as they make their way from Nigeria to Europe. While the women would often say they did not want to have sex en route or in Agadez, Niger, because there was no privacy or nothing but a sand floor, they would feel pressured to do so with the men they sought protection from. In the Sahara for example, women seek the protection of men to stay safe. Having no access to birth control they would describe how during long periods waiting in Agadez or in Libya they would pull out material from mattresses and stick it inside their vaginas to try to guard against pregnancies.

The argument that women are arriving pregnant and using anchor babies overlooks how difficult it can be to reach Europe without getting pregnant, with no access to birth control or abortion, while seeking protection via sex from men.

Studying the arrivals and burials of deceased migrants

Only a few kilometres from the migrant baby cradles and the reception centres for women is a cemetery for the drowned migrants. Catania has a cemetery where a dusty dry corner of the land is designed solely for migrants who have died while crossing the Mediterranean, situated on the outskirts of the city.

The ships assigned for search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean bring back migrants to the port of Catania. Both dead and alive. The bodies of deceased migrants are taken to the morgue in Catania, where they are searched for documents and personal belongings. Personal belongings are kept in an office in the city, in case family members come and look for them. However, it is most unlikely that anyone will be able to trace their loved ones.

In contrast to the spectacle at the port, bustling with migrants, NGO workers, journalists, researchers, doctors, police, border control and so on, the cemetery is both a literal and metaphorical backspace of migrant reception; a space where migrant stories are erased.

Here is what I wrote about the day at the graveyard:

Plambech FB 31 July, edited

There are very few visitors, and hardly any flowers at the graveyard. At the entrance to the cemetery sits a group of older men, gravediggers it turns out, in the shade of a tree. The day I arrived it was 2pm and the Sicilian sun was relentless. Two of the men followed me and an Italian colleague to the graves. The gravediggers showed great respect for the dead migrants as they explained their work and the process of migrant burials.

Plambech, two graveyards, edited
The Borders are continued in death. On the left-hand side are the migrants. On the right-hand side, the Italian middleclass. Race, gender, class and citizenship shapes the cemetery.             Photo. S. Plambech

Prospects of getting a visa to search for deceased loved ones are slim for Nigerians. And if there should be other Nigerian family members already in Europe, they would, as the plaque from the graveyard illustrates, have to know which ship they were rescued by and at which port they were disembarked. Some of the plaques at the cemetery don’t even mention the gender of the deceased making it even more difficult to search.

Plambech, plaque
Photo. S. Plambech

Plambeck, Soyinka poem
Photo. S. Plambech

While the graves are unmarked, the City of Catania has erected a monument to commemorate the deceased migrants. Since so many of the drowned are from different African countries – and many from Nigeria – I found it comforting that the County of Catania choose this poem MIGRATIONS by Nigerian poem Wole Soyinka to honour them in Death.


Wole Soyinka

Will there be sun? Or rain? Sleet Damp as the pasted smile of the frontier clerk? Where will the last tunnel spew me out Amphibian? No one knows my name. So many hands await that first Remittance home. Will there be one?

Tomorrows come and go, beachcomber days. Perhaps you’ll wear me, seaweed stitched On fake designer goods, invisibly branded: Sweat-Shop. Or gaudy souvenirs that distance, Yet bind us, as migrant handicraft, and crafty Rolexes jostle for space on glazed Side walks. The outspread rugs entice, but No embossment reads – WELCOME.

Cowrie shells, coral reef or chalk cliffs – All are one at the margin of elements. Loose sands dog my steps. Loose sands Of deserts, of chiseled seabed shrouds – For some went that way before the answer Could be given – will there be sun? Or rain? We’ve come to the bay of dreams.

In times of important life changes, such as the birth of a child or the loss of a loved one, the need for the support and companionship of others is essential. For migrants, this is rarely possible. Due to the constant fear of being deported, migrants try to protect themselves by not revealing their names or personal details, which adds to the experience of migration as a form of solitude. The life and death events these migrants experience on their journey to Europe are important in understanding why so few want to return voluntarily. Having so much vested in the journey makes it more than difficult to return.

Plambech, man looking at sea, edited
Man watching the sea, at Catania port. Many migrants have to manage big life changes all on their own. Photo. S. Plambech

Adapted from interview with the author by By Emma Villman & Per Jørgen Ystehede:

All photos by the author

About the author

Sine Plambech, anthropologist and researcher at DIIS. Currently Visiting Professor at Barnard, Columbia University, New York. She was in Sicily as part of the MIGMA – Transnationalism from above and below project, which explores European attempts to return Nigerian migrants. The MIGMA project is a co-operation between University of Oslo, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and the Faculty of Law at the University of Bergen (UiB).

Personal profile

The research project is financed by the Research Council of Norway.

Links to recent publications

God brought you home – deportation as moral governance in the lives of Nigerian sex worker . Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43 (13), 2017.

Sex, Deportation and Rescue: Economies of Migration among Nigerian Sex Workers. Feminist Economics 23 (3), Special Issue on Sex Work and Trafficking, 2017.

Short pieces

“Drowning mothers”, OpenDemocracy

“Becky is dead”, OpenDemocracy

Plambech, FB 27 July, edited
Plambech, FB 27 July, edited
Plambech, FB 27 July, edited