Displacement and Invisibility Strategies in Postwar Burundi

Cover photo by author. Peace village outside Gitega

Series Introduction

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

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

by Andrea Purdekova

Peacetime Displacements: A typology of (in)visibilities

Graveyard and memorial in Bugendana. Photo by author

Between 2002 and 2005, in the wake of the civil war in Burundi, hundreds of thousands of Burundians have returned to their homeland from protracted, multi-generation exile. They hailed mostly from Tanzania in a mass repatriation exercise considered a major success by the UNHCR. The reintegration challenges were nonetheless plenty. Many came back to their ancestral lands only to find them occupied, while others were resettled in purpose-built reintegration villages. A decade after the mass repatriation, the dust seems to have all but settled. ‘We are in a war-like situation!’ emphasized a widow in a resettlement ‘peace village,’ referencing the heated conflicts on the inside. ‘Peace is not there yet!’ exclaimed an IDP respondent, referencing widespread fears around government’s intent to disperse inhabitants of the informal site.

In academic research and policy thinking alike, powerful labels such as ‘post-war,’ ‘post-conflict’ and ‘peacetime’ tend to create assumptions about a straightforward path from the end of conflict to return and resettlement. After the war and before the recent crisis (2005-2015), Burundi has often been synonymous with mass return of refugees from protracted exile, with important scholarship exploring the challenges of reintegration and continued land conflict in rural areas. Though the emphasis on resettlement has been made for good reasons, this dominant frame nonetheless obscured the continued experiences of displacement and unsettling in post-war Burundi.

My research thus looks at what remains invisible from this dominant lens on post-war space. The invisibility produced through dominant labels and actual interventions must be seen alongside the diverse strategies people deploy to subvert or embrace invisibilisation in order to stake their own claims. Invisibility thus works at two levels at least: a structural form of invisibility that does not negate but simply obscures experiences of dislocation during peacetime, and more micro-level and enabling strategies of invisibility that people use to stake their claims to place in the post-war order. In what follows, I will look at how these disabling and enabling forms of invisibilisation intertwine among returnees resettled in ‘peace villages’ and among IDPs who resist pressures to leave their informal sites.

Powerful labels such as ‘post-war’, ‘post-conflict’ and ‘peacetime tend to create assumptions about a straightforward path from the end of conflict to return and resettlement

Peace Villages: Dislocations of ‘Resettlement’

Peace villages in post-war Burundi were established as a way to resettle returning refugees (principally from Tanzania) who were unable to access their ancestral lands. In this context, the notion of ‘peace’ referred to the purposefully inter-ethnic nature of these villages as spaces where all ethnicities would live side by side. But during my visits to peace villages like Mutambara in Bururi province in the south of the country, the name proved to be misleading. Mutambara village was beset by conflict, which ironically became a source of renewed displacement.

Women walking outside Gishubi. Photo by author.

The conflict that emerged, however, had precious little to do with inter-ethnic tensions. Instead, the conflict in Mutambara revolved around land, dispossession and livelihoods and was tied to the peace village resettlement project as such. First of all, the resettlement site of Mutambara, just like many others across the country, was established on a previously inhabited site. The former residents were said to be illegally occupying the land and were dispersed, only to mount a protest within the peace village, erecting mud house structures right next to the new purpose-built houses. In this act of protest, residents were attempting to make their displacement directly visible and to stake their claims to the site.

As I was entering Mutambara for the first time, inhabitants of the adjacent area pressed on me to interview them too. This was known as the ‘burned area’ and its inhabitants faced an eerily similar predicament to the original settlers of Mutambara. As in the past, the local authorities tried to expel the residents by force to clear the area for a new construction project; this time, the construction of the Makonde peace village.

The ‘occupation’ of the village by former displaced residents created tensions and open conflict between the families of residents and returnees, and led to articulations by former refugees of a desire to flee back to exile. Both sides in this confrontation were trying hard to make their dislocations visible, in the face of silence in the local and national press and the lack of awareness from of politicians, donors and scholars. The Mutambara residents who had their houses ‘occupied’ pooled money to send a representative to Bujumbura to speak directly to the Ministry of Solidarity, Social Affairs, Human Rights and Gender, to little effect.

There were other forms of invisible displacement happening within the villages as well. Most of the beneficiaries questioned whether these sites were viable spaces of resettlement where sustainable livelihoods could be created. The small plots, arid land and few employment options led many to either plan for or dream of returning to exile in Tanzania, and some had already left.  Resettlement villages were thus quite literally sites of active unsettling.

IDP Sites: Resisting Return and Relocation

The post-war focus on return and resettlement obscured another lingering displacement, namely the continued existence of about 120 IDP sites in Burundi almost a decade after the signing of the Arusha peace agreement, sites mostly inhabited by ethnic Tutsi. Despite a lack of international attention, these sites were not invisible in Burundi itself. In fact, the sites were considered undesirable by the government and pressure was mounted by the government for the inhabitants’ dispersal and return back to their hills of origin.

