The IOM and ‘voluntary return’ programmes in Africa

Cover photo by Stefanie Carmichael/UNMEER on Flickr

by Antoine Pécoud

In June 2020, Euronews published a three-part series on African migration to Europe, with a particular focus on the EU-funded projects run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to return migrants to their home country. This is a pressing issue. Even if African migration to Europe remains at relatively low levels, it is regularly described as an ‘invasion’ of European countries. Moreover, Europe’s response to the refugee/migrant crisis in the Euro-Mediterranean region since 2015 sheds light on the tragedies and atrocities associated with the (mis)management of migration, with thousands of migrants from Africa and the Middle East dying at sea, and others suffering major human rights abuses in countries such as Libya.

Photo by Christopher Jahn/IFRC on Flickr

The European strategy is based on the externalization of border control in order to intercept migrants in Africa before they reach Europe. European states thus intervene outside their territory: they cannot rely on their own state apparatus only, but need implementing partners. This has proven beneficial for IOM, an intergovernmental organization founded in 1951, which today has over 400 field offices worldwide.

The project investigated by Euronews provides an illustration of IOM’s role in the externalization of European immigration policy. Entitled the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration, it aims to ‘enable migrants who decide to return to their countries of origin to do so in a safe and dignified way’, while also ‘providing assistance to returning migrants to help them restart their lives in their countries of origin’. It is funded to the height of €357 million by the EU and operates in 26 African countries; some 80,000 migrants have been returned so far, mainly from Libya and Niger to sub-Saharan countries like Eritrea, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mali or Sudan.

Such returns are called ‘assisted voluntary returns’ and constitute a pillar of IOM’s work. They target ‘migrants who are unable or unwilling to remain in host or transit countries and wish to return voluntarily to their countries of origin’. By avoiding the violence and coercion of forced expulsions, they would fit into what IOM calls ‘humane and orderly migration’. The project further claims to ‘reintegrate’ migrants in their country of origin, by helping them acquire skills, find a job or create a business, and to ‘mitigate some of the drivers of irregular migration’. By combining return with reintegration, IOM intends to operate ‘for the benefit of all’: for receiving states (that want to keep migrants way), for sending states (in need of development) and for migrants themselves (who would benefit from a better situation in their home country).

From narratives to reality

At first sight, the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration makes sense. It is sensible to rescue migrants from the hardships of life in Libya and to prevent the tragedies that may occur when they embark to reach Europe. It also seems worthwhile to provide them with skills and professional opportunities in their home country.

But Euronews’ account is quite different. Firstly, while returns did take place, reintegration assistance proved much more elusive, or even non-existent. Whereas IOM is preoccupied with the removal of unwanted migrants, their fate back home seems of less concern. Secondly, returns are labelled ‘voluntary’ but many returned migrants did not see themselves as ‘voluntary’: they were pressured to accept and sometimes received information in languages they did not understand. And thirdly, once returned, migrants felt abandoned – to the extent that many considered re-migrating to Europe.

For instance, in Nigeria, women who had been sexually exploited during their migration journey ended up being sexually exploited again upon their return. In Eritrea, a country with a worrying human rights record, young men who had left without having fulfilled their (forced) military duties found themselves in trouble.

IOM is financially dependent upon a handful of Western migrant-receiving countries. Its projects are therefore donor-driven and prioritise the interests of the Global North in combatting irregular migration

These findings come as no surprise. Julien Brachet documents how IOM in Libya primarily wants to keep migrants from embarking for Europe and is hardly preoccupied with their rights or reintegration. Jill Alpes reaches a similar conclusion, adding that the extent to which returns are ‘voluntary’ depends in reality upon the violence faced by migrants: the greater the hardships in transit countries, the more migrants will prove ‘voluntary’ to return – hence the structural connexion between anti-migrant violence and IOM’s programs. 

To contextualise these findings, it must be recalled that IOM is financially dependent upon a handful of Western migrant-receiving countries. Its projects are therefore donor-driven and prioritise the interests of the Global North in combatting irregular migration. IOM claims to work ‘for the benefit of all’, but its projects are actually ‘for the benefit of some’.

In addition, IOM has an uneasy relationship to human rights. Its constitution makes no reference to rights, which both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch lamented as early as 2002. François Crépeau, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, also writes that ‘the mandate and funding of IOM pose structural problems with regard to fully adopting a human rights framework’. From a rights-based perspective, ‘voluntary’ returns are problematic because they may concern people who deserve refugee protection and are exposed to abuses in their country.

IOM’s response

IOM responded to Euronews’ investigation, putting forward several counter-arguments. First, it claims that its activities cannot be solely in Europe’s interest because they draw upon joint Euro-African agreements, including the Action plan adopted in 2015 at an Euro-African Summit on migration in Valletta (in which one of the five ‘priority domains’ is indeed precisely about ‘return, readmission and reintegration’). Formally, therefore,African governments agree with IOM’s EU-funded activities. This raises two key questions, pertaining to (1) the extent to which African governments reflect their societies’ aspirations, and (2) whether their agreement to such action plans are dependent on broader deals about development, security, etc.

Image from IOM website

Second, IOM emphasizes that since its primary objective consists of helping migrants in distress it should not be criticized for failing to provide long-term solutions, which – it further argues – cannot be achieved without the involvement of local governments, the private sector, or civil society. This is a pragmatic argument, rooted in the humanitarian imperative of saving lives, and quite sensible in the face of migrants’ living conditions in Libya or Niger. Yet, the pitfall with such humanitarian logic is that merely saving lives tends to move (or postpone) the problem, as returned migrants face hardships at home or emigrate again – most likely with the same results, and likely with ‘more of the same’ in terms of policy response and IOM’s activities. Third, IOM reiterates the compatibility of voluntary returns with human rights and even mentions a ‘fundamental right to return’. Finally, it contests Euronews’ evidence, which it finds anecdotal and unrepresentative of the actual situation. This is an important (albeit somewhat ironic) issue, because IOM’s projects are hardly evaluated, whether by IOM itself or by other actors. It is easy to count the numbers of migrants returned to their country, but much more difficult to ascertain whether their reintegration proves successful.

IOM’s mandate and activities in question

While IOM puts forward the need for immediate relief among migrants caught in Libya or Niger, its response actually raises many questions about the long-term effects of its projects and the broader political context in which it operates.  

Photo by IOM/Hamza Osman on Flickr

IOM has turned into a kind of ‘super ministry of migration’ in Africa. In 1991, it only had 43 member-states and a $300 million budget. But in 2020, the number of member-states reached 173 and the budget is estimated at $1.8 billion. This growth is most likely to continue: indeed, in the EU, the proposed 2021-2027 budget foresees the tripling of the funds devoted to migration and border management, with almost €35 billion, and part of this money will undoubtedly go to IOM and to the expansion of its activities in Africa.

Yet, IOM generally manages to escape public scrutiny. Its projects are carried out in countries where independent media and civil society are often fairly weak. IOM also devotes important resources to its communication strategy and maintains good relationships with influential researchers, for instance through its ‘research leaders syndicate’ or its publications, which include the widely-circulated World Migration Reports and an academic journal. As a matter of fact, only a small number of critical researchers and small NGOs scrutinise IOM’s activities.  

This makes for a moral and political dilemma, as the governance of migration ‘for the benefit of all’ is not easily reconciled with Europe’s obsession with combatting irregular migration from Africa

Such scrutiny is necessary for African societies to articulate a more autonomous migration policy strategy. It is also necessary in order for European citizens to know what is being done by the EU in the name of migration management. It is, finally, necessary for the international community at large: IOM joined the UN in 2016 and since then embodies the UN answer to migration challenges.

This makes for a moral and political dilemma, as the governance of migration ‘for the benefit of all’ is not easily reconciled with Europe’s obsession with combatting irregular migration from Africa. Euronews’ investigations therefore constitute a rare and welcome occasion of setting the terms for a broader public debate.

About the author

Antoine Pécoud is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sorbonne Paris Nord. His research focuses on the global governance of migration and the role of intergovernmental organisations in migration politics. His last book is The International Organization for Migration. The New ‘UN Migration Agency’ in Critical Perspective (Palgrave 2020).

Welcome aboard KLM Air Land! Reflections on the mobilities turn

Nauja Kleist  Cover image by Nauja Kleist

Introduction

Tuesday morning in a rural district capital in the western part of Ghana. It’s market day and the streets are buzzing with people, goods of all sorts, cars, taxis and trotros – the ubiquitous minibuses that serve as a low-cost means of transport many places in Ghana. A battered blue one with the words ‘KLM Air Land’ written on the back catches my eye. Parked next to the Atomic Lotto kiosk, the scene almost explodes with invocations of different mobilities, imagined journeys, and futures-in-the-making. Is the trotro owned by a Ghanaian working for KLM or living in the Netherlands – or somebody dreaming about flying around the world?  Is it a humoristic – or disapproving – commentary to the many Ghanaians living in this part of the country, who have travelled overland to Libya under harsh circumstances or dream of traveling further afield? Is the reasoning that if you cannot fly KLM Airlines, you can at least ride the KLM Air Land minibus? The intriguing slogan shines the spotlight on different mobilities and modes of travel, the regimes of mobility they are embedded in, and the inequalities they reflect. 

In this blogpost, I take departure in the KLM Air Land illustration to reflect upon the mobilities approach, based on a keynote at the inaugural AMMODI workshop in September 2018. An extended version of this post has been published as a keyword  article in the ten-year anniversary issue of African Diaspora. Here I present some of the key features of the mobilities approach and consider the perspectives it inspires and calls for, with emphasis on regimes, politics and trajectories of mobility. I start with an introduction to the so-called mobilities turn and end with some reflections on its advantages and challenges. So welcome aboard!

