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”.

Welcome aboard KLM Air Land! Reflections on the mobilities turn

Nauja Kleist  Cover image by Nauja Kleist


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.  

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

by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

Why fiction matters

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

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

Translating migration terminology 

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

Addis Ababa bookshop. Photo by Nikolay Steblin-Kamenskiy

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

Everyday fears

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

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

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

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

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

Migrants as ethnographers

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

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

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

A happy ending? 

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

Stockholm skyline. Photo by Prashanth Raghavan

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

Learning from fiction

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

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

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

About the author

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

The Trial of Dopé: The Modernity of Witchcraft Asylum Claims

by Benjamin N. Lawrance                                                 Banner photo by Gaétan Noussouglo

In Peter Geschiere’s now seminal work, The Modernity of Witchcraft, witchcraft discourse, and the occult more generally in West Africa, is presented as a flexible and ambivalent mechanism to narrate and interpret social change, and not a logically closed system of beliefs and practices in the manner described by earlier structural anthropologists. Witchcraft is highly important today because many individuals from different countries and communities on the African continent turn to forms of magic, vodou, juju, or the supernatural broadly understood to navigate the unsteady and inconsistent challenges of globalization.

Figure 2-Dance 2
Photo by David Arnold

If we follow Robert Orsi’s contention that the political history of modernity is also always religious history, it merits considering how this might extend to one of the most widespread and omnipresent religious forces and practices in Africa, namely witchcraft as a manifestation of the supernatural. In this post, I reflect upon witchcraft accusations that surface in various guises in asylum claims, and how they are adjudicated and often rejected for various reasons.

Changes in legal strategies: Distrusting the asylum seeker

In 2009, the adherents of a vodou priest (bokono) kidnapped Dopé (not her real name) in Cotonou, Benin, and brought her to the atikevodou shrine of Sakpata near Cové where she was imprisoned and raped. After several weeks, Dopé, an educated, married mother, escaped to her husband and then fled to the US to seek asylum. She believed her experiences were the result of her childhood betrothal to an older priest as trokosi, a form of indebted curse exacted for her mother’s infidelity. Dopé’s supernatural narrative troubled her lawyers and they feared no judge would consider it credible. They reframed her claim by documenting misogynistic forced marriage practices, sexual assault, child abuse, child slavery and the widespread belief in levirate (widow remarriage to husband’s kin). Her lawyers chose gender violence arguments coupled with established precedent pertaining to slavery and trafficking as a strategy to avoid foregrounding the discussion of vodou, often interpreted as a form of witchcraft by adjudicators and thus falling outside the protections of the Refugee Convention and Protocol.

Since the 1980s, significant global geopolitical changes have conspired to turn the refugee experience upside down

Dopé’s experience, like those of other women whose testimonies I have been asked to evaluate as an expert witness in federal immigration court, is emblematic of legal strategies unfolding in response to the increasing securitization of migration described by Vicki Squire, and new technologies of adjudication (such as biometrics, Country of Origin Information, Language testing or LADO) that my co-editor, Galya Ruffer and I have explored elsewhere. Until the 1980s, refugee and asylum legal procedures operated within an informal climate of trust and applicants were generally presumed to be telling the truth. Customized research—such as expert testimony from scholars or professionals or medico-legal reports—was almost unheard of. Since the 1980s, however, significant global geopolitical changes have conspired to turn the refugee experience upside down. The refugee status determination process is now overshadowed by what Didier Fassin and Estelle D’Halluin refer to as a “climate of suspicion, in which the refugee or asylum seeker is seen as someone trying to take advantage of the country’s hospitality.”

Who is a refugee? The technology of specialized information

What Paul Ricœur first called “hermeneutics of suspicion” characterizes asylum and refugee proceedings and gives rise to new technologies. One such technology, data referred to as “Country of Origin Information” or COI, has become central to the pseudo-scientific testing of asylum narratives, and increasingly it features in so-called “credibility assessments.” Adjudicators increasingly emphasize the importance of empirical research in establishing claimant credibility. Claims and counterclaims must be anchored by objective data, publicly sourced information, and arguments substantiated by scholarly evidence.

Country of Origin Information or COI has emerged as a specialized knowledge category that attempts to answer, with empirical data, the central matter of refugee law, namely who is a refugee? As Jean-François Lyotard explained, the burden resting on individual asylum seekers to prove claims that often cannot be documented is a “wrong,” but one that is “accompanied by the loss of means to prove the damage.” The temptation to stretch, embellish, or invent narratives that conform to asylum law is thus enormous. Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communication barriers coupled with physical and psychological trauma add considerable complexity, making inconsistency part and parcel of the process of narration. Indeed, as Jacques Derrida explained, the borderline between “political” and “economic” refugees is very difficult to determine.

