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

Cover photo by Alessandro Vannucci via Flickr

Series Introduction

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

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

by Lotte Pelckmans

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

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

Post-slavery in Niger-Nigeria Borderlands

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

The Niger-Nigeria borderlands. Map from Wikipedia

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

(E)motions

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

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

Questioning in/visibility

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

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

Fugitive displacement and emplacement

‘Hadijatou’ official poster

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

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

About the author

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

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

Photo from @campLGBTI Twitter, September 2020

Series Introduction

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

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

by B Camminga

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

Kenya and Kakuma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encampment

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

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

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

Discretion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ongoing deterioration

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

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

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

About the author

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

Displacement agriculture: neither seen nor heard

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

Series Introduction

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

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

Displacement agriculture: neither seen nor heard

by Clayton Boeyink

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

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

Sufficiently invisible and invisibly self-sufficient

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

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

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

Tanzania’s refugee governance in historical perspective

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

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

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

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

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

The Magufuli regime’s climate of terror

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

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

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

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

About the author

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

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

Introduction

by Stefan Rother, Susanne Schultz and Mary B. Setrana

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

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

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

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

Transnational Mobility Skill Partnerships (TMSP)

Photo by Mary Setrana

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

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

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

Why Ghana?

Photo by Mary Setrana

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

Country/region of destination perspective

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

Photo by Mary Setrana

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

Recommendations for a skills partnership

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

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

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

Photo by Mary Setrana

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

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

About the authors

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

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

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

Introducing “Invisibility in African Displacements”

Series Introduction

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

Introducing Invisibility in African Displacements

Jesper Bjarnesen & Simon Turner

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

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

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

Understanding in/visibilisation

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

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

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

In/visibilisation effects

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

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

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

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

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

About the authors

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

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

Border management and state sovereignty in the Sahel

Cover photo by Francesco Bellina/TNH

by Ekaterina Golovko

Since 2015, European interventions in the Sahel have surged in response to ‘irregular’ migration to the EU and the incapacity of the Sahelian states to control their own borders. This blog post aims to look at capacity building and local surveillance committees as examples of specific activities within larger border management programmes, and to reflect on their effects on Sahelian statehood.

In early 2019, I was heading to the Border Police office in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to interview a high-ranking police official for a research project on border security and management. We discussed so-called ‘technical’ issues related to border management as well as the overall security situation, organized crime, and the terrorist threat affecting the border areas in Burkina Faso. At some point, I asked the officer to identify the actors, besides the state, contributing to the securitization of the borders. His answer was firm: ‘There are none, Madame. You know that borders are a sovereign prerogative and it is the state that assures border securitization. No one else can do this aside from the Burkinabe state.’ The officer’s idea of a nation-state left me wondering to what extent it reflected the Sahelian reality, and spurred my curiosity towards specific practices of border management. The notion of a sovereign state with rigid borders was at odds with what I understood about the Sahelian context in general, and border management specifically, from both a political and a technical perspective.

Border management is a set of interventions intended to improve the capacities of border officials and physical infrastructures, and enhancing communication between different levels of actors. This includes activities ranging from the purchasing and sharing of material support to the maintenance and monitoring of physical and technological infrastructures of the border as well as engagement and joint project implementation among a variety of border professionals, including security forces, migration specialists, humanitarian workers, and officers from international organisations.

New Headquarters for National Border Police in Niger, screenshot from the IOM website.

In international development discourse, border management is often seen as a set of technical norms, standards and regulations, where implementing actors have more of a managerial expertise than a political role. In fact, as reflected in the various projects currently being implemented by IOM in the Sahel, a focus on infrastructure, techniques, training and efficiency of personnel take precedence over discourses that would highlight the political and civic dimensions of the border. This approach crucially depoliticises questions of national security and the capacity of the state to control and protect its own borders.

Capacity building

In the Sahel, state and border authorities are often regarded as not meeting international standards in terms of adequate training, equipment and remuneration. For this reason, external actors such as the European Union emphasise the need to increase the capacity of border officials, including training focusing on the knowledge, skills, resources, structures, and processes of relevant government authorities.

