Post-slavery and the invisibility of female (e)motions in migration, displacement and refugee studies

Cover photo by Alessandro Vannucci via Flickr

Series Introduction

This post is a part of a series introducing the recent anthology Invisibility in African Displacements (Zed Books 2020). The book was edited by Simon Turner and AMMODI co-founder Jesper Bjarnesen, and offers new analytical ideas for understanding migrant in/visibilisation. In each post, the contributors present their chapter in a more accessible format, either by selecting one empirical example or aspect or by relating their central argument to broader societal concerns or debates.

For an outline of the overarching idea behind the book, see the introducing blog post by the editors here.

by Lotte Pelckmans

Tabass is a woman from southern Niger. She figures in no statistics, no big databases or reports on migration, displacement or refugees. Nevertheless, over the course of her lifetime she will embody all of these movements. Tabass features in a documentary, which shows her involved in a heated discussion between three women on the continuities of slavery in Niger. During the discussion, she describes her own experiences of enslavement. You can see her in the documentary film here, at 56 minutes.

My chapter in Invisibility in African Displacements, entitled ‘Fugitive emplacements: Wahayu Concubine Visibility Tactics through Fugitive Cross-border Mobilities, Niger-Nigeria’ zooms in on the ways in which women with slave status who have been forcefully moved for marriage decided to move out. They thus flee from their forced marriage and from having been concubines. I argue that their flight is a way of ‘voting with their feet’, a form of refuge to protest against dire, unacceptable conditions. Their fugitive mobility expresses discontent with the dramatic continuities in historical forms of exploitation based on slave status in the post-slavery borderlands of Niger and Nigeria. By the notion of fugitive emplacements, I point to how these fugitive women gained new forms of belonging in a village hosting several wahaya refugees in Southern Niger, called Zongon Ablo.

Post-slavery in Niger-Nigeria Borderlands

Niger legally abolished slavery in 1905 and criminalized the discrimination and exploitation of people with slave status in 2003. However, as someone labelled of “slave descent” by her community, Tabass’ body still bears the daily burden of a cultural normalization of descent-based slavery. Niger is a post-slavery society, meaning that not only legacies but also continuities of African slavery have survived well after abolition. Tabass was forcibly moved from her home village in Southern Niger across the border to a compound in Northern Nigeria, a few hundred kilometres away, for a forced marriage.

The Niger-Nigeria borderlands. Map from Wikipedia

Tabass had moved only a short distance and she did so alone. No statistics counted her, but her mobility moved her across dramatic social, cultural and emotional distances. Small distances can have big consequences. It is hard to count how many borders and boundaries Tabass was moved across as a bride: country, language, religion, culture, colonial history. She was moved from a former French to a former British colony, from a Zerma to a Hausa speaking community, from a rural village where women hardly veil themselves to an urban compound where she was highly secluded, and instead of moving into the role of a wife, she became a worker.

(E)motions

Emotions move people. They can be decisive in forced or voluntary movements, on small and large scales. Indeed emotions and feelings of affect (love, care, fear), can be drivers of mobility; they can set things in motion. However, some types of movement, related to  large-scale, amplified events like war, disaster and terrorism, have gained more attention than others. Indeed, it is mostly crisis-related collective mobilities, generated by strong universal ‘emotions’ such as fear and physical threat that have been exposed, and in some cases made hypervisible, in migration studies and international media. In contrast, we do not often consider subtler movements driven by ‘softer’, individual and contextual emotions, such as the love for a child who is not at home; the need to move in with a partner in order to protect one’s status and/or virginity; travelling in order to care for sick loved ones.

Such ‘soft emotions’ also motivate people to move across both small and large spatial distances, but they are much less visible, because they are more individualised and often rather small-scale. A common example of such soft (e)motions is the way in which, in many societies, women have been married off and moved from one camp or village to another, maybe only 10-50-100 kilometres away. In this case, it is in the name of the emotions of love and care that they are moved or choose to move from one community/place to another. Such movements would not be counted as migrations or displacements and thus have remained largely under the radar in migration studies, unless they are abnormal, or more visible, spectacular and international (such as Thai brides in Denmark). Why are soft (e)motions driving small-scale mobilities/motions less worthy of description, analysis, or attention? The distances travelled may be short, and the brides may move one by one, not en masse, but the impact upon lives and the frequency of such marriage moves are high.

Questioning in/visibility

Invisible in big data and displacement statistics, the above-mentioned (e)motions are generally overlooked and neglected as important forms of migration/displacement. Movements related to marriage are a good example of such overlooked (e)motions, which do indeed move the women involved both physically and emotionally, but are rarely registered as an official migration from A to B. Emotionally, women are moved across social borders, breaking existing ties, changing their environment and altering their future life course: a displaced bride (such as Tabass) will hardly be in touch with her family and friends back home and is not supposed to return unless for special and important occasions. Her movement is an initiation into a new set of circumstances, not only in spatial terms, but also in the temporal, symbolic and social sense of becoming and belonging. After the move, the displaced woman becomes a wife, a daughter-in-law, a stranger that needs integration in terms of language, cultural and food habits, and maybe she becomes a mother, a co-wife and so on.

