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