Asylum and the Supernatural

Recent scholarship on the supernatural in Africa—including, but not limited to practices described as magic, sorcery, and witchcraft—has returned to the distinction, first articulated by E.E. Evans-Pritchard, between external and somatic supernatural power. Peter Geschiere is one of several scholars to have observed that witchcraft, the preeminent folk terminology for the supernatural, is much more public in Africa today, and features prominently in political and social debate.

Figure 1-Dance
Photo by Gaétan Noussouglo

Witchcraft-driven violence challenges socio-political order with a variety of political and legislative outcomes. While public discourses about witchcraft are often characterized by open-endedness and ambiguity, scholars of the “global arena of asylum” like Katherine Luongo and Harry West contend that “no ambiguity about witchcraft or witches exists.” Witchcraft operates as an “embodied capacity” to “harm” and it certainly does not engage the Refugee Convention’s religious protection. Luongo contends that in asylum claims, witchcraft has “an uncomfortable ahistoricity and an awkward detachment from institutions,” which puzzles adjudicators. Asylum-seekers are often uncomfortable divulging the full details of the supernatural realm, but generally speaking, it is my experience that many are confident that their experiences mark them as constitutive of another Refugee Convention protected category, namely the “particular social group.”

The case of Dope

Dopé’s story demonstrates how, in contrast with many adjudicators’ perceptions that “primitive beliefs” are the realm of the poor and illiterate, the supernatural is not confined to lower socio-economic echelons. Dopé, an educated, married mother living in the economic capital, Cotonou, Benin, but originally from the village of Cové, fled to the US after her traumatic experiences.

Dopé believed her experiences as an adult were the result of her betrothal as a child to a vodou shrine as a form of inherited slavery (trokosi), a punishment exacted on her mother for her alleged infidelity. Rightly or wrongly, Dopé interpreted her predicament to be the result of her public disavowal of the trokosi obligations when she reached maturity. She had been raped and abused by her kidnapper’s brother multiple times as a child. But when she reached maturity, she simply walked from the compound and moved to Cotonou to begin a new life. Whereas the individual to whom she was betrothed had made no attempt to coerce her to join the shrine as a “shrine-wife”, after his death, his brother dispatched men to kidnap her, consistent with his understanding of levirate.

Photo by Emily Rittenhouse

In Dopé’s initial interview, the US asylum officer rejected the idea that educated literate women practiced vodou. The Bureau of Immigration and Citizenship Services held that only poor, rural, and illiterate would be involved in sorcery and magic. On appeal in immigration court, this decision was overturned. Whereas ritual enslavement and vodou was dismissed by the first adjudicator — despite the fact that she was from a country where vodou is publicly sanctioned and where the state has designated a “National Voodoo Day”— defensively resisting slavery, kidnapping, rape, and imprisonment constituted established grounds for social group persecution in the eyes of the immigration judge. Citing the constitution and the statutes of Benin that prohibit many practices attendant to slavery, but importantly make no mention of trokosi and vodounsi, sexual slavery, forced marriage (mariage forcé), and sexual assault in the context of marriage, the judge held that it remained the case that many women continue to be subject to the ‘Coutumier du Dahomey’ which treat them as legal minors and accord them limited rights in marriage and inheritance. Importantly, there was no evidence of enforcement of laws protecting women from some of these human rights violations. Dopé’s legal team thus successfully reassembled her narrative as that of a woman fleeing multiple backward traditional misogynistic practices, at the center of which was a very violent form of forced marriage for which there was no plausible expectation of state protection.

Adjudicating the supernatural

It is hard to understand why vodou remains so alien a concept to refugee adjudicators. Vodou along the West African coast has been documented and interpreted for centuries. There is no shortage of lay and scholarly literature about the intrinsic importance of vodou and various other manifestations of animist belief and practice. And yet adjudicators remain resistant to interpreting persecution within the context of a vodou-based narrative as engaging the religious persecution protections enshrined in the Refugee Conventions.
And yet adjudicators remain resistant to interpreting persecution within the context of a vodou-based narrative as engaging the religious persecution protections enshrined in the Refugee Conventions
There are perhaps two reasons why this recurs so frequently. The first is the nature of the judiciary; for example in 2017 the UK judiciary remained composed of a majority of white males, although this is changing. Similar gender and racial dynamics can be found in many jurisdictions in Europe and North America. The second issue is the inherently conservative nature of refugee decision-making. No judge likes to be overturned on appeal. If a decision can be made based on existing and firmly established interpretation of the Refugee Conventions, there is a strong bias to avoid entering into discussion of matters that may raise the ire or the eyebrows of more senior judges or tribunal heads. Fortunately, both of these dynamics are subject to change over time, and I suspect in the near future attorneys representing other cases mirroring that of Dopé may not need to go to such lengths to achieve migrant justice.