The new mobilities paradigm

The introduction of mobilities as a theoretical and empirical research field emerged around the turn of the millennium, advocated by sociologists John Urry and Mimi Sheller as a new analytical framework to study how societies move. The proponents declared a ‘new mobilities paradigm’, with the aim of examining and highlighting the role of various kinds of mobility for societal development – hence the plural form mobilities. They also challenged sedentary notions of society in the social sciences where society is seen as defined by the territory of the nation state. In this so-called ‘container model’ of society, as Giddens and Beck termed it, (certain) cross-border phenomena are seen as a deviation, a problem to be solved or simply ignored. The mobilities paradigm thus shares epistemological ambitions with diaspora and transnationalism studies that emerged in the 1990s as well as with Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller’s critique of methodological nationalism. In contrast to migration studies, however, a mobilities approach employs an analytical framework with attention to all kinds of mobile phenomena and mobile subjects – from runners and commuters to diplomats and asylum-seekers. Likewise it focuses on the underpinning infrastructures and moorings that make these mobilities possible, such as highways, dirt roads or airports. 

Villagio, Accra, April 2019. Photo by Nauja Kleist

The new mobilities paradigm – or less pompously, the mobilities turn – thus includes attention to migration as one kind of mobility practice amongst others. If our minibus passengers rode KLM Air Land to start an overland journey towards North Africa, or drove to Kotoka Airport in Accra to catch a KLM flight, they might be considered topics for a migration analysis; usually not so if they took the trotro to visit the market and returned in the afternoon. Yet, in a mobilities approach, the (perceived) intentions of their mobility does not define our analytical interest. Their everyday and livelihood-related mobility, the trajectory of used minibuses from Europe to West Africa and the overall trotrotransportation system in Ghana might all be considered interesting and worthwhile areas of study. Indeed, a mobilities approach embraces both human and non-human actors as equal objects of study. I mainly consider human mobility in this blogpost, however, in line with AMMODI’s overall focus. 

Regimes and politics of mobility 

An important feature of a mobilities approach is the analytical attention to regimes of mobility and the dynamics and interdependencies between mobility and immobility. This points to questions about how different mobilities are constrained or facilitated and the unequal access to safe and legal international migration, at both local and global levels. Citizenship and class background circumscribe mobility practices, making visa and intercontinental flights more accessible for persons with high-mobility passports from say Singapore or Sweden, than for most African nationals. At the local level, a Ghanaian university professor is more likely to catch an intercontinental KLM flight from Accra to Schiphol and drive her own car, while a rural petty trader more likely catches the trotro

Photo by Etienne Jong on Unsplash

A mobilities perspective may thus inspire us to pay attention to the various modes and dimensions of mobility at several scales and the inequalities they entail. Here I find Tim Creswell’s politics of mobility useful as an analytical perspective. Creswell suggests six constitutive mobility elements when analyzing movement from one place to another: motive force, velocity, rhythm, routes, experience and friction. This calls for attention to the meanings, contestations, symbols and rights connected to mobility, and the embodied practices of moving, raising a range of questions: How do you move? How does it feel? What is the pace? Who and what facilitates, constrains or governs your mobility? And so on. The embodied experience of catching the KLM Air Land on a hot and dusty day, traversing bumpy roads, is quite different from driving an SUV with air conditioning, not to mention the difference between sitting in a business seat in an intercontinental KLM flight versus crossing the Mediterranean in a rickety boat. The moving subjects may both head for the same final destinations, but the speed, experience, rhythm and friction encountered are highly different as are the chances of reaching this destination.

A mobilities perspective may thus inspire us to pay attention to the various modes and dimensions of mobility at several scales and the inequalities they entail

Concern with the political and regulatory dimensions of mobility in terms of border control and restrictive regimes of mobility has gained traction in migration and mobilities studies alike.  A mobility approach encompasses embodied as well as regulatory dimensions of mobility, however, highlighting the connections between these dimensions and their political nature. 

Trajectories of mobility 

As the reflections above suggest, a mobilities perspective also calls for attention to studying trajectories: how people and things move and the locations they move between. This invites us to consider the various ways of moving, from circulating between one’s hometown and nearby markets, as in the case of our imagined trotro passengers, to journeys across continents, perhaps even between them, while considering the possible setbacks, detours, or multiple departures and returns. There is growing research on the step-wise intra- and extracontinental African mobilities that analyzes how mobile subjects move, stay, linger, wait, are detained, grasp opportunities and change ideas about destinations as they move – rather than moving directly from A to B. Here a focus on scale and spatial reach is important as well, pointing to how and where different mobilities are enacted, translocally or transnationally: moving within a town or rural area, taking busses, moving for work or studies, or engaging in longer overland or airborne journeys. 

Literature on trajectories and the role of mobility in society is well-established, sometimes using the term ‘migration’, sometimes ‘mobilities’ as a key analytical concept. Tekalign Ayalew Mengiste’s doctoral dissertation on the struggles for mobility between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sweden is one example, based on multi-sited fieldwork in both East Africa and Europe, while Isaie Dougnon has analyzed the role of Songhay migrants at Kumasi Central Market, Ghana, in a historical perspective. A third example is an edited volume on the role of migrations and mobilities for structural processes of change in Ghana, edited by Mariama AwumbilaDelali Badasu and Joseph Teye.

In my own work, I have analyzed the social and migratory trajectories amongst Ghanaian migrants, analyzing multiple precarious journeys from Ghana and forced relocation processes, such as deportation by air; overland deportation and evacuation; or self-organized flight from civil war. Likewise, I have examined post-return life, identifying how precarious mobilities and livelihoods were key features for many of the returnees – within and outside Ghana. In another article, I followed used computers donated from Denmark to Ghana, exploring their changing social life from discarded IT equipment to development contributions to poor village schools. Here emphasis was on the trajectory of the physical movement of computers and how this movement was entangled with the (im)mobility and positionings of Ghanaian migrants, returnees and local headmasters, and the different regimes of mobility they were situated in. While I use the terms of mobility, migrants, and migration in both articles, I have become increasingly curious about multi-directional and disrupted mobile trajectories, the linkages between social and physical (im)mobility, and the inequalities that (im)mobility is embedded in.  

By way of conclusion

A focus on mobilities may turn our attention to the normal, everyday and unspectacular modes of moving as well as their human dramas – for minibus passengers and international migrants alike. It may de-naturalize human mobility as something exceptional or a problem to be solved. It may thereby help us stay clear of what Allison Hui has called ‘migration exceptionalism’: the belief that migrants constitute a particular kind of beings, ‘naturally different’ from other subjects.

A focus on mobilities may turn our attention to the normal, everyday and unspectacular modes of moving as well as their human dramas

As Janine Dahinden has stated, there is a need for de-migranticization of migration research and extension of the range of experiences and subjects included in our analyses, going beyond a ‘migrants-only’ approach. Hence a mobilities approach may push us to rethink concepts and approaches so that we don’t reproduce stereotypical notions of mobile subjects, inviting us to consider a wide range of mobilities, their links with immobility, their embeddedness in regimes of mobility and the underpinning infrastructures. It may, in other words, expand our analytical imagination and attention – whether we explore the mobilities of KLM Air Land or KLM Airlines passengers.  

About the author

Nauja Kleist is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Copenhagen. Her research focuses on linkages between (im)mobility, belonging and social order, with emphasis on how migration and mobility is perceived, practiced and governed by different actors as well as the role of mobility in society and in imaginaries of the good life and the future. Another research strand concerns the transnational engagement of diaspora groups with a focus on gender, affect, belonging and underpinning infrastructures. She is the PI of the research project Diaspora Humanitarianism in Complex Crises and an editor of the journal African Diaspora. She thanks Jesper Bjarnesen and Franzisca Zanker for the keynote invitation and for the useful comments to the blogpost.  

Multi-Focal Power in Refugee Research

by Lisa Richlen

Sudanese asylum seekers first began coming to Israel in significant numbers in 2005, the numbers increasing until Israel sealed its border in early 2013. The vast majority of asylum seekers are men, arriving at a relatively young age. Throughout this extended period, the Israeli government has instituted a series of repressive policies, which have created a very unwelcoming atmosphere for African asylum seekers. This has included detention and imprisonment and a practice of non-assessment of refugee claims (to date, only one Sudanese national has been formally recognized as a refugee). In addition, there is verbal incitement and physical violence against the community and a hostile attitude from policymakers and the public alike. A series of shifting policies have generated significant instability and uncertainty for the asylum seekers regarding their status and situation in Israel.

Israeli policy and practice has been quite effective at reducing the number of asylum seekers in the country – by half between 2012 and 2020

Overall, these policies have sent a very clear message that they are not welcome and that they have no future in Israel. Israeli policy and practice has been quite effective at reducing the number of asylum seekers in the country – by half between 2012 and 2020 – as individuals have found various avenues, some safer than others, to leave.

Street scene in South Tel Aviv. The area is the hub of the migrant and asylum seeker community in Israel. Photo by author.

Based on my experiences working with, and conducting research about, Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, this post reflects on how longstanding relations with a community of asylum seekers can influence the power dynamics between researcher and informants. While such relations can be leveraged by researchers to their benefit, they may also experience shortcomings and disadvantages in the process.  

Power and Knowledge in Refugee Research

13 April 2019 event in South Tel Aviv celebrating the fall of the Bashir regime in Sudan (women took an active role in the protests in Sudan). Photo by author.

A significant body of refugee research literature focuses on the complex power dynamics between the researcher and researched. Forced migrants tend to experience acute disadvantages and vulnerability and have limited means at their disposal for bettering their situation. This can place the researcher in a position of advantage and, accordingly, raises methodological questions around how to address power differences, autonomy and agency, dependency and more in research design. Power differentials can be somewhat neutralized by participatory strategies. Narrowly conceived, this can consist of intentional strategies applied by researchers but can also be more broadly conceived of as bringing refugee stories and narratives to light. In any case, power underlies the discussion: who has it, how is it used and how is it conceptualized. 