Through these cooperation initiatives, a plethora of actors provide remedial intervention to (indirectly) ensure the capacity of states to perform their sovereign duties. This technical approach to border management downplays important power dynamics between external actors and the state. On the one hand, it silences the question of the nature of the state and how the state should be organised, how it should operate, depriving governments of their own agency and ability to question existing norms. On the other, it raises the question of the roles that external actors play in “increasing the capacities” of beneficiary-states. The aim of capacity building, in other words, clashes with the means that are used: donors and partner states help beneficiary states reinforce their sovereignty through technical support and skills training, but at the same time, they impose their own agendas, values, and norms (often assumed to be universal or shared), thus undermining the principle of sovereignty.

The aim of capacity building, in other words, clashes with the means that are used

This inconsistency can be explained by the nature of capacity building, or development interventions more broadly, as assuming a temporal or developmental gap between interveners and assisted states, meaning that each state, after undertaking the necessary steps, can/should be able to “catch up”, and reach the internationally prevailing model of statehood. The perceived temporal and developmental distance between donors and recipient states thereby justifies Western donor guidance of their African partners. But considering the control that these interventions exert upon sovereign states, it is not a neutral relationship but rather an exploitative one; what Mark Duffield has called a ‘relationship of government’. In the current political context, furthermore, the European states are not as much imposing a coherent set of governance principles, but rather experimenting with them.

Border surveillance committees

Border populations in the Sahel have a first-hand knowledge of border areas and local conflicts at the micro-level. Due to growing insecurity and limited access and capacities of security forces to control the borders, border populations are frequently included in border management portfolios: establishing dialogue with security forces and participating in border surveillance and information sharing with security forces. Local communities are expected to organise security watches and report any suspicious movements to the security forces. These projects, often carried out by non-governmental organisations, see border communities not exclusively as beneficiaries but also as actors involved in border surveillance activities. In order to do so, members of border monitoring committees are provided with mobile phones to warn the authorities of suspicious movements. This involvement shifts the burden of border protection from those entrusted to do so (but apparently incapable) onto those who should be protected. The problematic implementation of these activities is exacerbated by a well-founded reluctance of border communities to collaborate with security forces and authorities, both out of mistrust but also out of fear of revenge by non-state armed actors. Very often, the cell phones distributed to inform security forces remain silent. Building trust between communities and the state turns out to be a much more complicated task than just the provision of goods or development assistance.

Very often, the cell phones distributed to inform security forces remain silent

What arises from this process is a hybrid security order where the state delegates its duties to civilians and non-state actors while still trying to demonstrate its symbolic presence at the borders. In many ways, the state is actually left out of an ever-changing construction of power relations where non-state actors interact directly with the populations, trying to bridge the gap with the state. Border monitoring committees seen from this perspective represent the blurring of boundaries between security forces, state authorities and the general population. Such mechanisms illustrate the way different actors, operating from below (civil society organisations and NGOs) and from above (IOs), play a central role in the border management in the Sahelian context.

Border management’s effects on statehood

In order to look more closely at how border management practices affect state sovereignty, I find Ferguson and Gupta’s reflections on state verticality and encompassment useful as an analytical tool. In this understanding of how the state is related to society, ‘verticality’ refers to a state’s central and pervasive position as an institution ‘above’ civil society, community and family; and ‘encompassment’ refers to the idea of the state as located within an ever-widening series of circles that begins with family and local community and ends with the system of nation-states. From this perspective, capacity building is a governmentality technique that alters state verticality. As discussed above, capacity building imposes contradictory governance agendas. Through such intervention, the state – which should occupy the highest position in the verticality – is superseded by international or regional organisations (EU or IOM for instance) who ‘build’ the capacity of the state to perform its duties. These actions blur the boundaries between international agendas and state sovereignty.

The involvement of local populations in border management, from the same conceptual perspective, is an example of addressing failing state encompassment. Border surveillance committees address a state’s lack of encompassment caused by the state’s inability to assert its presence over the territory and police state borders, fuelled by the emergence of new forms of authority and overt contestation of state presence in the areas most affected by violence.

The types of interventions used in border management cast doubt over what the ultimate goal behind such programmes is

The types of interventions used in border management cast doubt over what the ultimate goal behind such programmes is. As this post has suggested, the means used seem to be at odds with the stated policy objective of reinforcing state capacity. As affirmed by the Burkinabe official during the interview, those physically located on the borders are exclusively national border officials, but everything around them is a product of postcolonial hybridity where relations and interactions between multiple actors extend in capillary ways, undercutting the foundations of state sovereignty in the process.