About the author

Benjamin N. Lawrance is a legal historian working in Africa and with West African migrants around the globe. His research explores mobility, labor, and exploitation through time and space, and he has written about historical and contemporary slavery, human trafficking, cuisine and globalization, human rights, refugee issues and asylum policies. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the African Studies Review, the principal journal of the African Studies Association.

Recent publications

Citizenship in Question: Evidentiary Birthright and Statelessness. With Jacqueline Stevens (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

Marriage by Force? Contestation over Consent and Coercion in Africa. With Annie Bunting and Richard L. Roberts (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2016).

African Asylum at a Crossroads: Activism, Expert Testimony, and Refugee Rights. With Iris Berger, Tricia Redeker Hepner, Joanne Tague, and Meredith Terretta. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2015).

Adjudicating Refugee and Asylum Status: The Role of Witness, Expertise, and Testimony. With Galya Ruffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) Paperback 2016.

The camp beyond the city: Kakuma and the development of a camp ecology

by Bram J. Jansen

Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya is emblematic for the debate about the ambiguous phenomenon of the protracted refugee camp. This can be depicted as both an emergency measure with its perils and plight on the one hand, and its longevity, development and normalisation on the other. With its origin in 1992, located in the arid lands of northern Kenya, the camp is a quintessential example of the protracted refugee camp that becomes a solution in itself.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

The small genre of research and media attention that has emerged on Kakuma indicates that the nature and future of these camp-cities, rather than temporary and exceptional, have become a norm as lived experience under humanitarian camp governance, as an assemblage of state, UN, NGO and refugee management and influence, for a period of time that may be stretched indefinitely. I have written a book, which will be published in June 2018, in which I approach this lived experience as a form of humanitarian urbanism. The camp has taken on an urban-like form, as a result of what Massey in her book For Space (2005) refers to as a ‘throwntogetherness’, in a dense, non-agricultural, informal settlement, that is characterized by the meeting of both curtailing and enabling forces, and human agency.

Transformations of Kakuma Camp: from hardship to ‘normalcy’ and opportunity?

Kakuma is emblematic in a variety of ways. It illustrates a chronology of camp development, and ideas of refugee care and its contestations, and experiments with new forms of camp governance. But it also allowed us to reflect more conceptually on what these places come to represent and what they develop into as time passes. Reading up on Kakuma, one moves from accounts centred around violence, hardship, and marginalisation, to a more ambiguous state of newness and alternative inclusion and sociability. The camp is iconic for the history and images of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Somali Bantu resettlements, and the tragedy of the resurgence of war in what became South Sudan in 2011, and the enduring fragility and insecurity in Somalia and DR Congo.

Simultaneously it moved from a quintessentially violent and abusive place, to an emergent social form as something much more in between and ambiguous, now almost permanent but with an enduring sense of uncertainty, as I have elaborated in a recent article. The camp, at the time of this writing, is larger than ever with a population of over 170,000 in 2017, and arguably growing.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

A variety of studies over the years indicate how people make sense of life in and around Kakuma camp and how for instance economic life and education create a sense of ‘normalcy’ in the everyday experience of camp inhabitants. This indicates the ambiguous position of the camp as a temporary humanitarian measure, yet also a site that has developed over time into something more resembling a shantytown, or indeed an urban centre in the desert with a distinct shape of education and healthcare service, aesthetics, and politics.

In addition, over time the camp has become a stepping-stone for many to end up in the US, or other western countries, either via resettlement or onward migration by other means. The camp then also represents a site where refugees meet migration opportunities, creating the possibility for so-called ‘mixed migration’. This also indicates that it is not so much people’s displacement that becomes protracted, but rather the camp itself.