Power is often conceived of in binary (powerful/powerless) and unidirectional (top-down) terms. These binaries position the researcher as being powerful and sitting at the top of the pyramid. Giorgia Donà, on the other hand, sees power as being multi-focal within complex and dynamic net-like systems. Power as well as, I would add, knowledge circulate in different directions through numerous actors. Even actors perceived to be ‘powerless’ hold different forms of power and influence that they wield in different ways. For example, the researcher may be dependent on brokers or gatekeepers who, skilled at turning their liabilities into assets to promote their own survival and positioning, have their own areas of influence and know how to use them to their benefit.

Therefore, refugee communities can be seen as having more or less power in different areas and contexts. Furthermore, it is possible that the more static representations of power common in the research literature tend to reflect western thinking but are not accurate reflections of the more flexible and dynamic ways in which refugees themselves strategically wield power at their disposal to their own benefit.  

Researcher Positionality

My work with the Darfurian community in Israel began formally in 2007 when I was on staff at one of the human rights organizations assisting the community. At the time, I assisted the first refugee organization established by the Darfurian community and I got to know many of the initial arrivals. This involvement continued through 2012 where I worked briefly as paid staff for that same organization and also ran courses on topics such as realizing one’s rights and organizational development. As a known figure, I was approached directly by a number of other refugee community organizations and/or in contact with the leadership of these various organizations during these early years. 

June 25th, 2019 protest outside the European Union Delegation office in Ramat Gan, Israel, protesting lack of more concerted EU action regarding human rights violations in Sudan connected to regime change in Sudan.

Photo by author.

This long-standing involvement with the community has consisted of a wide variety of experiences: some gratifying and others difficult and frustrating. Embarking on research about the internal dynamics of the Sudanese community and their strategies of organizing for my PhD, I was prepared to encounter situations in which I would face a lack of trust, poor cooperation from individuals and organizations and, most significantly, dynamics that I wouldn’t understand. I was well aware of my own limitations linguistically and culturally and in terms of my knowledge about the community. I also entered the research acutely aware of the fact that the research would not generate meaningful change in the lives of asylum seekers in Israel in the areas that matter: legal status and rights, working towards a meaningful future and more. In short, I came into this research with a recognition of the limits of my own power and, indeed, my own shortcomings vis à-vis the research population.

Neve Shaanan Street; the main commercial area in South Tel Aviv. Photo by author.

These limitations, however, this did not render me powerless. The research, first and foremost, benefits me. I was also able to leverage knowledge of the community and my relationships with individuals to my own advantage. Knowing a large number of people and their positions in communal life helped me to more easily and effectively conduct research. There were probably other factors that influenced willingness to work with me: a basic cultural reluctance to say no, the fact that I have three citizenships, my skin colour, my extensive knowledge base and my connections to people who can potentially offer assistance. Finally, and no less importantly, is the fact that I’m a woman who isn’t put off by – and even interested in – speaking to a young African male in a context where there are no Sudanese women and almost no possibilities for partnership. 

While these factors may have initially gotten me in the door, my knowledge of the community increased the trust I garnered and, as a result, the quality of information I was able to glean once inside. Prior to setting up meetings, I was, for the most part, able to identify people who were likely to be knowledgeable about specific topics and to understand their credibility and their positionality within the community. Relatively quickly in the interaction, I would try to demonstrate my prior knowledge of the community, emphasizing my long-term commitment to the community and strong connections with various individuals. I found that once this mutual understanding was in place, the information I received was much more direct and probably a more accurate reflection of how people actually felt and what they actually believed. In my view, while we all have a tendency to want to keep things private – in part due to a lack of trust – my interlocutors were more open with me when they understood that they were telling me things that I had already heard, experienced or understood. 

Power Dynamics in Researcher/Informant Relationships

In the research in question, I was able to leverage my own knowledge of the community, as well as my position as a relative outsider to my benefit. This sat alongside my own shortcomings vis-à-vis the community: linguistic and cultural disadvantages, internal dynamics that were foreign to me, my limited ability to provide meaningful assistance and my prior reputation – for good or for bad – due to previous involvement in communal organizations.

Researcher/informant power dynamics were not uni-directional nor static, but rather context-specific, relative, situational, dynamic and fluid and often subject to change

Indeed, in this case, in line with Donà, researcher/informant power dynamics were not uni-directional nor static, but rather context-specific, relative, situational, dynamic and fluid and often subject to change. The key is to be cognizant of these dynamics and sensitive to their influence throughout the research process. Being aware of this complexity and understanding how to negotiate within it can hopefully enhance not only research findings but also researcher/informant relationships. 

Author Bio

Lisa Richlen is currently a PhD student in African Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev researching community organizing amongst the Darfurian Sudanese community in Israel.  Since 2004, Richlen has worked in social change and human rights in Israel including significant experience working on the topic of migration and specifically with Israel’s Darfurian community. The author would like to thank Jack ‘Tegetege’ for his helpful feedback when writing this blog post.

Fictional writing and migration knowledge. Reflections on Refugee in Europe by Mehaba Jemal

by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

Why fiction matters

Talk about migration is widespread in present-day media. Paradoxically, the abundance of reports on migration does not seem to help bring the experience of migrants closer. On the contrary, the overuse of the term ‘migrant’ makes us forget that this word is much too broad to explain anything substantial about the people it denotes. In an attempt to create a more nuanced picture of South-North migration, scholars try to get a local perspective on migration by using qualitative methods of research and immersing themselves into  communities in the countries of origin. In some cases informants are invited to take an active part in research and even become its co-authors. But even genuine collaborations rarely change the asymmetrical power relations inherent in ethnographic research. In migration studies, where the very conceptual apparatus has been shaped by nation-states in their attempt to regulate immigration, that imbalance is even more pronounced. 

From this perspective, it is revealing to step out of the academic world of knowledge production and to turn to fictional books written by authors with personal migration experience for the purpose of entertaining and/or educating their communities. Such writings might explore themes often omitted in academic research and ignore issues which an academic would find crucial to mention. They present a view on migration which doesn’t look for excuses and doesn’t try to fit local experiences into terminologies used by receiving communities and academic or policy specialists.

Translating migration terminology 

This is certainly true of Ethiopian fictional writing. To begin with, the Amharic term for a refugee (səddätägna/ስደተኛ), meaning “someone in exile”, doesn’t precisely match its English counterpart. This term might refer to both migrants and refugees as it does not strictly distinguish between voluntary and involuntary movements. According to this terminology, people do not leave their country unless they are forced to and there is no clear linguistic difference between an ‘economic migrant’, a ‘refugee’ or a ‘victim of trafficking’.

Addis Ababa bookshop. Photo by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

Some Amharic media sources employ the term “fəlsät” to deal with this ambiguity and develop a neutral reference to migration, however its usage remains very limited and, according to my observation, “səddät” (“exile”) is the most widely used term to talk about labour migration (both regular and irregular). When it comes to European migration policy, terminology is highly important. The distinction between economic migrants, refugees  and victims of trafficking defines one’s destiny, even though it might be based on a very shaky grounds. The absence of such rigid categorization in a particular language, in other words, challenges the hegemony of the binary logic which shapes migration as either forced or voluntary.

Everyday fears

“Refugee in Europe” (ስደተኛው በአውሮፓ) by Mehaba Jemal (መሃባ ጀማል) offers a wonderful example of such writing. Published in 2002 in Addis Ababa, the book tells the story of a young man (Feqadu) who flees from Ethiopia to Sweden in the early 1980s.  It offers a portrait of the Ethiopian diaspora in Stockholm and dwells on the recent history of the city through the eyes of migrants. Feqadu, the book’s protagonist, leaves Ethiopia at a time when the Derg, a military junta which came to power in 1974, induced hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to flee from forced resettlement, ethnic violence, and humanitarian disasters. The novel, though, doesn’t dwell on the hardships Feqadu faces before his departure. On the contrary, he appears to be a normal city youth probably slightly better off than many of his countrymen. He even throws a farewell party for his friends and leaves the country on a plane directly to Europe. The question of whether he legally merits the refugee status is not addressed in the book. 

Front cover of Refugee in Europe. Artwork by Seyoum Tadesse. Photo by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

In the book, Feqadu arrives in Sweden with a very respectful attitude towards the receiving society. He has high expectations and hopes to learn a “civilized” way of life. At the same time, his life in Sweden keeps him in constant suspense. As an asylum seeker, he is not sure whether he will be taken to a refugee camp or to Stockholm’s Arlanda airport to be deported; he fears that police might want him to freeze to death in the cold when he is taken out for a walk. He has to wait for several years until the decision on his case is made and he is granted a residence permit. It remains unclear why the procedure takes so long and it is a source of great distress for Feqadu. 

Another source of anxiety for Feqadu is that during this time he is unable to help his family and repay his debt. The letters from his relatives make him tremble and he feels forced to lie and say that his situation has been settled. He is afraid that his mother would kill herself by fasting and praying for him, should she learn the truth. At the same time, his younger brother and sister keep asking him for European goods that he cannot provide. 

The fear of deportation is described in such detail that it seems that Feqadu would prefer death. But when the rumour spreads within the Ethiopian diaspora that the Derg military government had been overthrown, Feqadu reacts with ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, he welcomes the news that the oppressive regime has fallen; but on the other hand, he is afraid that it will make his deportation certain. There is a scene in the book where Feqadu enters the room of an Ethiopian girl who has just received news of her deportation. The room is filled with silent people, and the girl is surrounded by her close friends, her face covered with a traditional shamma veil – the scenery remarkably reminiscent of funerals in Ethiopia when the whole community comes to show their support. 

Migrants as ethnographers

Refugee in Europe presents a fascinating description of the receiving society in a migrant’s journey. Addressed to an Amharic readership, it highlights wintertime and Christmas celebrations, depicts Swedish daily life and pokes fun at the Swedes for treating their dogs as people. These small observations resemble the details of everyday life that constitutes ethnographic research. In this way, migrants reflecting on their new surroundings could be regarded as researchers, treating receiving societies as their objects of inquiry.