About the author

Ekaterina Golovko is an independent consultant and researcher working on migration and security in West Africa. She has previously worked for MMC West Africa, the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, IFRC Sahel Cluster and other organisations. Her recent publications include a research paper “Navigating borderlands in the Sahel Border security governance and mixed migration in Liptako-Gourma” (jointly with Luca Raineri) and a briefing paper “Players of many parts: The evolving role of smugglers in West Africa’s migration economy”.

Involuntary returns from Libya and reintegration in Ghana

Cover photo from GBC Website

Leander Kandilige and Geraldine Asiwome Adiku

Existing literature on return migration tends to focus on voluntary return and the potential developmental implications of such returns. However, a silent but key dimension of return migration are the involuntary returns that mostly result from administrative or judicial Acts. These Acts refer to the enforcement of immigration control measures by destination countries. Another less examined phenomenon is involuntary mass returns from countries in crisis situations such as political, social, economic and natural disasters and the role of collective action by multiple stakeholders in shaping the reintegration outcomes of unplanned returnees. Relying on findings from our empirical study on the experiences of Ghanaian migrants forcibly returned during the political crisis in Libya in 2011, this blog post highlights the key challenges that diverse stakeholders faced in coordinating migrants’ safe return and reintegration.

Most discourses on return migration place a lot of weight on the individual migrant’s own return preparedness as a measure of how likely they are to reintegrate successfully. However, we argue that an institutional approach to explaining return migration is equally important as it allows for an analysis of social and contextual issues at the origin that can impact negatively on return outcomes. IOM, for instance, implements programmes such as the Joint Initiative on Migrant Protection and Reintegration to safeguard the rights of trapped migrants in Libya as well as support their reintegration upon return. The over 35,000 beneficiaries of this initiative since 2017 have included trapped Ghanaian migrants.

We proceed by considering the roles of state agencies, community leaders and civil society organisations, intergovernmental organisations, and families in these return processes, before concluding with some reflections on policy implications.

The role of state agencies

During the evacuation of Ghanaian nationals from Libya in 2011, the Ghanaian state was ultimately responsible for their safe extraction and their reintegration upon return. Efforts began in February 2011 to evacuate trapped Ghanaian migrants. On March 22, 2011, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration reported that 16,822 Ghanaians had been evacuated from Libya. However, the Ghanaian authorities did not have any clear policy and institutional framework for evacuation from conflict situations. This lack of guidance triggered a chaotic and delayed response to the needs of trapped migrants. Belated attempts at securing logistical support from intergovernmental organisations such as IOM and UNHCR resulted in the exposure of migrants to traumatic experiences, physical assaults and even death in a limited number of cases. The Ghanaian embassy in Libya lacked financial and logistical resources to support displaced nationals, leading to a weakening of trust relations between trapped migrants and embassy staff. Furthermore, the mandate of the national agency responsible for managing emergencies (NADMO) was limited to events within the national territory thus rendering it unable to intervene until migrants arrived on Ghanaian soil. Upon arrival, logistical challenges constrained the agency’s ability to carry out thorough assessments of returnees against the effects of trauma and the delivery of therapies for psychosocial and post-traumatic stress disorders.

The role of community leaders and Civil Society Organisations

Photo by supriyaam on Flickr

Beyond the state, community leaders and Civil Society Organisations were instrumental in facilitating return and reintegration processes for involuntary returnees. By means of community radio broadcasts, community leaders created a platform for trapped migrants to directly lobby their elected officials at home to galvanise support for emergency evacuation flights out of Libya. The same medium was used in sensitising community members to the circumstances surrounding the unplanned return of their relatives. This proactive step helped minimise incidents of rejection, feelings of humiliation and possible tensions between community members and returnees. In addition, health screening, humanitarian relief and access to subsidised primary education for the involuntarily returned migrants were all secured through acts of solidarity championed by community leaders and civil society organisations.