Which mobilities beyond the amplified dramas of disaster, beyond large-scale physical distances, and beyond the high numbers of people being pushed on the move in groups are worthy of our analytical attention? The emotional labour of moving for commonplace affective life events, such as the (micro-)moves of women for marriage which currently go under the radar, tell us just as much about the politics of households and families and the drama or joy of what it means to move.

Fugitive displacement and emplacement

‘Hadijatou’ official poster

Tabass fled her marriage out of protest, driven by emotions of fear and anger. In the chapter, I have defined her (e)motion as fugitive displacement. Similar movements of her peers have usually remained invisible, surrounded by silence and remaining under the radar of mobility studies. But while Tabass indeed almost certainly does not figure in a UNHCR or IOM report, or any other form of migration report or statistics, she exceptionally did gain some visibility and does figure in a small report, published in 2012, by a Nigerien NGO called Timidria that fights legacies of descent-based slavery in West Africa. In that report, she is defined as a wahaya, an Arabic term meaning “fifth wife”; a woman who has been forcefully married as a concubine to men with high status. She figures among the stories of eight other wahaya women who have been forcefully married.

Tabass was also filmed as a woman of slave descent who ended up in a village of refuge, called Zongon Ablo, in the documentary ‘Hadijatou’ by the Spanish documentary maker Lala Goma (see link to excerpt above). The visibility afforded to Tabass is exceptional and related to the advocacy and activism against legacies of slavery by the organization of Timidria who interviewed her. Tabass’ visibility is the exception rather than the rule and her fugitive displacement tells us a whole lot about the difficult fate, predicaments and strong emotions similar Wahaya – women in concubine positions in West Africa – have to navigate, cope with and act upon. Tabass chose to voice her discontent by fleeing towards a community of other fugitive people of slave descent in southern Niger. Upon her arrival, she tried to restore her dignity by recreating a family through emplacement, generating a new place of attachment and belonging. The hard emotional labour behind the different spatial moves in Tabass’ life deserve recognition and attention.

About the author

Lotte Pelckmans is an anthropologist interested in the crossroads between migration and slavery studies. She obtained her master’s degree from Leiden University, her PhD at the African Studies Centre in Leiden and has worked in Dutch, French, German and Danish academia. Her work focuses on mobilisation, conflict, social media, rights and the intersecting social and spatial mobilities of people with slave status, as well as anti-slavery movements in post-slavery West Africa and the West African diaspora. Based at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies at the University of Copenhagen, she is currently working on social media and anti-slavery activism in the diaspora, and their intersections with Mali’s contemporary displacements related to descent-based slavery in Kayes for the SLAFMIG/EMIFO project.

Encamped within a camp: transgender refugees and Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya)

Photo from @campLGBTI Twitter, September 2020

Series Introduction

This post is a part of a series introducing the recent anthology Invisibility in African Displacements (Zed Books 2020). The book was edited by Simon Turner and AMMODI co-founder Jesper Bjarnesen, and offers new analytical ideas for understanding migrant in/visibilisation. In each post, the contributors present their chapter in a more accessible format, either by selecting one empirical example or aspect or by relating their central argument to broader societal concerns or debates.

For an outline of the overarching idea behind the book, see the introducing blog post by the editors here.

by B Camminga

In the wake of the 2014 Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda, and by extension Ugandans, have become synonymous, in the global media, with two interlinked concepts on the African continent. First, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and state-sponsored homophobia underpinned by brutality, exclusion and the public permissibility of violence. Second, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) people and vice, underpinned by the perceived destruction of the state, Western influence and the corruption of religious morals. Those most targeted by the Ugandan state, and by extension broader society, were those most visible and, by extension, those ‘most hated’: transgender people.

Kenya and Kakuma

In the aftermath of the Bill, LGBTQ+ people from Uganda began to flee to neighbouring Kenya.  Given that Kenya still upholds colonial-era penal codes, which continue to criminalise LGBTQ+ people, the country may seem like a peculiar choice. Although the Kenyan state does not protect or indeed outright acknowledge LGBTQ+ rights and by extension LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), through its mandate of international protection, does. The Kenya state  requires all refugees, regardless of their identity, to reside in either the Dadaab or Kakuma refugee camps jointly run by the UNHCR and the Kenyan Department of Refugee Affairs.

An areal view of Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Photo by Matja Kovac, 25 May 2010. Source Wikimedia.

As the main camp in which LGBTQ+ refugees have resided, Kakuma is a space set at the borders of the country, meant to gather the displaced and make them visible to the international community as people in need. Established in 1992, located in north-western Kenya, Kakuma Refugee Camp, comprising Kakuma 1, 2, 3 and 4, has an estimated population of 180,000 people.  As Dave Eggers’ protagonist, Valentino, repeatedly describes it in What Is the What, Kakuma is ‘a camp at the end of the world’, placed as it is at the borders of Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda, ‘in a land so dusty and desolate … arid and featureless … a place in which no one, simply no one but the most desperate, would ever consider spending a day.’

As I describe in my contribution to Invisibility in African Displacements, I have interviewed transgender refugees in Kenya and drawn from archival media material about LGBTQ+ refugees in an effort to understand the ongoing difficulties experienced by LGBTQ+ refugees in Kakuma. From the moment they entered Kakuma, LGBTQ+ refugees garnered a particular kind of visibility. Their nationality, as Ugandans, made them especially visible not only to the broader Kenyan community outside the camp but to other national groups within the camp.