Outside Butengana settlement. Photo by author.

Similar stories around forced dispersal emerged at a number of sites, but no community seemed more acutely worried at the time of my research trips than the IDPs at Bugendana, in central Burundi, about an hour’s drive out of the city of Gitega. Bugendana is an unofficial, precarious settlement with about 500 houses spreading away from an informal memorial graveyard to 670 victims of a vicious attack on the camp in 1996, allegedly perpetrated by then CNDD-FDD rebels, now the dominant political party in power. At Bugendana, the authorities have announced a plan to develop the site into a second national airport, in line with broader plans to develop Gitega into the capital of Burundi. The inhabitants of Bugendana were worried not only about physical removal and forced return but also about the erasure of memory that the redevelopment of this site would entail. They read a range of ulterior motives into the decision to clear the site and forcibly remove them.

Child in Bugendana settlement. Photo by author

Bugendana’s inhabitants, as those of many other sites, resisted dispersal and return to what they believed were unsafe spaces in their home communities and used a variety of strategies to stay put. They actively claimed visibility by protesting the government’s plans as forced displacement, by insisting that a return to their rural homes would maintain their predicament as internally displaced. At the same time, however, they also tried to actively invisibilise themselves as internally displaced in a bid to assert their right to stay.

In their narratives, they purposefully worked to redefine their informal sites as homes and legitimate settlements, even likening them to ‘peace villages.’ ‘Since you are building a peace village over there,’ an old woman in the Mworo Ngundu site suggested, pointing across the road, ‘you should just extend it [to here]…you could provide us with iron sheets and we can build right here. And then we can live in harmony, a Hutu would come and establish a house here…[T]he community is [in fact] mixed, [there are] even Hutu, even Batwa over there.’ Across Burundi’s lingering IDP sites, people were actively drawing on the state’s own rhetoric around the importance of inter-ethnic integration in order to subvert its push for dispersal.

Across Burundi’s lingering IDP sites, people were actively drawing on the state’s own rhetoric around the importance of inter-ethnic integration in order to subvert its push for dispersal

Conclusion: An Unsettling Peace

These examples from my chapter in Invisibility in African Displacements point to the multiple dislocations and displacements operating not simply alongside return and resettlement, or despite peace, but as integrative part of the post-war re-ordering of space and social relations in peace village resettlement sites or lingering IDP sites. Brand new resettlement sites displace prior settlers and become sites of displacement in their own right for the returnees intended to inhabit them. In the meantime, IDP site inhabitants resist active pressures to disperse in the name of social integration and development. Even as they highlight their precarity and inability to return, they also try to invisibilise their status as ‘displaced’ in an attempt to stay put.

Road in Bugendana settlement. Photo by author.

Even though Mutambara and Bugendana reference very different forms of war-related experience – one of mainly Hutu returnees from exile in Tanzania, the other of mainly Tutsi internally displaced – they both point to the unsettling nature of peace in post-accord Burundi. The returnees and IDPs I interviewed questioned the nature of the state-citizen link re-established after the war, and questioned whether there was indeed the sort of security that would enable them to return, and to stay.

About the author

Andrea Purdekova is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies (PoLIS) at the University of Bath. She holds a DPhil in International Development from the University of Oxford where her dissertation explored the Rwandan government’s attempts to build unity after the 1994 genocide. More broadly, her research explores the political dynamics of states emerging from mass violence, specifically the politics of reconciliation and nation building, the politics of memory, and the politics of displacement, settlement and camps. Her regional focus is the Great Lakes Region of Africa and she has conducted most of my research in Rwanda and Burundi. Purdekova is the author of Making Ubumwe: Power, State and Camps in Rwanda’s Unity-Building Project (Berghahn Books, 2015), which was shortlisted for the 2016 Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize awarded annually by the African Studies Association.

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

Cover photo by Alessandro Vannucci via Flickr

Series Introduction

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

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

by Lotte Pelckmans

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

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

Post-slavery in Niger-Nigeria Borderlands

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

The Niger-Nigeria borderlands. Map from Wikipedia

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


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

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

Questioning in/visibility

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

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

Fugitive displacement and emplacement

‘Hadijatou’ official poster

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

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

About the author

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

Displacement agriculture: neither seen nor heard

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

Series Introduction

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

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

Displacement agriculture: neither seen nor heard

by Clayton Boeyink

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

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

Sufficiently invisible and invisibly self-sufficient

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

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

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

Tanzania’s refugee governance in historical perspective

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

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

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

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

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

The Magufuli regime’s climate of terror

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

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

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

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

About the author

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

Introducing “Invisibility in African Displacements”

Series Introduction

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

Introducing Invisibility in African Displacements

Jesper Bjarnesen & Simon Turner

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

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

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

Understanding in/visibilisation

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

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

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

In/visibilisation effects

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

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

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

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

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

About the authors

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

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