We Live in a State of Fear: Eritrean refugees keep bearing the brunt of the Ethiopian crisis

Cover photo by Markus Rudolf

by Markus Rudolf

For Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, the situation has changed drastically with the armed conflict between the central government and Tigray state that broke out on 4 November 2020. Human Rights Watch reported that different military units and militias repeatedly attacked camp residents between November 2020 and January 2021. Eritrean soldiers executed listed individuals and deported large numbers of refugees. Hitsats and Shimelba, the camps closest to Eritrea, were completely destroyed. The two remaining camps, Mai Aini and Adi Harush, were cut off from any support after national and international aid organisations left. At the same time, Tigray and oppositional Eritrean militias took revenge on those suspected of looting camp residents. According to encounters in summer 2022 with those who fled, only the disabled, the pregnant and the elderly remained in the camps.

Refugees staying outside the camps were attacked too. Dawit, a man in his forties, insists that he and his family literally got the last bus to escape from the Adi Harush camp, in a contested area close to the border between Tigray and Amhara state. “There was no food, no water in the camp. We were escaping with 5 children. It was very difficult. We had a clinic but no doctors, no treatment, no medicine. On the one side were the federals on the other the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front] – the Eritreans were in the middle. We did not have a choice. We had nothing. No money. We had left all in Shire. There was fighting and the other day they came back. It went on like this for two weeks. We escaped on foot. It was very, very difficult. It took us three days [to get out].”

In between contradictory narratives

Since the start of the armed conflict, a propaganda battle has been raging over the narrative of who plays which role in the conflict and who is responsible for which atrocities and massacres. Humanitarian aid has become a political issue and the civilian population a pawn in the battle for global public opinion. The TPLF has been claiming that humanitarian aid is blocked by the central government and speaks of a strategy to use famine as a weapon of war. Ethiopia’s central government, in turn, accuses Tigrinya militias of human rights violations such as past and present massacres of civilians (as the attacks in Mai Kadra in 2020). It claims that the TPLF wants to re-establish the old regime and discredit the new government internationally with fake news. These claims resonate with Ethiopians who reject the old (TPLF) leaders.

In between contradictory narratives, shifting political alliances, and an opaque state of negotiations, Eritrean refugees find themselves at the centre of the conflict. Prior to the current conflict, all refugee camps for Eritreans were located along Ethiopia’s northern border and thus in the areas most affected by the fighting. According to UNHCR, there were 96,000 Eritrean refugees in the four camps in Tigray before the conflict broke out. INGOs now estimate the number of Eritrean refugees who have escaped to Addis to be around 80,000. In Addis, Eritrean refugees have become everybody’s scapegoats: they are harassed as Eritreans by Tigrayans and as Tigrinya speakers by Ethiopian nationalists. Increased hostilities and attacks against them in the capital have left many searching for a means of escape once more.

The camp as a last resort

In July, videos circulated on social media showing passengers waiting and wailing close to buses at the outskirts of Addis Ababa. They were supposedly Eritreans rounded up by the Ethiopian police to be transported to a refugee camp in Northern Ethiopia. According to Bereket, a single man in his late thirties who had made his way from the north to Addis Ababa twice, there is little doubt about the insecurity in the area: “It is too close [to the front line]. They [armed groups] can come any time,” he explains. The new Alemwach refugee camp near Dabat was established in Amharic territory in June 2021. Shortly thereafter, UNHCR reported looting and attacks by different armed groups. Subsequent reports from refugee activist groups confirmed that refugees had nowhere to run. As of 2022, INGOs consider the conditions in the camp as desperate and report that intercommunal violence remains prevalent. International staff – off the record – describe conditions as “catastrophic” and speak of a general lack of services in Dabat.

Adi Harush refugee camp. Photo Markus Rudolf.

Those affected most by these events were refugees who had ended up in camps as their last resort due to a lack of alternatives, like the case of Hassan shows. After decades of a life as an irregular day labourer on the move in Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Ethiopia, Hassan was deported back to Eritrea in 2019. Being in his late fifties, he was still not old enough to evade the obligatory and infamous draft to the army. He had to escape once again and made it to a camp in Sudan. There he founded a family and moved to Adi Harush, a camp for Eritrean refugees in Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, where he decided to stay put and file for resettlement: “I had enough. Now I am waiting for my process here. I have a brother in the US,” he explained during an encounter in the camp in 2019.