Almost every transgender Ugandan I spoke to reported having heard the question, ‘your country is not at war. Why are you in Kenya?’

Given their heightened visibility due to their perceived gender nonconformity, those who were transgender bore the brunt of this exposure. Indeed, almost every transgender Ugandan I spoke to reported having heard the question, ‘your country is not at war. Why are you in Kenya?’ To protect LGBTQ+ arrivals from the camp’s almost immediate hostility, the UNCHR proposed two methods – encampment and discretion.

Encampment

Protest in Kakuma refugee Camp. Photo from @campLGBTItwitter, September 2020.

Kakuma custom is to give refugees construction materials to build their own houses. In this instance, the UNHCR set the LGBTQ+ group up with a plot of land and organised with a partner organisation to construct a set of small huts as their residence. To further limit their interactions with other refugees, their enclosed area also had a tap with running water placed nearby. A makeshift border was created around the compound with thorny shrubs. It is unclear if this was to keep the LGBTQ+ refugees in or the threatening elements of the wider refugee population out.

According to reports, the perceived privilege LGBTQ+ residents received, made other camp residents envious, heightening the group’s already precarious position. On the part of the UNHCR, the intent was to assist the group in acclimating to the camp. At the same time, they wanted to cause the least amount of upheaval for both LGBTQ+ refugees and the rest of the camp’s population. They hoped that by cordoning the group off, they might be better able to stick to themselves and remain inconspicuous. The perceived special treatment had the opposite effect and provided heightened exposure rather than mitigating it. It seems that while living together offered the protection of numbers, marked and shrub-encircled, it also made targeting LGBTQ+ people easier.

Discretion

From the Trans Day of Visibility press release, 31 March 2021. Photo by Ola Osaze.

Julia, a trans woman from Uganda whom I interviewed in 2019, was among the first to flee her country and enter Kenya seeking safety. When she was brought to Kakuma, she was asked, like others, to remain discrete.  A controversial practise and request, discretion has been used historically as a basis on which to reject asylum claims due to the belief that an applicant can avoid persecution if they hide their sexual orientation in their country of origin. Arguably, the request of discretion is, in fact, a request to conceal oneself, or at least make a very crucial part of oneself all but invisible. Doing so becomes somewhat tricky when considering issues of gender identity. Asylum is a system based on self-exposure for access. Whereas sexuality might be verbalised and later concealed it is far more difficult, if not impossible, to conceal gender, manifested, among other means, through clothing, gesture and comportment, during an asylum claim. Yet, as people claiming asylum on the basis of persecution due to gender identity have become increasingly visible within the global asylum regime, the controversial request that they practice discretion has often been applied to them. The UNHCR guidelines make clear that the requirement for discretion when claiming asylum should be rejected. Critically the guidelines  note that, ‘discretion may result in significant psychological and other harms’.

As someone self-described as ‘visibly transgender’, Julia explains that attempts to hide or be discrete did not make sense to her, and in many ways, she described them as almost nonsensical and impossible tasks. Following the request to be discrete, Julia explained that she could not help wearing her dresses and makeup, ‘because those are my clothes’. Within the first few days of doing so in the camp, ‘people instructed the camp police to arrest me … they said I was bringing bad vices to their kids’. In Kakuma, Julia had resigned herself to the fact that as a trans woman, no matter what she did, she would be a target. Her very nature in such a confined and monitored space as both a Ugandan and perceived visible deviance meant almost constant scrutiny. She explained that this was the point at which she made a choice: If she had to die from her visibility, she would do so as authentically as possible.

The request that those within the camp remain discrete places the onus of protection on the individual and, as Johannes Lukas Gartner adds, subverts

“the entire logic behind the establishment of a system that grants surrogate protection. The assumption present in such reasoning is a view of queer identity as something sexual and behavioural, as opposed to considering queer identity being a highly complex matter integral to one’s personal identity. An assumption, which would hardly be applied to heterosexuals”

The critical point Gartner makes here is that discretion, the request to conceal or make oneself invisible, would not be a request levelled at a heterosexual or cisgender person because to be visible as such is considered innate. To then be encamped within a camp, cordoned off in a ‘protection area’ while also requesting concealment or discretion is to request that LGBTQ+ refugees take responsibility for their own protection, subverting ‘the entire logic of the system’ while effectively being corralled in a highly visible area – a veritable Catch-22.

Ongoing deterioration

Graphic calling for global solidarity with LGBTQ refugees in Block 13 Kakuma, 8 April 2021.

Since the publication of this chapter, the situation in Kakuma for LGBTQ+ refugees has seemingly continued to deteriorate. Following an arson attack on 15 March 2021, two members of an LGBTQ+ group in Kakuma calling themselves #FreeBlock13 suffered second-degree burns. One of the burn victims, Chriton ‘Trinidad’ Atuhwera, later died in hospital. In a public statement, a global coalition of organisations has accused the UNHCR in Kenya of waging a ‘campaign of misinformation’ and treating LGBTQ+ refugees as ‘disposable and not worthy of protection and care’.  The statement ends by calling on the UNHCR to fulfil their mandate: ‘to aid and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities, and stateless people, and to assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country’.