Migrants reflecting on their new surroundings could be regarded as researchers, treating receiving societies as their objects of inquiry

To some that might feel uncomfortable, particularly when such topics as racism and dispossession are exposed. In one scene, Feqadu has been asked to undress for a physical examination. Hesitating to take off his underwear, he explains that he is not used to appear naked in front of other people. “Are you used to being naked in front of elephants?”, an officer jokes while his colleague wonders whether people in Africa wear clothes at all. 

A happy ending? 

Feqadu cannot afford to be stuck in the Swedish immigration bureaucracy for such a long time and he keeps looking for other ways to get a job. When he loses his last hope of obtaining residence through marriage with a Swede, he locks himself in his room and stops talking to people. He distances himself from reality, stops shaving and taking care of himself. In the words of the author, “he was like a person who was going to die in the next week”.

Stockholm skyline. Photo by Prashanth Raghavan

The scene of his unsuccessful return is constantly on his mind. The favourable decision of his case comes unexpectedly and the story ends abruptly with Feqadu regaining his happiness and hope. It is not clear whether Feqadu’s initial positive attitude towards Europe persists. During his stay in a camp in Sweden, he experiences racism and humiliation and the only person who is trying to help him is an Ethiopian drug-dealer. The decision-making process of the immigration bureaucracy, which brings Feqadu so much suffering, is also left relatively unexplored.

Learning from fiction

The perspective on a migration experience offered by this novel shifts emphasis from seeing emigration as caused by the threat of physical suffering to emotional stress and moral obligation. Feqadu doesn’t leave his country because his life is under threat and his return is not described as exposing him to the risk of physical violence. His motivation for becoming a səddätägna is to learn the European ways of life and earn an honest living in order to help his family. But from the authorities’ point of view, for a refugee, accommodation in a camp is already a rescue in and of itself. The scale of distress and suffering this misconception creates might be difficult to grasp for someone who has not felt the weight of the kinds of moral obligations that drive Feqadu.

As the struggle to decolonize academia continues, one should not overlook the insights migration fiction from authors in the Global South might offer

Mehaba Jemal has created a wonderful work of fiction which not only depicts the life of Ethiopian migrants in Sweden in the 1980s but, through artistic means, makes one share the fears and joys which many South-North migrants live through. Interestingly, by offering a migrant-centred experience that is not easily described by the terminology of global migration governance, this 18-year-old book in some respects corresponds to a recent call for shifting the narrative on African migrationAs the struggle to decolonize academia continues, one should not overlook the insights migration fiction from authors in the Global South might offer.  

About the author

Nikolay Steblin-Kamensky is a researcher at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) since 2015. He has an M.A. in Ethiopian Studies at St. Petersburg State University and in Anthropology at the European University in St Petersburg. His research deals with discourses on migration in Ethiopia. He conducted fieldwork in the Wollo region of Ethiopia, focusing on rural migration to the Gulf states and the issue of returnees. Nikolay is also engaged in research and inventory of African collections of the Kunstkamera museum.

Shifting the narrative on African migration

by Jesper Bjarnesen

African migration remains at the top of political agendas across Europe. Through the EU-led focus on addressing the “root causes” of African migration, and the UN-led Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM), African migration is increasingly being linked to sustainable development. It has proven difficult, however, to mobilise support for longer-term policy solutions, and the lion’s share of European funding still targets border-control measures and the repatriation of African migrants from Europe. The main challenge facing European decision makers and policy implementers in this regard is not lack of ideas – there are plenty of good policy ideas in the UN GCM, in the EU Agenda on Migration, and in a host of national political agendas. The main stumbling block of these initiatives is the negative public opinion towards African migration, which stems from a fear of unregulated immigration to Europe and a new “refugee crisis”.

By shifting the narrative on African migration, decision makers can redirect political will towards more sustainable and longer-term solutions to the problems relating to irregular migration from Africa. Such a shift would also harness the untapped potential of South–North migration to meet the needs of host countries’ domestic labour markets, while simultaneously serving the interests of migrants and their home communities.

Get the numbers right

Current political debates across Europe tend to be informed by highly selective and sometimes misleading notions of the scale of migration from Africa to Europe. To shift the narrative on African migration, it is important to correct these misconceptions. The overall message in this regard is twofold: that African migration to Europe has been fairly constant over the past decade relative to the total African population, with a significant drop in the number of arrivals across the Mediterranean since 2015; and that most African migrants who enter Europe do so legally.

There are currently around 9 million African-born migrants living in Europe. On average, 400,000 African citizens enter the EU each year, and this number has risen steadily over the past decade in absolute terms. However, the rising figure should not be misinterpreted as an indication that African migrants are becoming increasingly obsessed with leaving the continent. First and foremost, the majority of African international migrants remain on the continent, and most of them never leave their sub region. Secondly, the total percentage of African migrants in relation to the African population has not increased significantly over the past 60 years.

In other words, the growing number of African migrants is not driven by an increased fixation with leaving the continent, but is primarily an effect of population growth. Thirdly, in a global comparison, the proportion of African migrants is quite low. Africa is home to more than 17 per cent of the world population, yet only 15 per cent of the world’s international migrants are born in Africa. Fourthly, the number of African immigrants settling legally in the EU dropped significantly between 2008 and 2012 – from 442,000 to 270,000. Since then, the number has remained more or less stable, with 288,000 legal arrivals in 2016. At the same time, even in the midst of the European refugee crisis, the number of illegal crossings by sub Saharan African nationals using the Mediterranean routes has been relatively stable over the past decade, until the recent drop in the total number of arrivals in 2018, due to the changing strategies of EU externalisation policies.

Taken together, when it comes to African international migrants, the numbers demonstrate that international migration is mainly directed towards the immediate sub-region or other parts of the continent; that the total percentage of African migrants in relation to population has remained remarkably stable over the past generation; and that the proportion of African migrants in relation to the global migrant stock is quite low.

Get the motivations right

If we get the numbers right on African migration, there should also be an opportunity to correct certain basic misconceptions about why some African nationals are so determined to invest their resources – and sometimes to risk their lives – to reach Europe or other parts of the global North. While the political debates surrounding xenophobia and racism have tended to polarise public opinion further, shifting the narrative on African migration could potentially contribute to the setting of a new agenda on national integration in Europe as well. In this regard, it is important to recognise and understand the motivations and contributions of the most stigmatised migrants. Irregular migration is no one’s first choice. People who leave their homes in search of better opportunities would rather do so in the safest way possible.


Fears are often raised that migrants from the global South will become a burden on host societies. Migration, we should remember, is a means to an end. Most migrants are driven by the motivation to work, study or join their families. This means that very few migrants expect to receive financial support from their host societies. And while some African migrants do rely on social services in Europe, the vast majority – whether or not they have migrated legally – do not. They contribute to their host societies not only through their labour, but also by paying taxes, etc.

To challenge the disproportionate attention devoted to the costs and challenges that migrants from the global South place on European host societies, it is important to shift the narrative towards the contributions they make. The money that African migrants make abroad has long been recognised as an important resource for sustainable development in their countries of origin. In 2018, sub-Saharan African migrants in the EU sent back more than 41 billion euros in remittances – almost the equivalent of the EU’s total official development assistance to the region. These figures are independent of employment status, which means that they include money earned by irregular migrants. By retaining ties to their home communities, migrants also contribute through skills and knowledge sharing – so-called “social remittances”.

In public debates across the global North, fears continue to be raised that immigrants will “steal our jobs”. These fears are based on a series of misunderstandings about European labour markets. Contrary to popular assumption, there is a growing demand for mid- to low-skilled labour in Europe. In Denmark, for example, vacancies in the private sector are at their highest since 2010. In the past 10 years, there have been labour shortages in the industrial sector; construction; retail and transportation; information and communication; and finance, insurance and real estate.

Overall, the unemployment rate in Denmark (as in the other Nordic countries) has been falling steadily since 2013; and with an ageing population across Europe, the demand for foreign labour is bound to increase in the future. This demand is not for the most highly skilled specialists (as is often assumed), since the highest educated are already migrating legally, and integrating into European labour markets. One of the main challenges to actively recruiting migrant labour from the global South (apart from public opinion) is the European requirement for language and educational skills. These requirements are intended to enable permanent naturalisation and integration into the host society, as stipulated by standardised citizenship tests. These intentions are clear when one compares what is required of a highly skilled specialist and a low-skilled worker. For example, if an American researcher wishes to settle in Sweden, she is not obliged to complete a mandatory language course before taking up a teaching post at the university. By being more pragmatic over the requirements placed on migrants in terms of the skills they need to fulfil their professional commitments – regardless of the work sector – European migration management could reduce the costs of generic skills and language training; integrate migrants more efficiently into the Labour market; and be more competitive in attracting the migrant labour it needs.

Finally, research on migratory patterns shows that there is a direct connection between migration management and the length of a migrant’s stay abroad. The main lesson from these insights is that the more difficult it is to enter a country, the longer the migrant is likely to stay. In contexts where legal entry is relatively easy – as it is in most African states, and as it was in Europe until the mid-1980s – most migrants prefer to travel more regularly between the home and the host country, and to return to the country of origin sooner. The current circulation of mid- to low-skilled workers between Asia and the Middle East shows that when legal pathways to temporary labour migration are available, most migrants prefer to work on shorter contracts, and then return home.

Get the “root causes” right

European governments are currently investing heavily in combating the so-called “root causes” of African migration to Europe. Their policy is based on the assumption that if living and working conditions in the sending countries are improved, the incentive to migrate will decline. This policy is flawed and politically risky. First of all, even if increased development investments in the main sending regions were to succeed in raising the general standard of living, it is unlikely that the small percentage of African citizens who migrate would significantly change their outlook. Secondly, albeit with some important variations, most experiences have shown that an increase in household income tends to lead to more, not less, migration in the short and medium term. Migration is a costly affair, and is usually not available to the poorest.

