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.

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