The two methods proposed by the UNHCR to protect LGBTQ+ Ugandans since their arrival in Kakuma over five years ago – encampment and discretion – have all but failed. As Svetlana Sytnik has argued encampment, particularly long-term encampment, fosters conditions that are ‘incompatible with the realisation of human rights’. Given recent and ongoing violence, this seems particularly true for LGBTQ+ people in Kakuma. As one refugee noted in a recent newspaper interview: “Places like Kakuma … should not be places for LGBTIQ persons”. For those most visible, like Julia, displacement as a trans person has meant attempting the impossible in ‘places like Kakuma’, concealment coupled with heightened visibility, all the while asking: ‘when will I ever be myself? Like when will I ever think about being me?’

About the author

B Camminga (they/them) is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the African Centre for Migration & Society, Wits University, South Africa. They are the co-convenor of the African LGBTQI+ Migration Research Network (ALMN), and the author of Transgender Refugees and the Imagined South Africa. Bodies Over Borders and Borders Over Bodies (Palgrave 2019). They are currently working on a new collection addressing African LGBTQI+ migration entitled Queer and Trans African Mobilities: Migration, Diaspora and Asylum (Zed/Bloomsbury 2022).

Displacement agriculture: neither seen nor heard

Cover photo by author. Burundian labour migrants outside Nyarugusu refugee camp.

Series Introduction

This post is a part of a series introducing the recent anthology Invisibility in African Displacements (Zed Books 2020). The book was edited by Simon Turner and AMMODI co-founder Jesper Bjarnesen, and offers new analytical ideas for understanding migrant in/visibilisation. In each post, the contributors present their chapter in a more accessible format, either by selecting one empirical example or aspect or by relating their central argument to broader societal concerns or debates.

For an outline of the overarching idea behind the book, see the introducing blog post by the editors here.

Displacement agriculture: neither seen nor heard

by Clayton Boeyink

My mother, who grew up on a farm in rural Iowa, USA in the 1960s told me that my grandfather would tell her when company was over to ‘be seen and not heard’. I knew this clearly misogynist injunction, which I came to learn is a 15th century English proverb, meant for her to behave and be quiet, but the literal meaning did not make sense to young Clayton. Why not just tell her to be quiet or ‘not heard’? Why make any visual reference at all? I later learned that it comes down to recognition; she had to be recognized or seen as part of the family, as long as she was docile and behaved, which is also expected of migrants and refugees operating outside of the ‘visibility field’ of the humanitarian apparatus along the Tanzanian borderlands.

In my contribution to Invisibility in African Displacements, I draw inspiration from Amanda Hammar’s work on ‘displacement economies’ that explores the ‘physical, social, economic and political spaces, relations, systems and practices’ that are a result of displacement. I analyse the extensive ‘displacement economies’ of land rental and agricultural labour systems outside of Nyarugusu refugee camp in north-western Tanzania. Despite it being illegal under Tanzania’s strict encampment and migration laws and policies, Tanzanians near the camp rent out land or shambas (Swahili: fields) to refugees living in the camps. Burundian refugees and (male) circular labour migrants whose families remain in Burundi work as paid labourers for Tanzanian landowners and refugee land-renters.

Sufficiently invisible and invisibly self-sufficient

Satellite photo of Nyarugusu refugee camp. The green surrounding the camp shows abundant farmland.

Due to the constricted economic environments in Burundi and the camps, migrants and refugees must be ‘invisibly self-sufficient’ and find livelihoods in forbidden agricultural spaces. They must be ‘sufficiently visible’ in order to network and meet local Tanzanians to rent land or get a job, yet be ‘invisible enough’ to evade the increasingly hostile police who occasionally patrol outside of the camp. Unlike migrants and refugees living in cities, full strategic invisibility is impossible for migrants and refugees because in rural Kigoma region, where the camps are located, the demographic make-up of the ‘host community’ is nearly homogenously of Ha ethnicity. As such, non-Ha ‘outsiders’ are instantly recognized. Linking to my mother’s childhood silencing above, I speak with Axel Honneth and others’ work on the philosophy of recognition to argue that the migrant and refugee actors are minimally ‘cognized’ or seen, but they are not heard. They are not fully recognized to be worthy of rights of employment, mobility and inclusion. However, levels of recognition are not uniform across the groups of actors or across the history of this system of displacement agriculture. In general, Burundians have a poor reputation among the local population and are mistrusted vis-à-vis Congolese refugees who are more well-regarded locally dating back to colonial labour hierarchies.

More specifically, Burundian labour migrants live most precariously of all. They have made the journey for generations due to scarcity of land and jobs in Burundi. Many I spoke with said that during the latest displacement episode in 2015, they could not afford the transportation costs or the bribes to police and migration officials necessary to bring their entire families on the journey. In contrast, refugees are more shielded in the camp from the police where renters and labourers can market safely within the bounds of Nyarugusu where they are allowed to be. Moreover, they have their overhead expenses mostly covered for food and shelter so they can take jobs on the farm for lower wages, which have depressed the wages for migrants. Migrants are more visible and exposed as they must live in makeshift huts on the shamba or in nearby forests and must network in villages and towns where they are more likely to be caught by the police.

Tanzania’s refugee governance in historical perspective

Hut made by migrant labourers on the farm where they cultivate.