Longing for resettlement

Before the conflict erupted, his neighbour in a shelter turned into a makeshift house was Bereket, who had moved over the nearby border without any similar detours. When he crossed in 2012, it was a heavily militarised zone. He crossed during the stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea that followed a bloody war in 1998-2000. During that time, he had no trouble being registered as a refugee. Ethiopia, just as the Western and the Eastern blocs in Europe during the Cold War, welcomed refugees as evidence of its own superiority. Ever since, however, Bereket has remained stranded in Ethiopia as a refugee awaiting resettlement, preferably to New Zealand or Scandinavia where his relatives live. Waiting for his process, he continues to worry about still living within reach of the Eritrean security forces. Even before politics changed and alliances shifted, he lamented a lack of protection: “They [Eritrean government] have their people here [inside the camp]. They abduct people from the camps. You never hear from them again.”

The bridge marking the disputed borderline between Tigray and Amhara. Photo by Markus Rudolf.

Dawit, on the other hand, had come with his wife and children after a peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia in 2018. The border had been reopened for the first time in decades. People from both sides took the opportunity to visit relatives, friends, and colleagues they had been separated from since the two countries partitioned in 1991. The Eritrean side of the border was officially closed soon again but many still made it across. They often passed through the camps to move on to urban centres in Tigray to join kin who served as guarantors. Tigrinya on both sides speak the same language and feel that they share a common culture. This made integration easier. Dawit just went to the camp for registration and proceeded to Shire, where the family rented an apartment. They lived on the rations from the camp, the income generated by family members working in the service sector in town, and some support from relatives in the diaspora. The children attended the local school.

Newly arrived refugees with financially well-off relatives move on to Addis to wait for their asylum or migration papers. Looking at the ease with which the new arrivals move in and out of the camp, and seeing the assets they bring, they are called “tourists on a stopover” by those who, like Bereket, have been worrying about their protection for years and those who, like Hassan, feel stuck due to a lack of alternatives. Many refugees have endured long periods of waiting for a durable solution. Even after the Ethiopian policy of encampment had changed to an out-of-camp-policy (OCP), most refugees staying in the camps saw no alternative but to stay put.

Adi Harush refugee camp. Photo by Markus Rudolf.

Without connections to the diaspora abroad capable of paying for the daily expenses of their family members in transit, life outside the camp was simply too expensive. “We stayed in Addis, but life is too expensive there. I had to bring my family back to the camp,” another of Bereket and Hassan’s neighbours explained. Like many other Eritrean refugees in Addis, Bereket is only able to pay his rent thanks to relatives abroad. Kin in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or Norway finance whole neighbourhoods of Addis where only Eritreans (and Ethiopians) with access to remittances can afford the high rents, exploding prices, and soaring inflation. Dawit had to move farther away to the outskirts of Addis even though his family can count on the support from his brother-in-law living in the US.

The risks of encampment

Many of the Eritrean refugees who fled on their own to Amhara or Addis Ababa were nevertheless forced to return to the camp at the behest of the central government. Bereket explains that Eritrean refugees were held by the IOM in a large hall with guards on all exits when they first arrived in Addis: “I told them – all of us told IOM – we do not want to go back. But they forced us – it was against our will”. Not only had armed conflict, violence and killings – the very conditions they fled from – caught up with the refugees at the very spot they had come for protection; on top of it they were forced to leave relative safety again.

“I told them – all of us told IOM – we do not want to go back.

But they forced us – it was against our will”


Just as Bereket, Hassan had to leave the camp due to the conflict. He made it to Addis, but he could not shoulder the high costs of living there and chose to return to the newly established camp Dabat. A few days/weeks/months later, he disappeared. Bereket assumed that he was taken by Eritrean forces. “He disappeared. They took him. His wife does not know his whereabouts. They can come and sneak in and take you at night”. His worries are not unfounded, as an investigation by Reuters has documented. Some who have heard the story suspect that Hassan may have been mistaken for a Tigrayan due to speaking the same language and killed by the Amhara militia, while others believe that he simply got unlucky and was caught up in a shootout between the TPLF and Amhara militias (called FANO).

The mountains refugees had to pass. Photo Markus Rudolf.