The role of intergovernmental organisations

IOM played a key role in supporting the transportation of migrants to safe border crossings in Libya as part of the evacuation process. In Ghana, IOM also provided reintegration support in the form of agricultural tools and equipment, training in basic business management and financial literacy, the formation of returnee associations to bolster chances of attracting credit from financial institutions and extension of psychosocial counselling to returnees. We found that a critical challenge faced was the lack of reliable data on the Ghanaian migrant stock in Libya and the likely number of returnees to plan for during the crisis. ‘Guestimates’ provided by national agencies and the Embassy in Libya frustrated intergovernmental agencies’ ability to effectively support reintegration efforts. 

The role of families

While migrant households left behind tend to benefit directly from remittances, they equally endure the burden of hosting and providing for forcibly returned migrants. Unplanned returns abruptly sever funding lifelines to migrant households, leading to loss of social standing and respectability. In addition, households face the challenge of caring for mentally and emotionally distressed returnees, sharing limited family resources with persons who no longer generate an income, and coping with the stigma associated with a ‘failure of return’. Despite their vulnerabilities, family members are essential stakeholders in the reintegration process.

While migrant households left behind tend to benefit directly from remittances, they equally endure the burden of hosting and providing for forcibly returned migrants

They provided accommodation to returnees, especially those who had lost all their property as result of the crisis in Libya. Some shared parcels of farmlands with returnees as a means of earning a livelihood. Family members also negotiated relations between returnees and community members in order to reduce incidents of stigmatisation.

Photo by Guerric on Flickr

Policy implications

The key challenges that diverse stakeholders faced in coordinating Ghanaian migrants’ safe return and reintegration include the lack of clear evacuation policy, weak institutional frameworks, and a lack of data on the migrants in need of evacuation, which left them ill-prepared for the extraction of Ghanaians from Libya. These shortcomings have real implications for the return and reintegration of individuals during crisis situations. The mere existence of a policy is not enough: it must be budgeted for; have a clearly delineated mandate assigned to relevant stakeholders; and provide adequate training to facilitate an efficient response. National emergency agencies also need to work closely with security attachés based at missions abroad to coordinate the management of disaster incidents.

We found that families are important stakeholders in return and reintegration situations. As such, migrant families should be supported by intervening agencies during unplanned returns to help cater for returnees who may be considered vulnerable because of the circumstances surrounding their return. In addition to recognising the importance of migrant families for returnee rehabilitation and reintegration, a policy on the provision of emotional, psychosocial and psychological support to involuntary returnees should be mainstreamed into national migration policies.

Moreover, migrant source countries should pre-emptively construct at least one purpose-built reception centre, comprising among other things a reception unit, a psychosocial orientation unit, a temporary camp and offices for medics in order to facilitate the process of screening, profiling and record taking of returnees from countries in crisis in a more humane manner.

When the unexpected occurs in destination countries, and the general safety of migrants is at risk, assistance from origin countries eases migrants’ fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities in an already dangerous and unsettling situation. Horror stories abound about the torture and mistreatment that migrants are subjected to in Libya. A well-coordinated multi-stakeholder collaboration between the state, non-governmental institutions, intergovernmental organisations, the family and civil society organisations makes it easier to remove people from harm’s way in times of crisis. The main impediments to multi-stakeholder coordination, as the Ghanaian example shows, are the divergent agendas and priorities, which affect resource allocation. A refocusing and coordination of agendas and priorities will ensure that adequate help is presented and received when citizens abroad need it the most.

The main impediments to multi-stakeholder coordination, as the Ghanaian example shows, are the divergent agendas and priorities, which affect resource allocation

As mentioned in the introduction, this blog is based on our paper; Kandilige Leander and Geraldine Adiku (2020). ‘The quagmire of return and reintegration: Challenges to multi-stakeholder co-ordination of involuntary return’. International Migration 58(4) pp. 37-53.

Author Bios

Dr. Leander Kandilige is a Senior Lecturer in Migration Studies at the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Ghana. His research interests include migration policy development, theories of migration, migration and development. He is a Country Lead for Ghana on the MIGNEX Project and a Researcher on the MIDEQ Project.

Dr. Geraldine Asiwome Adiku teaches Sociology at the University of Ghana. Her research focuses on migration and development with specific emphasis on remittances and reverse remittance practices.

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.