Regimes of recognition have not been stable in Tanzania over time. For example, in colonial Tanganyika, both the German and British occupiers oscillated between opening and shutting their arbitrarily constructed borders. This strict regulation was a means of protecting the profitability of the colonial project. They blocked inflows from neighbouring Portuguese and Belgian colonies with harsher labour conscription regimes because they feared that their own coercive labour tactics within Tanganyika would impel similar outflows away from their territories. Out migrations of colonial subjects meant loss of potential taxable and labouring bodies. During labour shortages, however, they actively recruited from their neighbours and throughout the boom of the extractive sisal industry, both Burundi and Kigoma were primarily recognized as labour reserves.

After independence President Julius Nyerere was known to have an ‘open door’ for refugees and was active in supporting dissidents fighting white settler regimes in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique. These ‘freedom fighters’ were given the freedom of movement and rights to employment. Rwandan and Burundian refugees fleeing internal war and genocide were provided uncleared land in sparsely populated areas of Western Tanzania. These displaced populations were exploited through mostly unpaid labour spent cultivating unproductive land producing cash crops marketed and benefitting the state. By the 1990s, the agricultural refugee settlement model made way to strict encampment policies where refugees were not provided land or the right to livelihoods outside of the camp and were made dependent on humanitarian aid for food and shelter. This transition to one of the strictest encampment policies in the world was caused by a failing economy, coupled with structural adjustment that crippled state capacity, and the displacement of over a million refugees from Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The same encampment laws remain to this day.

Poor economic conditions are forcing people into increasingly dangerous displacement agriculture outside of the camps to be invisibly self-sufficient when self-reliance inside the camp is nearly impossible

Since 2015, the year President John Magufuli was elected and the latest displacement episode of Burundians fleeing repression and intimidation from the state and allied militias sent more than 200,000 new arrivals across the border, the state has only further constricted the space of asylum. In August 2017, the state abruptly shut down a successful and popular World Food Program cash transfer programme and, in 2019, closed all camp markets. This assault on refugee livelihoods coincided with dwindling international funding and reduced food rations. Furthermore, all of my informants agree that President Magufuli cracked down on their displacement agriculture system more than any other administration they could remember. These poor economic conditions are forcing people into increasingly dangerous displacement agriculture outside of the camps to be invisibly self-sufficient when self-reliance inside the camp is nearly impossible.

The Magufuli regime’s climate of terror

Since the publication of Invisibility in African Displacements, things are looking worse for encamped refugees, and for Burundians in particular. Since mid-2020, there have been reports of Tanzanian security officers abducting, ransoming, and illegally repatriating wealthy Burundian refugees in coordination with Burundian state agents. This intimidation and abuse of wealthy businesspeople has led to an exodus of wealthier people, which has stripped the camps of valuable financiers. Human Rights Watch released an alarming report that those who were disappeared were being deprived of food for weeks in police stations; beaten, hung from ceilings,  and had chillies rubbed on their wounds and genitals. A climate of terror now permeates the spaces of the camps and many feel they have no choice but to return to Burundi before they feel it is safe and economically viable to do so.

Those involved in displacement agriculture are forced to be invisibly self-sufficient when humanitarian aid is insufficient, yet sufficiently visible enough to acquire land and jobs outside of the camp. In other words, actors in displacement agriculture are invisible to legally accepted livelihoods supported by humanitarian interventions, yet illegally outside the camp, they present themselves to land owners and renters and thus potentially expose themselves to police patrols. On the shamba, in/visibility is less enacted than it is endured. As less-than-voluntary repatriations are increasing in this restrictive political and economic environment, it appears that endurance is wearing thin. This (among many other obvious privileges) is a key difference from what my mother was told by my grandfather.

Today, the Tanzanian state does not want refugees to exist in the national polity at all

Despite not being fully recognized as a valued contributor worthy of being heard, she still belonged as part of the family. Tanzania has a complicated history of using and abusing migrants and refugees since colonialism. This includes coercive labour recruitment, exploitative rural refugee settlements, forced repatriations, and encampment policies which severely limits livelihood opportunities. Today, the Tanzanian state does not want refugees to exist in the national polity at all. The government is making this point clear through implorations to leave as well as deeper crackdowns of livelihood opportunities including illicit agricultural practices outside the camps and even kidnapping and torture. Despite these conscriptions, refugees are still remaining even if they should be neither seen nor heard.

About the author

Clayton Boeyink is a Research Fellow at with Social Anthropology and the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His work interrogates the politics, practices, and coloniality of refugee self-reliance and livelihoods in refugee camps in Tanzania. His is currently part of the multi-sited GCRF Protracted Displacement project focusing on improving healthcare at the intersection of gender among Somali and Congolese Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Somalia and Eastern DRC respectively, and Somali and Congolese refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya and South Africa.

Transnational Skills Partnerships between Ghana and Germany: A “triple-win” solution?

Introduction

by Stefan Rother, Susanne Schultz and Mary B. Setrana

In 2015, the Valletta summit action plan recommended to “develop networks between European and African vocational training institutions, with a view to ensuring that vocational training matches labour market needs”. The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, moreover, proposes “talent partnerships” as a solution to match labour and skills needs in EU Member States with the relevant institutions in key countries of origin to eventually  support mobility and migration schemes for labour and training purposes.