The humanitarian urbanism of camps

The camp, more than a protective measure, represents an assemblage of ideas, practices and opportunities, of people that may be indicated as poor, dispossessed and warehoused, but who nonetheless live their lives in this particular landscape or manage to find their way onwards. Humanitarian urbanism denotes this assemblage. The camp is viable, and its normalisation is simultaneously a terrifying and a salving thought. It represents a form of global governance for populations on the move, but caught in the middle until a way out presents itself.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

It is also emblematic for a humanitarian governance in which international humanitarian concern produces and maintains a particular space for life, that may prove to be legitimate not by intention but rather by practice. This is because a camp that was never intended to remain this long, somehow turned out to be a reasonable yet highly particular settlement, in which forms of self-regulation and subsistence co-exist and interrelate with routine humanitarian governance. Whether this form of humanitarian governance is durable is an entirely different matter, with the most pressing question being from whose perspective we approach this – humanitarians, refugees, and Kenyans all have different expectations, interpretations, and experiences with the camp as a social environment.

While the normalisation of the camp may be shocking, it appears that such camps have become common features of global politics, not least because of the effects of the youth bulge in Sub-Sahara Africa, and an anticipated sharp rise in climate-induced migration in the years to come.

The camp as experiment slowly comes to terms with the existence of a category of people whose lives are shaped by mobility and uncertainty that has become routine and permanent

The camp is also an experiment, with new forms of humanitarian action, refugee management and technology, and private sector involvement. The camp as experiment slowly comes to terms with the existence of a category of people whose lives are shaped by mobility and uncertainty that has become routine and permanent, in what Agier refers to as ‘banal cosmopolitanism’. Reluctantly, the informal economy and the way this sustains the camp, also as an effects of the communication revolution with its remittances and global social networks, shows the inevitability of the place.

Camp ecology beyond the camp: blurring boundaries with the host community

Already in the late 1990s reports suggested that refugees were better protected and serviced, or included in some semblance of governance, than the ‘local’ Turkana populations. Fifteen years later, an increasingly convincing empirical body of evidence supports the idea that the camp is beneficial for local lives and for the economy of Kenyans beyond the camp. These benefits have led to the recognition of the camp developing its surroundings, and, in combination with its long duration, inspired a new hybrid settlement approach next to the small Kalobeyei settlement some 30 km to the north. The term ‘hybrid’ indicates that the camp seeks to uplift the lives of both local and refugee populations in terms of infrastructure, care and, arguably, governmental control.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

This then indicates a new area of interest in discussing the idea of how humanitarianism as a governmentality spills over into the official outside of the camp, or rather, how the camp ecology expands and spills over into non-camp space. Much research has focussed on the social and legal contours of the camp phenomenon, a bit less on the socio-spatial, or material dynamics. Camps such as Kakuma show how UNHCR, NGOs and emerging social entities from the camp ecology come to co-govern people outside of its initial mandate by expanding the camp both in a symbolic and physical sense, and both in intended and unintended ways.

This view on the camp beyond the city may show us something about the future of camps and humanitarian governance

The limits, shape, and resistance to this expansion/intrusion is unclear, and spatial approaches to understanding refugee camps are just emerging. Martin studied the blurring of the camp with its outer environs in Lebanon, and argues that the spatial organisation of the camp should be seen more as a ‘campscape’ rather than a demarcated camp in isolation. The socio-economic landscape of camps such as Kakuma flow over and blend with the regions in which they are located. Its routine humanitarian presence and the forms of governance this produces come to impact on space and people beyond the strict boundaries of the camp, and will presumably increasingly diversify its areas of attention from human centred needs such as education, social change and healthcare, towards broader ecological concerns such as the environment and cultural and nature conservation. This view on the camp beyond the city may show us something about the future of camps and humanitarian governance.

About the author

Bram J. Jansen is a lecturer of Disaster Studies at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he teaches and writes on humanitarian and forced migration issues. He conducted ethnographic fieldwork in East and the Horn of Africa, mostly in Kenya and South Sudan. His thematic interests include aidnography, protracted refugee camps, humanitarian governance.

Links to recent publications

The humanitarian protectorate of South Sudan? Understanding insecurity for humanitarians in a political economy of aid. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 55(3), 349-370, 2017.

The refugee camp as Warscape: violent cosmologies, “rebelization,” and humanitarian governance in Kakuma, Kenya. Humanity 7(3): 429-441, 2016.

Risky relations? Aid, security and access for recovery in South Sudan. In: Dorothea Hilhorst, Bart Weijs, Gemma van der Haar (Eds.) People, Aid and Institutions in Socio-economic Recovery. Facing Fragilities. London, Routledge: 173-190, 2016.

’Digging Aid’: the camp as an option in East and the Horn of Africa. Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2, 1 June 2016, Pages 149–165, 2016.

Short pieces

The protracted refugee camp and the consolidation of a ‘humanitarian urbanism, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2017.