Between a rock and a hard place

Since the conflict in Tigray started, Eritrean refugees – and Tigrinya speakers especially – remain trapped between a rock and a hard place. As Bereket recounts: “On one side was the TPLF and on the other the federal [soldiers]. They were shooting over our heads. We wanted to escape but they shot at us. Many refugees are dead. Those who escaped, they caught them and brought us back to the camp where they imprisoned us.” He continues: “Then they released us again. Everybody on his own. I walked through dead bodies. Soldiers were left at the side of the path. Both TPLF and federals … There was no water. We had to go through the mountains. My feet are still injured. In the mountains there were many others [refugees]. The mountains [close to Ethiopian highest peak Ras Dashen] were very high and steep. They attacked the women. They raped them. We could not do anything. They beat us.” Looking somewhere into the distance, he recalls these memories: “I saw terrible things on the way. They are in my head.” Refocusing on the here and now, his gaze becomes firm when he asks, “How to get them out?”

“On one side was the TPLF and on the other the federal [soldiers]. They were shooting over our heads. We wanted to escape but they shot at us. Many refugees are dead”


The prospects for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia do not hold much hope. They increasingly see only one option for escaping their enduring loss of access to rights and livelihoods – moving to more peaceful and stable countries outside the region. Dawit explains that he and his family have relied entirely on remittances for the past 18 months, since he is no longer able to work in Shire. His hopes now rest on resettlement in a country in the Global North: “Our children go to school here. It is peaceful. But we cannot work, because we have no work permit. Hopefully, in a few months, our family will be in the USA.” Bereket, in contrast, has managed to find work in Addis despite the formal hurdles. But he does not see any local prospects either and keeps hoping for resettlement: “Here there is not change. Corona is not the problem, but politics [is]. [In the] Horn of Africa – as its name indicates – [there is] always fighting. We live in a state of fear. What can we do – maybe it is our destiny.”

Disclaimer: This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant No. 822453 and would not have been possible without the kindness and openness of those sharing their stories.

About the author

Markus Rudolf is a senior researcher at the Bonn International Centre for Conflict Studies with interest and experience in conflict management pertaining to humanitarian aid, crisis management and post-crisis assistance, Markus’ research focuses on forced displacement, human rights, youth at risk, gender-based violence, conflict management and the political economy of violent conflicts. He previously worked as a conflict researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI) and as a consultant for humanitarian issues for various intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. He graduated in sociology, social psychology, and social anthropology from universities in Saarland, Colorado and Berlin.

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.

From Campus to Camp and Back

Note from the field from a humanitarian humanities practitioner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gera Tefera, history student in Kakuma refugee camp

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

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

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

The History Dialogue Project: history made in the camp

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

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

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

Online learning: Collaborative education?

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

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

Placide Mwizerwa, history student in Kakuma refugee camp

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

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

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

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

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

About the author

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


Wayside promise: Ghanaian roads as routes to brighter futures

By Jørgen Carling

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by the author

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

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

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

Photo by the author

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

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

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

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

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

About the author

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

Recent publications

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

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

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

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

Between Dejection and Awe: Reflections on Research with African Refugees

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

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

Dominant Images and my Encounter with Refugees

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

Photo by author

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

The Humanity of Refugees

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

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

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

Sense of Helplessness

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

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

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

Beyond the Refugee Tag

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

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

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

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

About the author

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

Recent publications

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

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

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


Researching (with) refugees? Ethical considerations on participatory approaches

by Ulrike Krause

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

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

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

Building trust in environments of distrust

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

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

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

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

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

Research about or with refugees?

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

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

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

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

Quo vadis?

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

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

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

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

About the author

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

Personal profile

Researching migrant arrivals, births and burials across the Mediterranean

by Sine Plambech

Plambech, FB 27 July, edited

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

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

Plambeck, waiting room, edited
Catania waiting room

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

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

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

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

Studying the arrivals of newborn migrants

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

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

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

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

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

Studying the arrivals and burials of deceased migrants

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

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

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

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

Plambech FB 31 July, edited

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

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

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

Plambech, plaque
Photo. S. Plambech

Plambeck, Soyinka poem
Photo. S. Plambech

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


Wole Soyinka

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

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

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

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

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

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


All photos by the author

About the author

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

Personal profile

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

Links to recent publications

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

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

Short pieces

“Drowning mothers”, OpenDemocracy

“Becky is dead”, OpenDemocracy

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