World leaders at the 2015 Valletta Summit. Photo by the European External Action Service via Flickr

Transnational Mobility and Skill Partnerships (TMSP) that contribute to fair migration have been high on the migration policy agenda for several years now. The conceptual groundwork, first laid out by the economist Michael Clemens, has been widely discussed, and the adoption of the Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration (GCM) has brought further attention to the issue. Objective 18e of the GCM explicitly commits to: “Build global skills partnerships among countries that strengthen training capacities of national authorities and relevant stakeholders, including the private sector and trade unions, and foster skills development of workers in countries of origin and migrants in countries of destination with a view to preparing trainees for employability in the labour markets of all participating countries”.

However, these high aspirations have not resulted in many concrete projects, much less larger scale approaches. The focus of the few existing partnerships so far have been mostly on nurse training and employment, with some promising programs – such as the German GIZ Triple-Win-Program – supporting their fair recruitment from countries such as the Philippines and Tunisia . Beyond nursing, the GIZ started a German-Moroccan Partnership for the Training and Recruitment of Skilled Workers in 2019, which seems to work with some success. Moreover, a number of small pilot projects on “Legal skilled migration”, Nigeria with Lithuania, Morocco with Belgium and Spain; as well as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt with France,  have been launched under the Mobility Partnership Facility, providing first lessons learned. What is still missing, though, are firstly, a broadening of programmes to include further sectors of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and employment; and secondly, an implementation of programmes that benefit all sides. To push this discussion forward, we have conducted two exploratory studies proposing a project which works towards a partnership that could support the migration of construction workers between Ghana and the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), as a joint development of skilled workers taking the benefit of all sides into consideration.

Transnational Mobility Skill Partnerships (TMSP)

Photo by Mary Setrana

There are different forms of multi-stakeholder TMSP. The most ambitious and complex approach (Type 3) is based on investment in the educational sector of the country of origin and seeks to establish a two-track programme. Students can choose between the home track, where they receive training for the domestic labour market, and the abroad track, which qualifies them for labour migration to a specific destination country. This approach promises to relieve the country of origin of the cost of training of the workers who leave the country, while still being cost effective for the destination country. Such “Type 3” transnational qualifications and mobility partnerships (Azahaf 2020) have not been put into practice yet, not least as it requires an integrated approach of multiple stakeholders and the long-term investment needed to build up trust, and develop convincing and sustainable business models. One major hindrance so far has been the gap between the skills training systems of the country of origin and the requirements of the country of destination. More common are partnerships where training received in the country of origin is “adjusted” in the country of destination (Type 1); and partnerships where migrants acquire language skills in their country of origin while the vocational training takes place in accordance with the specific standards and regulations in the country of destination (Type 2). The Head of Monitoring and Evaluation, NVTI-Ghana, summarises the interest of his organisation in these kinds of transnational partnerships this way:

“Training could be done in Ghana before students leave Ghana or training could be done when they arrive in Germany. We can also identify specific institutions that can incorporate German language into their system”

Head of Monitoring and Evaluation, National Vocational Training Institute, Ghana, Dec 2020

Why Ghana?

Photo by Mary Setrana

Ghana is considered to be a particularly suited partner country due to its young workforce, democratic and economic stability as well as high regard for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). So far, the construction sector is much more developed compared to other TVET measures for a transnational skill partnership. Meanwhile, it is highly informalized due to low levels of education, which increases the unemployment of skilled workers. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a decrease in employment by government projects, which used to be the biggest employer of construction workers in the country. This recent downturn is coupled with the debt-stricken nature of the construction industry: contractors are not paid for long-lasting projects by the government, rendering contractors unable to fund their projects, which results in a decrease in the amount the government spends on infrastructure while the cost of construction increases. These gaps in the construction sector could be addressed through a global skill partnership: training and upgrading skills that could contribute to the industrial sector of Ghana and of other countries as well. To this end, all the relevant stakeholders such as the Ghanaian National Vocational Training Institute (NVTI), the Council for Technical and Vocation Education Training (COTVET) and other technical institutes) engaged in the exploratory study in Ghana expressed the willingness to collaborate with Germany.

Country/region of destination perspective

In Germany, Federal States adopted the first resolution of their development policy commitment as early as 1962, affirming cooperation with African states and cities in 2017. The partnership between the Federal State of North-Rheine Westphalia and Ghana since 2007 strategically ties up with a multiplicity of pre-existing civil society initiatives with a focus on sustainable development, including transnational projects on skills training and exchange.

Photo by Mary Setrana

The construction sector in Germany has barely suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, it is to be expected that the already omnipresent lack of skilled workers at all levels (KOFA, 2021) is likely to increase due to an aging workforce. Employers have already shown a significant openness towards recruiting foreign workers, offering skilled training for interested and engaged young persons, including people coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. Some construction companies have expressed high satisfaction and good experiences with workers with a refugee background in Germany in that respect. This need for skilled personnel in the construction sector has barely been addressed in the debate on skilled migration, but the sector seems ready for developing transnational skills partnerships. Since March 2020, the Immigration Act for Skilled Workers (Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz – FEG) facilitates legally entering Germany for skills training, which should make such initiatives easier to implement.    

