Essentialism and the making of African refugees

African “refugeeness” in the media, policy, and academia is an essentialist physical image conflating material deprivation and multiple victimhoods.

Image credit Zoriah via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0.

Historically, African refugees were capable of political participation even to the point of building vibrant states in the new lands they fled to in precolonial Africa. The migrations triggered by the Mfecane in Southern Africa, often discussed as part of precolonial state-building, are historical refugee movements by people who, in hindsight, moved because of “well-founded fear of persecution” enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention. As breakaway factions that fled Nguniland in present-day South Africa settled in new areas, they built new states, exemplified by the Ndebele State founded by Mzilikazi and his followers in present day southern Zimbabwe.

Colonial era refugees similarly exercised political agency and contributed to liberation and independence. In the frontline states, refugee status was intertwined with political and military activities, as refugee camps accommodated both liberation movements and civilians exemplified by Black people who fled Rhodesia and were accommodated at Mgagao in Tanzania, and Chimoio and Nyadzonia in Mozambique. Refugee camps, such as those at Nyadzonia and Chimoio, were hives of political activity and military strategizing. This led to Rhodesian forces bombing both camps in 1976 and 1977 respectively in what became the infamous symbols of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. At independence, colonial regimes were supplanted by African regimes that similarly generated refugees in many instances. Post-independence states were deemed as subversive and outlawed political and military activities among refugees. Refugee hosting became an apolitical, social, and humanitarian act.

Therein lies the contemporary pathologization of African refugees. Post-independence African refugees have become the embodiment of an apathetic state symbolized by victimhood and “bare life.” More than being a legal status, the refugee status, as it is borne by Africans, has an essence of “refugeeness.” African “refugeeness” as it is currently depicted in the media, policy, and even academia is an essentialist physical image conflating material deprivation and multiple victimhoods. It blends insecurity with poverty, lack of education, old age, and diseases. Its gender dimension is made up of vulnerable femininity and desperate motherhood, represented by sexual and gender-based violence and malnourished babies and toddlers in a category Cynthia Enloe (1992) in the edited collection, Collateral Damage-‘New World Order’ at Home and Abroad, aptly describes as “womenandchildren.” These women are gender-balanced by masculinity in a state of dangerous vulnerability, which makes them the object of both empathy and antipathy.

Over the years, the muting power of images has rendered African refugees an undifferentiated although gendered mass of victimhood. This has become the yardstick against which “refugeeness” as an essentialist status or the genuineness of asylum claims are measured in public opinion. Refugees who do not fit the stereotypical image of “refugeeness” as a state of multiple victimhoods are dismissed as spurious. It would seem that it is only the poor, aged, infirm, and female who flee violent conflicts. Yet, the reality of violent conflict is that it also displaces the well-to-do, young, healthy, and male. African refugees are made up of varied demographic characteristics and come from diverse backgrounds that cannot be homogenized into a single socioeconomic status captured by essentialist discourses framed around the forlorn image of the African refugee.

Further Reading

Passing as a refugee

Borders and camps across Africa are using biometrics to track refugees. For those who are stateless, “fraud” can allow for the smuggling of truths into administrative lies.