The fundamental driver of South–North labour migration is inequality, not poverty

The African continent would have to experience an unprecedented economic uplift for it to reach the so-called “migration hump” (see figure), where increased income begins to lead to less migration. Migration theory has established a generalised understanding of the correlation between income level and migration, which confirms that the highest migration rates occur not at the lowest levels of development (Zone A), but rather at the intermediary level (Zone B), where income levels are still significantly lower than in the host country but high enough to finance the migration endeavour. The same reasoning shows that once a relative income threshold is reached, migration rates tend to decrease with continued rise in income level (Zone C). This model is usually referred to as the “migration hump” because of its inverted U shape. Thirdly, regardless of the potential rise in income levels through targeted development investments, the “root causes” approach fails to recognise that migration has always been about seeking better opportunities elsewhere. This means that so long as income levels and living standards remain as unevenly distributed across the globe as they are today, families and individuals in the world’s poorest regions will find it worth investing in migration. In that sense, the fundamental driver of South–North Labour migration is inequality, not poverty.

Get the alternatives right

The short-term challenges of the current crisis in European migration management will not be met by development investment. Irregular migration into the EU is still a political hot potato that is juggled by heads of state and a panoply of ministries and special appointees at the EU and national level. Development actors have a part to play in these negotiations, but their main role should be to think more long term and holistically about African migration.

Shifting the narrative on African migration away from European immigration politics requires clearer reasoning about the different needs, rights and challenges of aspiring economic migrants, compared to people fleeing war or climate-related disasters. It is important to understand that the vast majority of sub-Saharan African irregular migrants to Europe are aspiring labour migrants, and that their asylum claims are a reflection of the lack of legal options for pursuing labour migration to the EU. By not providing other options, the EU is contributing to irregular migration and the criminalisation of aspiring labour migrants. This does not absolve African states, smugglers, traffickers or the migrants themselves of their share of responsibility for the current European migration management crisis; but in order to construct sustainable solutions, greater consideration must be given to legal pathways for labour migrants with different skills levels.

Conclusion: Get the perspectives right

In short, shifting the narrative on African migration is a prerequisite for getting to grips with inclusive, pragmatic and transparent migration management. Shifting the narrative implies moving public debate from difficult political and moral discussions about Europe’s humanitarian responsibilities towards a more technical and practical discussion of labour migration management. In such a discussion, the needs and requirements of European labour markets, and the accompanying rights of its workers, are more relevant than whether or not Europeans have a moral responsibility towards African migrants.

Shifting the narrative implies moving public debate from difficult political and moral discussions about Europe’s humanitarian responsibilities towards a more technical and practical discussion of labour migration management

This shift would also enable a more straightforward consideration of the human rights of all migrants. The Sustainable Development Goals agenda refers to the legal principle of universal human rights – not to a moral or humanitarian responsibility. On this basis, the current multilateral agendas for migration management already offer a toolbox of more sustainable solutions to global migration management.

Recommended Readings

OECD Migration Data Brief No 5, June 2019
IOM World Migration Report 2020
UN DESA International Migration Report 2019
UNDP “Scaling the Fences. Voices of Irregular African Migrants to Europe”
PRIO “Is ‘Sustainable Migration’ a Valuable Concept?” 2018

This text was originally published as a Policy Note, by the Nordic Africa Institute, and is republished here with permission. To access the original publication in Pdf, please click here.

About the author

Jesper Bjarnesen is a Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute since September 2013. He has an M.A. in Anthropology and one in African Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology at Uppsala University. Bjarnesen 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.


From Campus to Camp and Back

Note from the field from a humanitarian humanities practitioner

“Since I have started learning global history, I listen to the news differently. Now, when I listen to Aljazeera I understand much more,” says Joseph Doggale and smiles as we are standing outside of the classroom. It is one of those gratifying moments when, as a lecturer, you feel you have made a difference in your students’ lives. I smile back at him and am satisfied knowing that there is true value in teaching humanities in emergency situations, despite the many challenges that come with the endeavor.

This is not an ordinary classroom and Joseph is not an ordinary student. Joseph is a refugee from South Sudan residing in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. In the fall of 2016, he enrolled in the Global History Lab, a massive open online course (MOOC) offered by Princeton University on edX. For several years, Professor Jeremy Adelman has been teaching the history of the world 1300 to the present to Princeton students and thousands of learners worldwide. As the teaching assistant for Kenya, I rolled out the course to 19 refugees of eight different nationalities in Kakuma camp with logistical support from InZone. Our Kakuma classroom was truly multilingual and multicultural, encompassing students from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Congo DRC, and Uganda. That afternoon, when Joseph told me how reflecting upon more than 700 years of history around the globe together with students not only from different African countries but all over the world had changed the way he perceived the world around him, he was back for more. This time, he was taking part in an intensive life history workshop which I offered in September 2017 as a pilot to a new project.

1st cohort of Global History Lab students in Kakuma refugee camp, September 2016. Source: InZone/Global History Lab

Some students were adamant that they did not want to be reduced to consumers of history but were keen to contribute to the production of history themselves

The idea for the History Dialogue Project was born after speaking with Joseph and other students about the importance of exploring history as it touched on the lives of the students in such multilingual, multiethnic, multinational and transient yet permanent places like Kakuma refugee camp. Some students were adamant that they did not want to be reduced to consumers of history but were keen to contribute to the production of history themselves. In the words of student Gera Tefera, resident of Kakuma refugee camp:

History should be the privilege of all of us so as to understand, dignify and uplift humanity. Both past and future are the concerns of all people. History is not made by few historians, can’t also be created by only a few historians, it is a co-creation process. Monopolizing the creation of historical narratives is one way of monopolizing power.

Gera Tefera, history student in Kakuma refugee camp

We can effectively empower students for instance by providing them with the training and knowledge to support them to undertake research situated in their lives and communities. By using their location advantage and their migration experience and understanding of life in the camp, learners produce compelling historic narratives that are of interest to both their communities and audiences beyond. Gera, for instance, has meanwhile applied to the National Geographic Society for a grant to be able to tell the history of Kakuma camp from the perspective of long-term residents.

Only 1 % of all refugees have access to higher education – compared to 36 % of all learners worldwide

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to education. (…) higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.” The Sustainable Development Goals echo the sentiment in Goal 4 which reads: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” These are noble but currently illusory goals for refugees. Only about 1% of all refugees are as lucky as Joseph and his Kakuma classmates, according to UNHCR estimates. The UNHCR’s stated goal is to increase this number to 15 percent by 2030. Much needs to change. Online courses with a blended learning component, combining online with offline sessions, have much to offer to refugee learners. Many of those living in refugee camps or otherwise barred from studying at institutions in their host countries have little access, especially to courses in the humanities. Yet, creativity, curiosity, critical thinking, and empathy are crucial qualities a humanities education can foster. At Geneva university a summer school regularly brings together practitioners working in higher education in emergencies and crises. Initiatives such as Historians Without Borders have made it their mission to bring together political and academic actors to discuss history across conflict zones. The Global History Lab at Princeton University seeks to bring both initiatives together to teach history in humanitarian emergencies.

The History Dialogue Project: history made in the camp

The new pilot project situated at Princeton’s Global History Lab that emerged out of the engagement with learners in Kakuma and beyond is called the History Dialogue Project. Seven of Joseph’s fellow students are currently enrolled in this small private online course (SPOC). They are learning how to conduct and present their own history research projects together with five refugee students from the MENA region based at Kiron and 11 refugee and host country students based at Kepler in Rwanda. The classroom brings together refugee learners in camps and urban settings with host country students; we have 23 students from nine countries, presently residing in six different countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Online and offline learning are both important in a blended learning approach such as the one adopted by the courses at Princeton University’s Global History Lab. Source: InZone/Global History Lab

I designed this nine-month online course to introduce students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines to a toolbox of approaches to research, writing, and presenting. The toolbox then allows students to frame, conduct, and present their own history research projects under the guidance of the teaching staff. The course is divided into five segments ranging from research methodology and ethics to storytelling and supervised research, interpretation, and production of final papers and presentations. I am currently teaching the online sessions and am liaising with the international partner institutions and guest lecturers involved. Presently Princeton University, Kepler, Kiron, and the UNHCR in Kakuma are contributing learners and infrastructure to make the History Dialogue Project possible. Students get intensive individual supervision through a buddy system with other learners as well as through the involvement of three Princeton University teaching assistants who regularly interact with their assigned students one-on-one and through regional WhatsApp groups and make sure they do not fall behind due to technical or content challenges.

Online learning: Collaborative education?

The History Dialogue Project allows for bringing together different learners across countries, cultures, language barriers, but also across disciplinary boundaries and socio-economic backgrounds. They learn together and support each other in conducting individual research projects. This transnational, digital setup helps students not only to see through the eyes of their classmates from different contexts but also to problem solve together. Student Placide Mwizerwa from Rwanda states:

It is very important to me [to be in a classroom with students from many nationalities] since we are living in a globalized life where we have to work or live with many people from around the globe. So, the first advantage is that I got to know how they speak, they think and the way of living in their countries. Secondly, I got to have their contact for chatting even after the classroom activities and this can be great opportunities for sharing what can be done in either country

Placide Mwizerwa, history student in Kakuma refugee camp

We are currently in the third phase of the course, and students are conducting their research on diverse topics, among them: the history of the Burundian drum 1850-present; the history of fashion in Rwanda; the impact of migration on Twa culture in Burundi and Rwanda 1959-2019; thirty years of Kakuma camp in Kenya; the history of the Darfurian community in Kakuma camp; the history of the boda boda transportation system in Kakuma refugee camp; the history of female leadership in Juba, South Sudan; and East African migration to Yemen.