Recommendations for a skills partnership

Based on our exploratory studies, we propose a type of skills partnership, where training is split between countries of origin and destination. In this “Type 2.5” approach, some fundamental skills (for example the equivalent to a German Bauhelfer, or construction assistant) could be taught in Ghana along with German language training embedded within the local TVET system, with the potential to access further specific training after migration to Germany. In a first step, training would likely be implemented as a full dual-vocational -training according to German standards following a preparatory year, with prospectively acknowledging further skills obtained in the country of origin. Drop-outs during the phase in Ghana would ideally continue their skills training in the TVET system with a sustainable job perspective in the local labour market. If participants in Germany decide to leave the programme, they would have acquired skills useful in the Ghanaian context. This “Type 2.5” approach could easily be integrated into the curriculum of the Ghanaian National Vocational Training Institute (NVTI) or other training institutes such as the Accra Technical Training Institute (ATTC). German language training would be provided by established German institutions in Ghana. 

“we are confident that our students can easily fit into the German market, we are willing to provide German specific upgraded skills to our students”

 Council for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (COTVET) Representative, 2020

Photo by Mary Setrana

Our exploratory studies have also shown that there is significant will among stakeholders in Ghana and interest on both the German and Ghana sides. This is an essential condition for establishing a pilot project – the other one is obviously money, not least for ensuring a sustainable systemic implementation on the longer run. In the spirit of a transnational skills partnership, the training in Ghana needs to be financed at least partially by the destination country. This could be situated within the existing development cooperation as a case of “training the trainers”. Within the Type 2.5 approach, one could furthermore envision a public-private partnership for making a sound business case, which could be beneficial for all sides. The Ghanaian Business Association and the Delegation of German Industry and Commerce in Ghana (AHK Ghana) are relevant stakeholders in this regard. Existing German businesses in Ghana would be the longer-term financers, providing opportunities to students for gathering practical experiences and benefit from potential in-country employment in both countries.

We propose to work towards a type of partnership that aims to exploit development potentials for the country of origin, while the country of destination would benefit from the supply of skilled labour and the migrants themselves would benefit from (up)skilling and remittances. This model could provide the Technical and Vocation Education Training sector with further development in terms of standards, employability and balancing practical and theoretical aspects of formal education.

About the authors

Stefan Rother is senor research and lecturer at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute at the University of Freiburg. His research focus is on migration governance, social movements and migration and democracy. In 2019, he was convener of the International Fellow Group (IFG) at the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) at the University of Ghana.

Susanne Schultz is a Project Manager of “Making Fair Migration a Reality” at the Bertelsmann Stiftung, a German Think tank. She holds a PhD in Return Migration and West Africa and is an Associated Research Fellow at the Center on Migration, Citizenship and Development (COMCAD) at Bielefeld University.

Mary Setrana is senior lecturer at the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Ghana. Her research focus is on Gender and Migration, Return Migration and Reintegration, Migration Governance, Transnational Migration and Diaspora’s. In 2019, Mary was a fellow at the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) at the University of Ghana.

Introducing “Invisibility in African Displacements”

Series Introduction

This post is a part of a series introducing the recent anthology Invisibility in African Displacements (Zed Books 2020). The book was edited by Simon Turner and AMMODI co-founder Jesper Bjarnesen, and offers new analytical ideas for understanding migrant in/visibilisation.
In each post, the contributors present their chapter in a more accessible format, either by selecting one empirical example or aspect or by relating their central argument to broader societal concerns or debates.

Introducing Invisibility in African Displacements

Jesper Bjarnesen & Simon Turner

African migrants have become increasingly demonised in public debate and political rhetoric in Europe over the past decade. There is much speculation about the motivations and trajectories of Africans on the move, and much of this attention is more or less explicitly geared towards discouraging and policing their movements. Especially since the so-called European refugee crisis in 2015-16, these debates and political concerns have shone the spotlight on irregular migration to the EU, in what may seem like an endless scrutiny through news reports and op-eds.

What is rarely understood or scrutinized, however, are the intricate ways in which African migrants are marginalised and excluded from public discourse; not only in Europe but in migrant-receiving contexts across the globe. Despite the heightened attention towards the issue of irregular migration to Europe, African migrants are still rarely heard in public debates, and their portrayal is usually restricted to a set of standardised templates. It is not only in show business that the brightest spotlights cast the darkest shadows; in the over-exposure of African migrants in European public debates, many important issues tend to be left in the dark.

This imagery, of a spotlight rendering some things seen and others unseen, suggests how visibilisation and invisibilisation can happen simultaneously; the way such seemingly opposite processes can be two sides of the same coin. These are the kinds of paradoxes that we wanted to explore in the book Invisibility in African Displacements. In addition to trying to think differently about irregular African migrants to Europe, this interest in in/visibilisation also inspired us to seek contributions exploring African migration in contexts that are far removed from the spotlight of European immigration politics. We wanted to bring case studies from both sides of the Mediterranean Sea into conversation, since the most overwhelming blind spots of the European spotlight on African migration undeniably concerns all the different kinds of movement that are not necessarily directed towards Europe.

