Unthinking refugee studies

What use are academic categories when they reinforce conservative concepts scholars seek to challenge?

Cover image from We Do Not Have Borders.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about authorial intent and how one responds to one’s readers. One of the most nail-biting aspects of publishing a book is awaiting its reception. A few months ago, I published my first book: We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya. What I did not anticipate is that, in the wake of its publication, I would be labeled a “refugee studies” scholar. I have since received five invitations to be part of conferences or panels on the theme of refugees or some related topic (such as expulsion).

It’s an honor to gain recognition from one’s peers. However, I was also left unsettled by email requests that seemed to misapprehend the very arguments of my book. While Kenya has experienced a large influx of refugees since the start of the Somali civil war in the late 1980s, it is also home to a long-standing Somali population. We Do Not Have Borders examines why Somalis who have lived within the boundaries of Kenya for generations (in many cases, since long before Kenya existed!) are widely perceived to be not fully “native” to the country. This is explicitly not a book about refugees. Rather, it is a work about a population who have crossed and been crossed by borders and who have as much claim to “indigeneity” as any other ethnic group in Kenya. In fact, regardless of their (often ambiguous) legal status, Somalis in Kenya can make various kinds of intergenerational claims to belong in the country.

To be fair, my book delves into the recent history of Somali refugees in Kenya. And the cover (a photograph from the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya that I chose for its symbolic power) certainly invites confusion. Nevertheless, neither the cover nor content explain why my work is consistently read through the lens of refugee studies. Rather, being pigeon-holed in this way speaks to dominant and entrenched ways of thinking about the area and its people. Somalis outside of Somalia are widely assumed to be “refugees.”

Confusion can be productive. It’s difficult to unthink the nation-state. It’s even more challenging to take seriously the reality of national borders, while continually subjecting them to critique. But it’s precisely these moments of conceptual slippage (when, for example, we confuse citizens for refugees) that invite us to think anew about a region and about our own well-grooved assumptions.

The Kenyan-Somali frontier, like many borderland regions, is a site that unsettles the distinction between foreigner and citizen. It’s perhaps little surprise that scholars (myself included) have long been fascinated with borderlands, which seem to lay bare the artificiality of national boundaries and invite anti-essentialist explorations of creolité, mixing and hybridity. I wonder how far we can stretch this metaphor? Perhaps the Mediterranean can be seen as an arbitrary boundary dividing Europe from North Africa, which was once viewed as a common cultural zone. As the descendants of former imperial subjects and members of the “Mediterranean world,” can Franco-Maghrebians be thought of as something other than immigrants? Might they also be considered “at home” in France?

I am excited about the recent resurgence of interest in refugee studies in Africa. It is a timely topic given the way nativist sentiments seem to be gripping the world. Yet, I worry that my colleagues remain wedded to the idea of the African (and especially the Somali) as the quintessential refugee. I think we can do better. At its best, the study of African migration should unsettle our assumptions about who is a “stranger,” opening space for us to consider the histories that link nations together and connect Africa to the world.

Further Reading