History Dialogue Project learners in Kakuma camp are engaging in an oral history interview exercise during the in situ workshop. Source: History Dialogue Project

Five months in, we have only lost one student, who won a scholarship to get a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Lisbon University. The other students are going strong, despite the many challenges they continue to face. Those include technical challenges like instable internet connections and restrictions on internet use. They include language and content challenges like taking a course in English which to some has never been their language of instruction and learning to think like an oral historian which, for someone coming in with a background in computer science or business, requires rethinking her definition of research. And lastly, they are of personal nature. Students, some of whom continue to live in instable and dangerous surroundings, have to create time for independent study and research among the many challenges of creating a life for themselves and their families. Together we have to weigh what stories can and cannot be told safely. Moreover, they are committing to an unusually long course in what can be erratic and instable lives, albeit as part of a group of learners that sets out together to expand their horizons through historic research.

Online class session still of the History Dialogue Project. Source: History Dialogue Project

It is too early to say what conversations the research of these students will spark both within the Global History Lab, where their research will be available as case studies to future learners, and within their communities. It is safe to say that the research has already engendered lively debates among the research buddies, among students and their TAs, as well as in the classroom. As we are all growing together as an online community, teaching and writing history across borders, we are certain of one thing: humanitarian humanities are met by a strong commitment from the refugee learners who demonstrate every day the importance of democratic access to the creation of histories from the global South.

About the author

Dr. Marcia C. Schenck is currently a visiting research fellow at Princeton University’s history department and its Global History Lab. She has accepted a position as Professor for Global History at the University of Potsdam, starting on January 1st, 2020. Presently, she is researching the history of the Organization of African Unity’s refugee convention of 1969. Her research interests include the history of migration and processes of refuge seeking, labor history, education history, oral and life history, African and global history and the history of international organizations.

 

Africa at the gates: Europe’s lose-lose migration management plan

Cover photo by Irish Defense Forces.

by Loren B Landau and Iriann Freemantle

Europe has not been this scared of Africans since Hannibal drove his war elephants over the Pyrenees. Since the summer of 2015, the question of how to stem the flows from Africa and the Middle East is at the centre of increasingly existential debates about the very future of Europe. Mobilising the full portfolio of its hard and soft powers, Europe is flexing its enforcement muscle to reach deep into the African continent. Working together with African political elites, the results will be reconfigured politics, norms and conceptions of rights north and south of the Mediterranean. This will worsen Africans’ ability to cope with climate change, economic precarity, and other challenges by heightening oppression and limiting resilience. In the process, it will lessen Europe’s moral standing and the strength of its union.

Ministerial meeting on Libya (16 May 2016). Photo by European External Action Service.

Following the 2015 ‘migration crisis’, Europe has launched a series of extraordinary initiatives to stem the ‘migrant tide’. Most famous is its billion Euro Turkey deal. But even more elaborate and expensive are collaborations with governments (or those that claim to be) across North Africa to build African-based detention centres to hold would-be migrants. That is just one of many steps. Europe is also working hard to prevent migrants from ever even reaching the sea. To achieve this, Europe is empowering military regimes with undeniable disregard for human rights such as Omar Al Bashir’s Sudan. To themselves and the world, European leaders justify these actions with an elaborate apparatus of technocratic explanations about the universal benefits of ‘orderly’ migration. Intermittently, they also deliver low blows such as alleging that the discarded clothes of migrants pose a public health risk.

It dedicates billions of Euros to collecting migration data and improving border security. While the EU indefatigably assures us that these interventions will make migration ‘safer and better managed’, the primary goal is, undoubtedly, to limit movement northward. Yet global inequalities mean people will continue to move. And when they do so, European interventions make migrants far more violable, not safer. A few years ago, Pope Francis already called the Mediterranean ‘a vast cemetery’. In 2018 alone, more than 2100 people have died or are missingwhile attempting to cross the sea.

Whichever way it is looked at, not ‘managing’ migration is presented as a lose-lose scenario. Recognising the expense and limits of fortification alone, Europe now supports a growing range of initiatives intended to address ‘root causes’. The idea, as an agreement hashed out at a summit in Brussels in June 2018 put it, is to generate ‘substantial socio-economic transformation’. This includes tackling endemic poverty and fertility rates that outstrip African labour markets’ capacity to absorb. Taken together, these initiatives intend to bring about something that might best be characterised as ‘containment development.’ Under this rubric, developmental success becomes less about promoting human development as an end in itself. Instead, development becomes a means to prevent mobility.

Taken together, these initiatives intend to bring about something that might best be characterised as ‘containment development’

Some of what is envisaged by containment development initiatives – such as support for vocational training, reproductive health facilities, and other economic enterprise – will undoubtedly have positive effects on African lives. However, the approach also has multiple flaws that, if not addressed, will ultimately harm Africans and do little to ‘protect’ Europe from the perceived security and other threats migrants pose.

The first flaw is a fundamental misreading of African demography and the possibilities of creating the jobs needed to absorb surplus labour. Second, such approaches underestimate the potential of migration to be a mitigating effect against both economic and environmental precarity. Indicative of Europe’s containment development plans, the recently published German Marshall plan with Africathus argues that ‘it is vital that Africa’s young people can see a future for themselves in Africa.’ Third, by seeking to fragment African economic development into national rather than continental (or even global) supply chains and labour markets, people will be trapped in areas that are economically unviable. This will not only mean sustained poverty, but also intensify practices that further denude agricultural lands and forests. In either case, as is well documented, development is more likely to spur migration than stem it. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these plans ignore what is perhaps the most important limit on African development and human security: the state itself. The confinement of migrants to the status of ‘irregularity’ in the de facto absence of legal migration avenues is the singularly most significant obstacle to migrants’ safety and productivity.

The confinement of migrants to the status of ‘irregularity’ in the de facto absence of legal migration avenues is the singularly most significant obstacle to migrants’ safety and productivity

So far, European approaches have not worked, at least not in the way they are officially supposed to. Africans have not stopped coming. The ‘Turkey Deal’ has been more ‘successful’, in large part because of Turkey’s institutional capacity and the distance between its borders with Syria and the EU. By supporting police and militaries to close trans-Saharan migration routes, Europe is effectively bisecting the continent into north and south, putting a heavily militarized border across an invisible line that was previously permeable and largely unregulated. Yet if the United States’ experience on the Mexican border is anything to go by, enhanced border controls have limited effect on the numbers of people moving. Instead, they tend to generate increasingly elaborate mechanisms to subvert such controls.


Austrian chancellor (then minister) Sebastian Kurz attends the simulation of a border control mission on a FRONTEX vessel (24 March 2017). Photo by Dragon Tatic, Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres.

And this is what we already see. Across the Mediterranean, militarized borders have set off a kind of arms race between states and smugglers, with increasing collusion between the two. The Libyan slave marketsare the most notorious of examples, but within Sudan, Niger and elsewhere state and state-like authorities are forming profitable smuggling partnerships. The European military and security industryas well as international organisations implementing the EU’s migration management agenda benefit from ongoing ‘irregular’ migration and the threat supposedly emanating from it. Not only do they benefit, in more than one way they actively contribute to sustaining the ‘migration crisis’.

Throughout all this, Europe claims that its approach to governing migration is fundamentally ‘migrant-centred’and its relationship with Africa ‘characterised by equality and the pursuit of common objectives’.But Africans clearly don’t buy into the idea that their continent is about to brim with new opportunities or that Europe is working on their behalf. Indeed, Europe’s policies are almost entirely self-serving, adding to a long and appalling track record of Europeans furthering their interests under the guise of helping poor Africans. Europeans have previously found ways to justify abducting and enslaving Africans as the rescue of their heathen souls. Today, Europe pushes Africans out and back in the name of Africa’s development and progress. Tragically, European efforts to limit African mobility through coercion and containment development will ultimately save neither continent but only threaten lives in both Africa and Europe. That this is done with African leaders’ complicity truly makes this a lose-lose scenario.

About the authors

Loren B Landau is the South African Research Chair in Human Mobility and the Politics of Difference based at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS). A publically engaged scholar, his interdisciplinary work explores human mobility, community, and socio-political transformation.

Iriann Freemantle is an Associate Researcher with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Over the past decade, Iriann has worked extensively on migration, xenophobia and social cohesion in South Africa. Her current work focuses on the role of the European Union and international organisations in the governance of mobility in Africa.

Recent publications

L.B. Landau. 2019. ‘A Chronotope of Containment Development: Europe’s Migrant Crisis and Africa’s Reterritorialization,’ Antipode 51(1):169-186. 

L.B. Landau and C.W. Kihato. 2019. ‘The Future of Mobility and Migration Within and From Sub-Saharan Africa,’ Foresight Reflection Paper. Brussels: European Policy Analysis and Strategy System.

Wayside promise: Ghanaian roads as routes to brighter futures

By Jørgen Carling

Last-minute packing has its pros and cons. As I was leaving for a short trip to Ghana late last year, I grabbed the book closest at hand: Exploring Everyday Life by Billy Ehn, Orvar Löfgren, and Richard Wilk. I had bought it as preparation for our PhD course on ethnographic fieldwork methodology, and thought it would be good to read it while I was travelling.

I went to Ghana for two reasons: to explore fieldwork prospects in the city of Tema and to plan collaboration with the Centre for Migration Studies at the University of Ghana. I have spent a lot of time in West Africa, but this was my first trip to Ghana in a decade. I left without ambitions for doing proper fieldwork, yet Exploring Everyday Life inspired me to be attentive, analytical, and write from the very beginning.

In particular, I enjoyed the authors’ bricolage approach to ethnography, which is about seeing disparate parts of the fieldwork environment as interesting data. I also appreciated the connections the authors make between the materiality of everyday life and the bigger research themes of interest. These are qualities of ethnography that easily get lost in the larger, more structured collaborative projects that I have worked on during recent years.