Understanding in/visibilisation

As we began to think more about dynamics of in/visibilisation, in conversation with the authors of the book’s chapters, we also became aware that exposure and concealment were obviously not just something imposed upon African migrants from the outside. Migrants also actively engage in strategies of visibilisation – for example through advocacy for migrant rights, or simply by making themselves known to national or humanitarian authorities. Similarly, migrants may also engage actively in strategies of invisibilisation – for example by going underground in a country they have no formal right to live in, or by trying to blend in to host communities. In this way, we ended up with a conceptual framework that, to put it simply, combined four dimensions of in/visibilisation. Migrants are made invisible by others, for example when they fall between the cracks in the asylum system or are made unworthy of protection and assistance in other ways. This might lead migrants to use strategies to make themselves visible – allowing them to make claims and stake their rights. Another strategy might, however, be to make oneself invisible to the public eye. Invisibility may be a strategy of protection. Opposed to this are the strategies of states, NGOs, churches and local communities to seek out migrants and make them visible and hence governable.

In/visibilisation works on specific aspects of a migrant’s being; most often their legal status, but also their origins or their intentions. Avoidance, in this way, is not necessarily about not being seen at all, but for example about keeping one’s undocumented status unknown, or about choosing not to register as a refugee with humanitarian agencies. Learning the local language and customs, or living in cities where one may disappear in the crowd are key examples of such avoidance strategies. In/visibility, in other words, is contextual; it is about specific aspects or qualities being seen or not seen.

As a final nuance to this line of thinking, in/visibilisation is also relational. In most cases, one might be visible to some but not to others. When migrant activists claim recognition, it is usually towards national authorities or other actors representing the power to grant that visibility. And undocumented migrants are not necessarily hiding their status from fellow migrants or other people in their immediate surroundings, but rather from the gaze of the police or other authorities who could get them deported. Indeed, often, they will want to remain visible to potential employers. Similarly, authorities may highlight human smugglers while turning a blind eye to irregular labour.

In/visibilisation effects

The effects of these diverse dynamics of in/visibilisation may seem difficult to grasp. But a brief example involving a member of the AMMODI network should serve as an illustration of how invisibilisation may change a person’s life trajectory. In 2017, Liberian author, activist and migration scholar Robtel Neajai Pailey reflected on her own experiences of growing up as an undocumented migrant in Washington DC, having left Liberia at the age of six. In an Al Jazeera opinion piece, entitled ‘Legal invisibility was the best thing to happen to me’, she wrote:

”While I was physically present (visible) in the US, I remained absent (hidden) from the entitlements that legal visibility affords. The privileges and protections that most Americans take for granted – authorisation to work, go to school or access healthcare – were unreachable”.

Robtel now traces her intense bond to Liberia and her passion for scholarship on African history and politics to her formative years; ”It was certainly the bittersweet days of living under the radar that moulded me into a fully minted itinerant Liberian with an American twang”. When Robtel was 20, her mother abandoned her Liberian citizenship for an American one, primarily in order to achieve a legal status for her daughter, thereby also granting her ‘… the freedom of movement that comes with legal visibility’.

Among her many engagements, Robtel has authored two children’s books and recently published Development, (Dual) Citizenship and Its Discontents in Africa with Cambridge University Press. While her personal story may not be representative of undocumented migrants everywhere, it does bring into powerful relief how in/visibilisation can play out in life-changing and unexpected ways, which resonates strongly with the overarching message of our book.

The contributions all engage with visibility and invisibility in all its complexity – challenging our received wisdoms about marginalised migrants, illegality and control. On the one hand, they shed light on migrant movements that usually go below the radar in migration studies – such as enslaved runaways in West Africa described by Lotte Pelckmans and domestic workers in Botswana, as shown by Joyce Takaindisa on the basis of a chapter co-written with Ingrid Palmary. On the other hand, they show how invisibility is used actively by migrants. For example, Clayton Boeyink explains how Burundian refugees leave the camps to sell their labour to local Tanzanians, making themselves ‘visible enough’ to be hired while ‘invisible enough’ to avoid being caught by the police. With this book, we hope not only to open the readers’ eyes to forms of African migration that are rarely considered or understood, but also to challenge the often polarising and fairly simplistic ideas about African migrants in public debates.

About the authors

Jesper Bjarnesen is a Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute since September 2013. He has worked primarily on the grey zones between forced and voluntary migration in West Africa, in the context of the 2002-2011 civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. Within this context, his research has considered the generational variations of displacement; the dynamics of integration among urban youths; and the broader themes of urban resettlement and transnational families. His current research focuses, firstly, on the effects of migration governance in terms of the in/visibilities produced by specific legal statuses and, secondly, on the ‘soft infrastructures’ of labour mobilities across and between secondary cities in West Africa. With Franzisca Zanker, he is the co-founder of the African Migration, Mobility and Displacement (AMMODI) research network.

Simon Turner is Associate Professor at the Centre for Advanced Migration Studies at the University of Copenhagen. His research interests include masculinities in relation to migration and displacement; refugee camps and humanitarian organizations; ethnic conflict and genocide; diaspora; invisibility, secrecy, rumours and conspiracy theories, all with a primary geographical focus on Burundi and Rwanda, as well as on Burundian refugees in Nairobi, Kenya. He is the author of Politics of Innocence. Hutu Identity, Conflict and Camp Life (2010), and is one of the editors of the Journal of Refugee Studies.