The journey of a thousand steps

How might refugee as well as forced migration studies benefit from the movement to decolonize all aspects of African Studies?

Photo by Christopher Eden on Unsplash

The vast majority of refugees (over eighty percent) are physically located in countries of the global South. Despite this, there is the tendency of western media, academics and politicians to almost singularly focus on migration from Africa and other parts of the Global South to the North. This has produced an outsized imaginary of Global South refugees “overwhelming” Global North states. Besides reflecting the Western gaze, these reinforce the anxieties brought on by ascendant right-wing nationalist and xenophobic movements in those societies.

Coloniality is inherent in many of the systems, policies, and research that address African refugee women. Several realities exemplify this. The close intercourse between policy and academia in the field of refugee studies has led to a situation in which knowledge and practice have become mutually constitutive and mutually reinforcing forces in the marginalization and denigration of African refugees wherever they may be found. Studies generally treat African refugees’ entry into the international refugee regime in the decolonization period as a problem to be solved by policymakers and humanitarian organizations. This is traceable to the origins of the international refugee regime in Europe resulting in a situation in which refugees who later emerged from outside Europe were treated essentially as the “other,” a problem to be managed, rather than people to help.

How can a regime created for Europe ever meaningfully address the realities of “other” refugees, a category automatically produced by the extant restrictive system? The existence and implementation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU Refugee Convention of 1969 has not shifted the power dynamics between Africa and the West in terms of the continued dependence on dwindling external aid for refugee development in Africa.

Research from the Global South does not significantly influence these realities. It either does not receive significant funding support or does not get accepted into leading journals and publications in the North, making it largely invisible to the global academy and refugee policy makers. This is unsurprising given the great disparity in resources between academics and institutions on both sides of the divide, added to the disciplinary gatekeeping that further narrows what gets published.

African refugee and migrant women confront these entrenched systems as “triple jeopardy” a feminist concept acknowledging overlapping disadvantages emanating from women’s identities. First, as Africans, refugee and migrant women from the continent experience the marginalization of Africans in a refugee regime instituted in post-war Europe for Europeans and never substantially revised to accommodate Africans. Second, on the basis of their gender, African women are more often than not second-class citizens wherever they find themselves, struggling for full rights and autonomy from patriarchal, exploitative, and discriminatory national and international systems. The history of gender perspectives in refugee law and policy indicates that the protection of refugee women was an afterthought in policy and practice, and even more so as these women were largely from the Global South. Third, intersectional differences among African women—on the basis of ethnicity, sexuality, class, disability nationality and race—produce a plethora of additional marginalization which mostly falls off the radar of Western, and sometimes, African, researchers and practitioners.

Decolonization is anchored on the recognition of entrenched coloniality in the systems, structures and processes of society, with a commitment to divest from those systems in order to ultimately replace them with Africa-centred knowledges, identities and aspirations. As a first step, it is important to document the ways in which African refugee women and men have been hitherto undervalued in knowledge production narratives, and the ways in which their presence over the years has been constructed in ways that perpetuate the hegemonic ambitions of imperialist western governments. Refugee studies to a large extent continues to use the policy categories favoured by states that divide migrant populations into persons deserving of protection, and others who are criminalized for their migratory ambitions. By this, scholarship gives discursive power and longevity to these policy categorizations which do not make sense in real life and disproportionately and negatively affect African migrants.

Also, the tendency to apportion near-total blame to African states for the African refugee crisis is an impulse often found in the refugee literature, which ignores the multifarious impacts of colonialism and neo-colonial interventions on African peoples. This serves western governments well since such research continues to legitimate their abandonment of burden-sharing in the assistance of African refugees. Furthermore, when African refugee women’s needs were to be accounted for in policies, essentialist notions anchored in white liberal feminist theories pervaded the framing and implementation of such policies.

As the decolonization ferment sweeps through various fields and locales of academia from Cairo to the Cape, and from Norway to New Zealand, refugee and forced migration studies is slowly having its own moment of reflection. The engaged involvement of African scholars and feminists as researchers into African women’s migration experiences, are urgently needed. Networks, consortiums and collaborations among African feminist scholars, academic institutions, refugee women themselves, practitioners, and governments have the potential to begin to powerfully rewrite the narrative about African refugees and migrants. Such partnerships can pool resources, amplify voices, extend reach, and solidify impact that begins to counter the western dominance in studies of African refugees and migrants. Decolonial research must also go beyond the gendered binaries that exclude many refugees and migrants from visibility and research.

Nonetheless, the African or gender identities of the scholars and the mere geographical location of scholarship in Africa do not guarantee the emancipation of the field from its current challenges. Instead, it is important to take seriously the formal and informal training of African feminists and refugee scholars in decolonial theory, methodology, and praxis.

While there is a lot to be done, the journey of a thousand kilometers begins with one step. A problem known is (only) half solved.

Further Reading