In Ghana, I was intrigued by the physical structure of Tema, which I was introduced to by the Swedish-Ghanaian scholar Kajsa Hallberg Adu and subsequently explored on my own. The cityscape appears to combine Communist planning and American sprawl, draped in a typically African mix of decay and vitality. Tema is made up of numbered ‘communites’ that were originally intended to have self-contained characteristics akin to a Chinese danwei [A Chinese danwei is a work-based socio-spatial unit, intended to organise both professional and private aspects of everyday life, cf. Hill 2005]. This principle has collapsed in functional terms, but it has left a physical legacy of disjointed urban clusters framed by oversized arteries.

The urban form as such had no connection to my research interests—the place of migration in young people’s imaginaries of the future—but Tema’s thoroughfares were lined with intriguing components of fieldwork bricolage: large commercial billboards and plenty of signs and posters in between.

In fact, a striking feature of the physical landscape in urban Ghana is the signage—its volume, form and content. There’s a rich tradition of hand-painted signs on wooden boards, which still adorn some shops and stalls, but most signs and posters are now the product of low-cost industrial printing made possible by machinery brought from China. Unsurprisingly, much of the advertising promotes everyday products and services, like soap and phone credits. But what I became increasingly aware of, was how much of it promoted something bigger—some form of a pathway to a brighter future.

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Photo by the author

What I first noticed, being a migration scholar, were the advertisements for the US Diversity Visa Lottery. This programme, now under intense scrutiny in the US, provides a migration opportunity for lucky winners who, for the most part, would have few other possibilities of legal entry. Ghanaian agents offer ‘entry assistance’ for a modest fee. The advertisements, brandishing the Statue of Liberty and American flags, tout the prospect of migration as a coveted opportunity. As one poster proclaimed, ‘Your chance to live & work in America is here again!’. Another appealed more directly to faith in personal luck: ‘It’s now your turn to live, study and work in the United States of America’.

The visa lottery posters caught my attention first, but they were vastly outnumbered by advertisements for education services—from kindergartens to university degree courses, exam preparation, and weekend classes. These services can also be read as vehicles for going somewhere. And some make the connection explicit: one information technology training institution, for instance, brands itself as ‘Your gateway to a great future’.

Another large category of posters advertises Christian events. Next to the promise of a great future through IT training was an equally mega-sized announcement of the ‘Raise the standards conference’, a week-long event that ended with a nine-hour prayerthon on the final day. Nearby was the signpost to the ‘Deeper life’ church. What united many of the Christian posters with the ads for the visa lottery and educational services was their directionality and purpose.

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Photo by the author

The ‘Raise the standard conference’, like most of the other events that were advertised, had taken place some time ago. And the visa lottery’s annual deadline had passed by the time I left Ghana. The posters therefore acquired an additional function in the streetscape: when they no longer served to publicize specific events or services, they continued to promote the underlying values and hopes.

The posters therefore acquired an additional function in the streetscape: when they no longer served to publicize specific events or services, they continued to promote the underlying values and hopes

I was intrigued by the subtle commonality across the diversity of signage—the quest for onward and upward movement through a multiplicity of pathways. It resonated with my interest in young people’s imagined futures and pathways out of waithood, though in Ghana, the signage and its underlying promises were not confined to targeting youth.

This relationship between physical signage and personal projection extend to the last and most quintessentially Ghanaian type of advertisement: the obituary poster. The announcements and commemorations of deaths are rarely seen along major thoroughfares, but all the more frequently on homes, shops, cars, and other property related to the deceased or their family. Some posters are plainly headed ‘Transition’. Others portray the deceased under the heading ‘Home call’ or ‘Call to glory’. Death is not about closure; it is an onward journey.

As a geographer and migration researcher, I came to appreciate the intersection of three types of journey along the roads of Tema: first, the desired move to faraway destinations, evident in visa lottery posters and in many of my conversations; second, the greater journey onwards and upwards in life, in which emigration is merely one mode of travel; and third, the immediate movement through the city. And as an ethnographer, I was reminded of the power of curious attentiveness, even outside the context of long-term fieldwork.

About the author

Jørgen Carling is Research Professor in Migration and Transnationalism Studies at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Recent publications

‘Aspiration, desire and the drivers of migration.’ With Francis Collins, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6):909-926, 2018.

‘Revisiting aspiration and ability in international migration.’ With Kerilyn Schewel, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 44(6):945-963, 2018.

How does migration arise?, International Organization for Migration, 2017.

‘West and Central Africa.’ in Migrant Smuggling Data and Research: a Global Review of the Emerging Evidence Base. International Organization for Migration, 25-53, 2016.

African migration: Who’s thinking of going where?

By Josephine Appiah-Nyamekyeand and Edem Selormey

Despite the danger of dying of thirst in the Sahara desert, drowning in the Mediterranean, or being sold as slaves in Libya, many Africans are willing to risk their lives in search of greener pastures. Face-to-face interviews with thousands of Africans confirm this basic news-media narrative, as well as the perception that this gamble is particularly appealing to young and well-educated Africans looking for jobs and fleeing poverty. But they also point to important differences by country, including potential migrants’ preferred destinations, that can inform targeted policy responses.

Afrobarometer’s current round of nationally representative surveys (to be completed by mid-2018) explores migration intentions and drivers in 35 African countries. Initial data from nine countries – Ghana, Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Mali, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – show that on average, one-third of respondents have considered emigrating, including 16% who have given it “a lot” of thought (see Figure 1). The proclivity to emigrate is highest in Malawi (where 28% say they have thought “a lot” about leaving), Zimbabwe (22%), Benin (20%), and Ghana (20%). It is lowest in Mali, where eight in 10 respondents (80%) say they have not considered emigrating at all.

Figure 1: Considered emigration| 9 African countries | 2016/2017

Figure 1

Respondents were asked: How much, if at all, have you considered moving to another country to live?

Among potential emigrants, two groups that are critical to African countries’ economic future are overrepresented – the young and the educated

Among potential emigrants, two groups that are critical to African countries’ economic future are overrepresented – the young and the educated. Africa has the youngest population in the world (according to the United Nations), but many young people are considering seeking their fortunes elsewhere. In each of the nine surveyed countries, younger respondents are more likely to have considered emigrating (Figure 2). One-fourth or more of 18- to 35-year-olds in Malawi (32%), Ghana (26%), and Benin (25%) say they have given “a lot” of thought to leaving their home countries (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Considered emigration “a lot” | by age group | 9 African countries              | 2016/2017

Figure 2

Respondents were asked: How much, if at all, have you considered moving to another country to live? (% who say “a lot”)

Similarly, educated respondents are more likely than their less-educated counterparts to consider emigrating. On average across the nine surveyed countries, one in four respondents with post-secondary qualifications (25%) say they have thought “a lot” about emigrating, compared to 20% of those with a secondary education, 13% with a primary education, and 8% without any formal education (Figure 3). The proportions are particularly large among post-secondary graduates in Malawi (40%) and Zimbabwe (32%) – two countries marked by high lived povertyand unemployment, and particularly vulnerable to the pernicious effects of brain drainas trained health-care workers, engineers, and other vital human resources opt for better opportunities abroad.

Figure 3: Considered emigration “a lot” | by education level | 9 African countries | 2016/2017

Figure 3

Respondents were asked: How much, if at all, have you considered moving to another country to live? (% who say “a lot”)

Given Africa’s high rates of poverty and unemployment, especially youth unemployment, it is hardly surprising that potential emigrants say they are motivated mainly by a desire to find a job (43%) and to escape economic hardship/poverty (33%) (Figure 4).

This is consistent with Africans’ perceptions of unemployment as their countries’ most important problem requiring government attention – a problem that is pushing energetic young human resources out of their home countries. But sadly, for many emigrants, a journey of hope often ends in despair or death; reports of hundreds of African emigrants captured, subjected to inhumane treatment, sometimes even sold as slaves sparked global outrage and became a key issue on the agenda of the November 2017 African Union-European Union Summit and a joint AU-EU-UN task force created to address the crisis.

Figure 4: Reasons for considering emigration| 9 countries | 2016/2017

Figure 4

Excluding those who said they had “not at all” considered emigration, respondents were asked: There are several reasons why people leave their home to live in another country for an extended period of time. What about you? What is the most important reason why you would consider moving from [your country]?

On average, although half of potential emigrants want to leave the continent, almost as many would prefer to go to another country within the same region or to another African country

While the drivers of potential emigration are fairly consistent across countries, preferred destinations vary greatly. On average, although half (51%) of potential emigrants want to leave the continent, almost as many would prefer to go to another country within the same region (37%) or to another African country (10%) (Figure 5). Among locations outside Africa, Europe (20%) and North America (19%) are the preferred destinations.

Another country in the same region is by far the most popular destination for potential emigrants in Malawi (71%), Zimbabwe (67%), Zambia (48%), and Benin (48%), but Europe and North America dominate emigration dreams in Côte d’Ivoire (45% and 28%, respectively) and Ghana (31% and 39%) (Table 1) – even if immigration barriers mean that only a fraction of these dreams are likely to be realized.

Figure 5: Preferred destination for potential emigrants| 9 African countries | 2016/2017

Figure 5

Excluding those who said they had “not at all” considered emigration, respondents were asked: If you were to move to another country, where would you be most likely to go?

Table 1: Preferred destination for potential emigrants| by country | 9 African countries | 2016/2017 

Within regionElsewhere in AfricaEuropeNorth AmericaCentral/ South AmericaMiddle EastAsiaAustralia
Malawi71%8%4%9%2%1%1%1%
Zimbabwe67%8%11%5%0%2%0%4%
Zambia48%16%11%13%2%2%5%
Benin48%9%19%10%2%1%1%1%
Uganda31%15%13%24%2%11%1%1%
Mali27%20%37%9%1%1%1%1%
Kenya26%6%14%31%3%10%1%4%
Côte d´Ivoire8%4%45%28%3%2%2%1%
Ghana7%4%31%39%2%2%2%2%
9-country average37%10%20%19%2%4%1%2%

Excluding those who said they had “not at all” considered emigration, respondents were asked: If you were to move to another country, where would you be most likely to go?

