The imagined immorality of refuge

Behind the anxieties about tackling forced displacement and terror, is the recognizable lexicon of racialized difference. This all infuses the practice of humanitarianism.

Kenyan security forces in Dadaab. Image credit Daniel Dickinson for EC/ECHO via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0.

In recent years, Kenya’s refugee camps have been routinely characterized by mainstream media as “hotbeds” in a regional geography of “terror.” Images of camps as crisis-ridden or lawless—predating the country’s fight against the Somali Al-Shabaab—have been infused with fears over the infiltration of “safe” humanitarian spaces. Refugees at the receiving end of ethno-racialized discrimination, such as Somalis, have born the brunt of growing suspicions from both the government and the wider public in Kenya and abroad, while South Sudanese refugees were no less problematically portrayed as especially “difficult populations.”

Popular narratives about “refugee terrorists”, “criminals”, or “troublesome” aliens have loomed large in past years and legitimized acts of spectacular state violence. One example is Operation Usalama Watch in 2014—during which thousands of Somalis were incarcerated and systematically abused by Kenyan police forces— and punitive police operations against Nuer and Dinka communities in Kakuma Camp the same year, followed by the Kenyan government’s decision to close down the Dadaab refugee camps in 2016. Meanwhile, aid organizations have often pleaded with government authorities to not add to the suffering of “vulnerable” groups in need of protection.

In my experience of studying humanitarian operations in Kenya, these opposing representations of refugees as potential “terrorists” and “criminals” or “vulnerable victims” are in fact built on a series of shared imaginaries that reproduce a racialized, colonial discourse on immorality, belonging, and civilization. The United Nations (UN) itself have recently come under fire over institutional racism and discrimination among its ranks. UN Secretary-General António Guterres had to defuse a controversy over a memo discouraging staff from participating in anti-racism protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last summer. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) concedes in its Guidance on Racism and Xenophobia that “racism can undo all the work UNHCR and our partners do to protect those we serve.” Writing about her experience of working for the organization, former UNHCR staffer Corinne Gray notes in The New Humanitarian, “while we’d like to think we’re good people because of the very nature of our work, our humanitarianism does not preclude us from exhibiting racism. In many ways our humanitarianism reinforces it.”

Unsurprisingly, prejudice and discrimination rarely manifest in official speeches or reports, in which NGOs, aid agencies, and governments usually profess their commitments to human rights and self-imposed codes of conduct. Adia Benton contends that white supremacy and structural racism are instead more insidiously embedded in everyday humanitarian professional practices, with harmful consequences for aid workers of color and racialized “beneficiaries.” According to Ruth Wilson Gilmore, racism works systemically as the “extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Differential vulnerability of those living under humanitarian administration is further reinforced through the everyday actions, utterances, and imaginings of aid workers and officials. Refugees are habitually viewed through a quasi-colonial gaze that casually—and seemingly inconsequentially—conflates race, ethnicity, and mobility with forms of “immorality.”

In Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya, one of the largest on the continent, NGO and government workers—both Kenyan and “foreign” alike—were often preoccupied with panics around the “moral degeneracy” of refugees who they regularly depicted as “cunning”, “sexually deviant”, or simply “uncivilized.” Buried underneath these ascriptions lay a colonial mapping of the world in which “primitive” or “pre-civilizational” societies are perennially at the mercy of Western-centric humanitarian salvation. The unspoken subtext of encampment was therefore a “civilizing mission” to turn supposedly disorderly and morally unmoored refugees into responsible, worthy, quasi-citizens.

Josiah was a middle-aged aid worker and former officer in the Kenyan army who I first met in March 2015 in the Kakuma camp. In the 1990s, he joined a faith-based aid organization in Kakuma. Yet over two decades on the job had left him disillusioned. “If you are not intelligent, you can’t manage the Somalis,” he warned gloomily before asserting almost apologetically—lest there be any doubt—that the South Sudanese were also “criminals kabisa” (total criminals). Josiah was no outlier or “bad apple” in this regard—far from it. Aid compounds—in which humanitarians, police officers, journalists, researchers, and donor delegations meet and mingle—were breeding grounds for such talk. While white Euro-American humanitarians were flag-bearers of these racist discourses, their Kenyan counterparts (who made up the majority of agency staff) seemed equally invested in tropes that drew much inspiration from the racialized subsoil of postcolonial Kenyan society. A Kenyan UN protection officer remarked nonchalantly during an interview in Kakuma, “We are dealing with refugees here—one, people that do not understand the law; two, people that do not understand order, you see?”

Refugees as “crooks” and opportunistic criminals—who took advantage of both international aid and Kenyan hospitality—was a recurring and, for many, convincing trope. Marcus, a thirty-year-old policeman, decried the criminal minds of young South Sudanese in Kakuma. “There is no good or bad youth […]. They are all bad, thieves and thugs”. In his view, pleas for human rights, aid and humanitarian protection were a decoy—a performance directed at well-meaning donors from Europe and North America, whereas his police officers saw the “unruliness” and supposed violence that refugee youth were capable of. Stern-faced, he asserted, “that’s how they really are.”

Relatedly, camp residents were attributed with sexual promiscuity that rehashed racist colonial discourses on hypersexualized Africans and their “licentious” urges. While the breakdown of familial ties through displacement offered one oft-cited explanation for the imagined surge of “immoral” behavior, notions of immutable cultural and racial “otherness” were equally often invoked. Sexuality worked, in Michel Foucault’s terms, as a potent discourse on pleasure and power that organized public morality in the camp. This could easily leave refugees in a double-bind: either as imagined victims or as perpetrators of “backward” cultures and violent African masculinities, or as disciples of a debauched “Western” morality that supposedly celebrates and promotes homosexuality and rewards those who follow suit with resettlement.

Morality is key for understanding the inner workings of aid regimes. Humanitarianism itself is a deeply “moral project” propelled by socio-historical beliefs in a Euro-American mandate for the deliverance of racialized Others through intervention and imposition of “order.” Fassin has further identified the rise of a new moral economy of humanitarianism that is not just a way of empathizing with suffering but, crucially, of governing “sufferers.” The colonial overtones and pretensions of everyday discourses on the moral decay or “uncivilized” customs of refugees in Kakuma were hard to ignore. Faced with trouble in implementing public health outreach inside the camp in 2016, Samantha—a white humanitarian who I sometimes met for dinner at the UN compound—privately denounced an entire refugee community as “fucking bush people that don’t even know how to use a toilet.” Years of humanitarian assistance, trainings, and workshops had in her mind done little to change the harmful cultural practices of those refugees, so she wondered “how are they going to learn more complex stuff?”

“Refuge” is not only a geographical location to facilitate protection and aid. Rather, it harbors distinct moral imaginaries that often pathologize refugees as a defective category of humanity. Beneath current anxieties about tackling forced displacement, terror, crime, and victimhood lies a recognizable lexicon of racialized difference that infuses humanitarianism in practice. While “morality” may offer an emotive framing to put into motion the wheels of aid in times of crisis, it remains a double-edged sword and a colonial technology that problematically naturalizes a hierarchy of who does and does not deserve assistance. As such, it precludes any possibility of genuine solidarity, equality, or material justice.

Further Reading