Refugees in Cities: The Politics of Knowledge

Article excerpt


Forced migration studies is a politically charged field of study. The phenomenon of forced migration challenges its researchers to tackle complex questions about the limits of gathering knowledge in the face of political interests and human suffering. However, explicit critical reflection on the politics of knowledge inherent in individual refugee research has been very scant. This article addresses some of the relevant issues, that is, questions of perspective and positionality, truth and representation.


Les etudes sur la migration forcee representent un champ d'etude politiquement sensible. Le phenomene de migration forcee presente a ses chercheurs le defi de s'attaquer aux questions complexes concernant les limites du rassemblement de la connaissance face aux interests politiques et a la souffrance humaine. Cependant, la reflexion critique explicite sur la politique de la connaissance inherente a la recherche sur les refugies individuels a ete tres peu abondante. Cet article traite de quelques problemes pertinents, c'est-a-dire les questions de perspective et d'angle de rue, de verite et de representation.


Perhaps more than other (sub)disciplines of the social and political sciences, forced migration studies enjoys a widely shared political engagement on the part of a great number of its academic practitioners. Many refugee researchers appear motivated by their political or moral principles. They aim at a critical evaluation of the controversial representations and dubious policies that define today's refugee regime, and endorse the notion that research into other people's suffering can only be justified if alleviating that suffering is an explicit objective. (1) While this exemplary politically engaged scholarship is something that refugee studies as a field can be proud of, what strikes me is that it barely goes hand-in-hand with an explicit critical reflection on the politics of knowledge and representation inherent in individual research. This is especially peculiar given that such issues have long been prominent in the social sciences and humanities. The workshop in Cairo that this Special Issue is based on brought out very clearly the host of ethical and methodological issues that complicate the practice of research in urban areas. Only three papers, though, addressed the thorny epistemological issues that accompany every search for knowledge--what can be known, who can know, how do we convey our knowledge?--and that acquire particular relevance in the politically charged context in which the creation, production, and dissemination of knowledge about forced migrants takes place.

I spent two and one-half years in Uganda (1998-2001), working with young men who fled war, insecurity, and the absence of future prospects in southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. They had ended up living in Kampala and were thus labelled "urban refugees." When I first went to Uganda, the literature on urban refugees was much scarcer than it is today. I decided on an exploratory study, looking at why young refugees came to Kampala, and how they secured their basic needs of food, shelter, and medical care. My primary focus, though, was to be on these young men's non-material or emotional well-being; on how their experiences of war, flight, and exile affected their identities and ambitions. At an early stage in my research, I learned that a major preoccupation of the young refugees was with the question "Who am I?" Their existential query became the main focus of my study.

In this article I will discuss some aspects of the "politics of knowledge" as encountered by me throughout the research process as well as during the writing-up.

Political Contexts and Political Narratives

   I was admitted to Nsambya Hospital on 11/07/99. At my own
   request, I was discharged on 16/07/99. An Ethiopian friend
   warned me that those who had attacked me could bribe nurses
   to effectively poison me when they administered injections to
   me. …