Migration tends to be economically beneficial for both countries of origin and receiving countries. Many industrial countries need migrants – who often provide relatively cheap labour –  to work in sectors such as information technology, health services, agriculture, manufacturing, and construction. Countries of origin benefit from remittances, which total about three times the amount of foreign aidthey receive. Despite these advantages, many governments are currently reluctant to receive immigrants, especially lower-skilled economic migrants without a claim to a humanitarian status. While several opinion polls have reported that a majority of Americans think that undocumented immigrants in the United States should be given a chance to remain there legally, some citizens and politicians – in the political center as well as the right and far right –  argue that immigrants compete with them for jobs and resources.

More in-depth analysis may point policy makers toward differences in drivers, destinations, and costs/benefits of migration that can help them align policies with realities in specific countries and regions

Against this backdrop, developed countries have taken recent steps to control migration, including proposing tighter rules on immigration in the United States and establishing the European Union Trust Fund to help curb extra-continental emigration from Africa.

For African leaders, the major challenge in preventing the depletion of human resources clearly lies in prioritizing the creation of thriving economies that generate jobs and improve the living conditions of young Africans. But more in-depth analysis of data from Afrobarometer and other sources may also point policy makers worldwide toward geographic and socio-demographic differences in drivers, destinations, and costs/benefits of migration that can help them align policies with realities in specific countries and regions.

About the authors

Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye is Afrobarometer communications coordinator for anglophone West Africa.

Edem Selormey is Afrobarometer field operations manager for anglophone West Africa and East and North Africa.

To follow Afrobarometer releases on migration and other issues, visit www.afrobarometer.org.

Between Dejection and Awe: Reflections on Research with African Refugees

by Rose Jaji                                        Banner photo by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures

The gulf between “me” and “them” represented in the researcher and researched dichotomy narrows as one realizes that refugees are not different from oneself except that their lives have been disrupted by human-made calamities. In this piece, I address the discrepancy between media images and the realities I have encountered in my research with refugees in Kenya and Zimbabwe. I draw from the reflexive turn in anthropology to communicate my research experiences in Nairobi and Harare. Intent on neither romanticizing nor denying the resilience among the refugees who participated in the research, I convey the oscillation between dejection and awe, as I have found myself confronted with evidence of humanity’s capacity for evil and the marvelous stories of human resilience and hope. I write about refugees’ pain and my own sense of helplessness and conclude on a positive note by presenting refugees’ stories as being as much about recovery as they are about loss.

Dominant Images and my Encounter with Refugees

My first research trip to Nairobi was in the last quarter of 2006 (more trips have followed since then). I did not know what to expect but I had media images of refugees, particularly those from Africa, in my mind. The media has created and perpetuated distressing images of African refugees that portray them as the quintessence of loss and helplessness. Malkki has discussed the archetypal depiction of African refugees as, in her words, speechless emissaries. Unsure of what to expect because of the media images, I included payment for a translator in my research budget. My first surprise on my first encounter with refugees in Nairobi was that I did not need a translator as most of the refugees could speak English and were also multilingual.

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Photo by author

When I needed a translator during focus group discussions with refugee men from the Great Lakes region who spoke French, I hired a refugee woman from Rwanda who spoke both English and French fluently, in addition to Kinyarwanda and Kiswahili. These were not rural, illiterate people who had fled conflicts they could hardly explain. On the contrary, I was about to conduct research with professionals and university students who had abandoned their jobs and studies because of violence.

The Humanity of Refugees

As I continue researching with refugees, I am struck by how their worries about food and other basic necessities when they fled coexisted with worries about getting shot. Life took a completely different trajectory than they had dreamed of and anticipated prior to flight. Young refugee men from the Great Lakes region who had worked in their countries of origin as journalists and entrepreneurs or were university students with bright prospects told me about living like street children in Nairobi. The men who were in their twenties told me about the frustration of spending the best years of their lives unemployed and incapable of making long-term decisions and starting families. Their dreams were abruptly terminated by violence, flight and lack of opportunities to rebuild their lives in the host country.

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Picture from Flickr: “Somali refugee, Iftin Ahmed Farah, 24, in Nairobi, Kenya”, by Andrew McConnell/IRC/Panos Pictures.

I look at fathers hang their heads in shame because they can no longer provide for their children; gender roles have been reversed as their wives engage in informal activities and feed the family. I discuss this in my paper on young refugee men and masculinity. I also listen to refugee women relate experiences that are intricately linked to their gender. Refugee women’s stories are intertwined with sexual and gender-based violence, giving birth in dangerous circumstances en route to safety, losing husbands to violence and raising children without reliable sources of income. Married refugee women’s experiences are intertwined with the troubled state of married refugee men’s masculinity which forces women into the breadwinner role. This feeds into domestic violence and agitation among married refugee women. While these experiences may not be unique to refugees, they are exacerbated by the fact that they are interlinked with material loss against the backdrop of widespread violence.

Sense of Helplessness

Researchers cannot escape their human qualities, such as empathy and desire to help. Many researchers have found solace in action research, which involves an agenda to change the circumstances of research participants in a positive way. The impact of action research on refugees remains unclear. Kenya hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and humanitarian organizations are stretched. They focus on camps where the majority of refugees reside. Very little if any assistance is available for urban refugees.

Collaboration between academics and practitioners has the potential to foster mutual understanding not only between them but also between them and refugees who wonder why their plight remains unchanged in spite of all the data they have provided

Based on the gloomy stories I have listened to, I have reflected on what it means to access refugees’ stories when one lacks the means to improve their circumstances. On my first visit to Kenya, some young refugee women and men wanted to resume their university studies and I was a student myself without the additional funds to help. And who would I help in a sea of deprivation and need? This is a difficult subject for most researchers. Refugees told me about researchers who had made promises to them, for example, on assistance with third country resettlement, but did not fulfill these promises. Indeed, some refugees had become wary of researchers and they openly communicated this to me. Feeling guilty researching people in need when one is unable to improve their situation is understandable but making false promises as a way to salve one’s conscience is at variance with research ethics. I wonder whether it would not be more ethical and feasible to share research output with and engage those who tirelessly work daily to assist refugees. Collaboration between academics and practitioners has the potential to foster mutual understanding not only between them but also between them and refugees who wonder why their plight remains unchanged in spite of all the data they have provided.

Beyond the Refugee Tag

As weeks turned into months during my first research trip, the refugee label receded to the background as I became more conscious of refugees as neighbors in the low-income neighborhood where I lived with them. Although the sense of loss lingered even after decades of living outside their countries, refugees endeavored to rebuild their lives in the same way that people who are not refugees seek to make the best out of their circumstances. I acknowledge the need to keep refugees’ circumstances in the limelight and ensure that humanitarian assistance continues to be channeled to refugees. However, it is important to note that the stereotypical image of refugees as helpless and passive victims may result in asylum seekers who do not fit into this stereotype having their applications dismissed for, in the language of refugee status determination, lacking credibility.

Refugees’ stories are not solely about loss, they are also about survival, resilience, hope, and triumph even without material comfort

Online comments on stories on refugees posted on the CNN website, Yahoo! And YouTube to mention a few reflect the quintessential image of refugees represented by African women holding starving babies and toddlers “gender-balanced” with idle, able-bodied men and sick old men who cannot access the medical attention their conditions require. Refugees who deviate from these images of want and helplessness are accused of being economic migrants or terrorists. How does anyone get the time to dress so well, pack items into a backpack, and remember to carry their smartphone when they flee? Most of the anonymous writers of these comments seem puzzled by this possibility. But countries that descend into violent conflict have a middle class like any other country. Among refugees are professionals with bank accounts containing savings; they have the resources to arrive in the host country with the presumable trappings of “non-refugeeness”. It should thus come as no surprise that they flee with expensive jewelry, smart phones, and are not dressed in rags with malnourished babies and toddlers in tow. Yet, the dominant discourse silences their individual stories by inscribing the text of helplessness and victimhood on them. In this scheme of things, many host countries think of what the refugees will take instead of what they will give. For instance, African countries lament the “brain drain” without noticing the “brain gain” imbedded in refugee influxes. Refugees want to be economically independent and turning them into recipients of charity leads to frustration which feeds into the refugees-are-demanding-and-ungrateful narrative that dominates public debates in many host countries.

This pathologization of refugees also involves the assumption that refugees are incapable of articulating the complex conflicts that they fled. Refugees have shared with me well-informed and insightful perspectives on armed conflicts, ethnic politics, genocide, gender, and international relations in Africa. My informants and I would have intense moments as we discussed the horrors of violent conflicts and express outrage at and frustration with the corruption and poverty. We would also bemoan rigged elections. All this would eventually morph into cathartic humor as we joked at the expense of bad African leaders. Refugees’ stories are not solely about loss, they are also about survival, resilience, hope, and triumph even without material comfort. And, indeed, they are also stories of enduring love for the countries that denied them basic human rights including the right to life. I realize that imbedded in the unfamiliar is the familiar; refugees’ stories of loss and recovery resonate with the human experience in general.

About the author

Rose Jaji is a senior lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Zimbabwe. Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees, gender, and peacebuilding. Her current research is on migration from the Global North to Zimbabwe.

Recent publications

‘Reflexive ethnography and refugee research’. SAGE Research Methods Cases. 2018.

‘Under the shadow of genocide: Rwandans, ethnicity and refugee status’. Ethnicities , Vol. 17 (1), 47–65, 2017.

‘Normative, agitated, and rebellious femininities among East and Central African refugees’. Gender, Place, and Culture 22, 494509, 2015.