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When Refugees Are Cast as Outsiders, They Create New Ways to Belong

Refugees are often marginalized in their new countries, so in response, create local “belonging,” writes Lucy Hovil, senior researcher at the International Refugee Rights Initiative, in an extract from her book on Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Written by Lucy Hovil Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Congolese refugee carries his wife in his arms after getting married during a mass wedding ceremony of 46 couples at the Kavumu refugee camp in eastern Burundi on September 23, 2016.AFP/GRIFF TAPPER

Unrest and repression has prompted a mass exodus of refugees from Burundi since 2015, reversing a massive repatriation exercise over the previous decade in which approximately a half million refugees returned to the country.

The events in Burundi, in which the dividends of peace appeared to disintegrate in a matter of days, reflect many of the dynamics that have haunted Africa’s Great Lakes region for decades. Conflict and displacement in the region seem to be as entrenched as they are perplexing.

With the exception of Tanzania, all the countries in the region have generated refugees and internally displaced persons in large numbers since independence, and all have hosted refugees. Hundreds of thousands of people in the region have remained displaced, some for decades, with no solutions in sight, while thousands of others have found themselves re-displaced.

It is self-evident that there is insufficient understanding of and response to violence in the Great Lakes – indeed, in Africa as a whole. In situations of conflict on the continent, an adjective is often prescribed by external commentators that is quickly accepted as gospel — most commonly ethnic or tribal, and sometimes sectarian. Time and again, this misdiagnosis proves to be a dangerous business.

Once a label is fixed to a conflict, it can become not only a dominant explanation for that conflict, but can also overly influence approaches to resolution. It is not surprising, therefore, that cease-fires, peace agreements and externally enforced power-sharing arrangements based on reductive understandings of causes of conflict prove to be quick fixes, little more than holding exercises until conflict breaks out again.

In Burundi, for example, the momentum behind protests in 2015 reflected the many issues that the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement to end the country’s civil war had failed to address, including corruption, ongoing militarism and, of key importance, exclusion – exclusion of the majority of citizens from a centralized power source that had retained a monopoly on access to resources. The ongoing presence of Burundian refugees, and the failures of reintegration for many who returned, are evidence of these dynamics.

As a result of dysfunctional peace processes, the humiliation of not belonging, of being an outsider, of not being seen as legitimate remains at the heart of much of the ongoing crisis of conflict and displacement in the Great Lakes region.

Strategies of Belonging

Another key problem with placing conflict into molds like ethnic or sectarian is that it positions individuals caught up in them – and, often, displaced from them – into one-dimensional categories. This approach ignores local realities in which people create and maintain multiple forms of belonging, not least in order to ensure multiple forms of legitimacy and access to resources.

During our research, the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) has heard the stories of hundreds of individuals who have become marginalized through displacement, and yet who were seeking a way out of this marginalization. Whether they sought to do this through claiming national citizenship, through claiming local belonging, or through claiming a political voice in a peace agreement, each of these mechanisms holds opportunities and barriers to integration.

For example, IRRI researchers have interviewed Rwandan refugees living in Uganda who felt caught between immense pressure to return to Rwanda – and offer that was not seen to offer safety – and a host government that was pushing them to leave; former Burundian refugees struggling to exert their new citizenship in Tanzania; Congolese refugees whose legitimacy to belong was being questioned on account of their alleged ties to Rwanda; and with Sudanese from marginalized parts of the country who were being excluded by a centralized power source in Khartoum.

Refugee policies, and the way in which these have translated into humanitarian structures on the ground, have rarely reflected these complex realities of inclusion and exclusion. These realities that are often poorly understood by the outsider; are often poorly constructed; and are then often poorly implemented.

There is a tension between the fact that, on the one hand, spaces for refugee protection are continually shrinking and the label ‘refugee’ is a critical tool for targeting and maintaining focus on a specific legal category of people who are living with the realities of a specific set of circumstances both during exile and at the point of return. On the other, realities on the ground demonstrate that refugees have multiple identities, deploy multiple coping strategies, and often defy tidy categories. Both of these narratives need to listen to and interact with each other.

Refugee Policies That Reinforce Exclusion

Current policy approaches to refugees – including both national policies and the international policy regime – tend to push them to the margins of societies, thereby emphasizing and maintaining their exile. With humanitarian aid being delivered in such a way as to prioritize the political objectives of states over those of refugees, the exclusion of refugees has been constantly reinforced by the structures around them.

“I am called a refugee, a person without power,” a refugee man in Ulyankulu settlement in Tanzania told IRRI in a 2008 interview. This disempowerment, so characteristic of exile, is reinforced by the emphasis on repatriation as the optimal outcome for refugees, which maintains and prolongs their exclusion, and refugees’ powerlessness in the face of an intractable conflict in their ‘home’ country.

At the same time, refugees have shown extraordinary resourcefulness in the search to end their marginalization and find spaces for inclusion. They have forged local forms of belonging, not least through seeking out economic resources, despite their broader political exclusion. Against the odds, many refugees have repeatedly defied the restrictions placed on them and have fed their families, sent their children to school and built up resources. Yet the precariousness of their situation has remained a dominant feature of their lives.

There needs to be a far more robust focus on creating spaces for belonging that draw people in from the margins regardless of the trajectory of any conflict. The notion that refugees should have their lives put on hold until their home country is stable enough for them to return has repeatedly been shown to be not only short-sighted and inefficient, but highly detrimental to the many who find themselves in exile for long periods of time, that often span generations.

This is an edited extracted from Refugees, Conflict and the Search for Belonging, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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