Refugee debates have an African history problem

Despite increased global debate over refugee issues, few discuss these issues in terms of refugee histories, especially histories of Africans seeking refuge in and beyond the continent.

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The relationship between refugees and history is a paradox. On the one hand, historical knowledge is valuable for understanding refugees and for supporting displaced people pursuing desired futures. On the other hand, national governments, United Nations bodies, and humanitarian agencies present the global “refugee problem” as if it could be solved through proper management of an international system—and without historical knowledge of refugees. Even the academic field of refugee studies tends to focus on information required to manage refugees rather than on understanding the circumstances that have compelled specific people to migrate across international borders, or the construction of “the refugee” as a powerful term for categorizing the displaced.

African history has been especially neglected in debates about refugees. For the past 60 years, much of the world’s refugee population has lived in, and hailed from, the African continent. Nevertheless, Africans remain at the periphery of global refugee debates, repeatedly reduced to stereotypes that present refugees either as victims or threats. With attention focused heavily on the refugee politics of Western host nations, the biological needs of refugees, and the biopolitics of refugee management, Africans’ unique histories of displacement and of hosting the displaced are regularly overlooked, seemingly insignificant to know.

Nevertheless, as a marginal but growing body of scholarship attests, refugee history matters—especially histories of Africans seeking refuge in and beyond the continent. Anthropologist Liisa Malkki made this point poignantly 25 years ago, drawing from her now classic ethnography of Burundian Hutu refugees in Tanzania, to call for a “radically historicizing” approach to refugees. Since then, other anthropologists have followed suit, offering detailed studies of life in refugee camps and of the significance of historical knowledge among displaced people. More recently, historians have also contributed to this field, tracing Africans seeking refuge before, during, and since European colonization. Moreover, historians have highlighted the development of the international refugee regime, noting that, during the 1960s and 1970s, Africans fit awkwardly within international refugee law and often defied dominant global expectations of what it meant to be a refugee.

Of recent work on these topics, Bonny Ibhawoh’s stands out. In his contribution to the latest issue of African Studies Review (ASR), Ibhawoh writes about the Nigeria-Biafra War and 4,000 children whom relief agencies airlifted from Biafra to Gabon and Cote d’Ivoire in 1968—and whom the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) partially repatriated two years later. As he explains, there was little precedent for the UNHCR in determining refugee status and managing repatriation in Africa before the Biafran crisis. Ibhawoh’s research, therefore, highlights how the global humanitarian discourse surrounding refugees began to emerge, allowing for a critical perspective on now taken for granted norms and practices.

My own work points to the value of biographical research with individuals who were refugees during Southern Africa’s liberation struggles. In my contribution to ASR, I focus on Mawazo Nakadhilu, a refugee born in 1972 to a Tanzanian mother and a Namibian father affiliated with the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). Mawazo lived with her mother’s family until 1983, when SWAPO first relocated her to a camp in Zambia and later “repatriated” her to Namibia just prior to the country’s political independence in 1990. As I emphasize, these circumstances have undermined the ability of Mawazo and other “struggle children” to make homes—a significant social issue overlooked in scholarship on exiled nationalist movements, but clearly visible when viewing the lives of individual exiles/refugees.

Other scholarship just published in ASR focuses on Africans displaced over the past two decades, and how their experiences relate to longer histories and contemporary narratives of displacement. For example, Duduzile Ndlovu’s research examines displaced Zimbabweans now living in Johannesburg and how they narrate the Gukurahundi—violence that the Zimbabwean government perpetrated on its own citizens in Matabeleland from 1981 to 1987. As Ndlovu emphasizes, attending to how displaced Zimbabweans narrate the past in the present is largely superfluous to refugee literature, but crucial to grasping the legacies of Zimbabweans’ and other displaced people’s experiences.

Marten Bedert draws our attention to the experiences of refugees from Cote d’Ivoire living in Liberia between 2011 and 2013 in the aftermath of Cote d’Ivoire’s contested 2010 elections. As he highlights, “refugees” tend to be stigmatized in long-standing relationships between “landlords” and “strangers” in this region, because the label “refugee” undermines Ivoirians from being accepted as strangers by their Liberian hosts. By drawing our attention to deep histories of cross-border migration and ethnographic research with individual refugees, Bedert tracks issues that refugees face in host communities that are overlooked by programs aimed at refugee management.

Finally, Katherine Luongo discusses Africans seeking refuge outside the continent, focusing on individuals applying for political asylum in Canada and Australia on the premise that they are “perceived witchcraft practitioners” or “victims of witchcraft.” As she emphasizes, despite significant policy differences, both countries are similarly incapable of evaluating the risks of witchcraft-related violence among asylum seekers because of immigration officials’ insufficient knowledge of the contexts in which the applications are framed and general incredulity towards witchcraft. It follows that these officials should appeal to relevant expertise, including historical expertise, so that they may apply the UN Convention more justly to such asylum seekers.

As each of these studies suggests, addressing refugee issues today requires first seeing that the debates surrounding these issues have an African history problem, and then working, both carefully and urgently to address this matter.

Further Reading