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.