Urban Refugees: Introduction

By Fabos, Anita; Kibreab, Gaim | Refuge, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Urban Refugees: Introduction


Fabos, Anita, Kibreab, Gaim, Refuge


Introduction

Interest in refugees who live in urban settings, especially those of the global south, has developed fairly recently, although refugees themselves have always been part of urban society. In 2002, the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program at the American University in Cairo held a workshop to explore some of the methodological and ethical issues implicit in doing research among urban refugee populations in developing societies. Many of the papers in this issue developed from this initial endeavour. However, it was evident that the contributing authors had concerns with the systemic context for urban refugees that went beyond the epistemological aspects of the research process. In particular, the experiences of refugees in the cities described by contributors--Kampala, Cairo, Johannesburg, Khartoum--are characterized by a high level of vulnerability stemming from arbitrary and schizophrenic international protection policies deriving from anxieties embodied by the nation-state system.

This special issue is devoted to the analyses of political, social, economic, and legal barriers for refugees in urban settings, particularly as these shape the opportunities, strategies, vulnerabilities, and livelihoods of refugees in African cities. We are interested in framing the central thrusts of the contributions through considering regional urbanization, shifts in global patterns of refugee movements, and transnationalism. State policies concerning immigration, naturalization, and citizenship produce some of the structural factors shaping these complex developments, although to a large degree they are the inevitable result of globalization processes. The scholars whose work is represented here provide research-based evidence that policies designed to manage the symptoms of refugees "out of place" are unable to accommodate the fundamental challenge refugees pose to the nation-state system.

Clearly, state policies that tighten up borders, reduce immigration, and limit access to citizenship are at odds with regional processes of urbanization, increased population movements globally, and the development oftransnational spaces, and urban refugees are caught in the middle. These policies that attempt to make the presence of refugees in urban--and national--settings illegitimate are counterproductive inasmuch as they try to counteract irresistible demographic trends.

In what follows we show that urbanization is an irreversible process in the African context, and that the movement of refugees to urban areas can only make sense in this context. Furthermore, state policies of segregation, securitization, and criminalization of urban refugees are inextricably linked to the objectives of states to create and perpetuate differences between insiders and outsiders--of which citizenship is a key determinant. Generally, refugee law is the exception to domestic immigration law because it allows certain people to enter the territories of other states without a visa or other requirements. In Africa, however, refugee law is used as an instrument of exclusion and separation--but only to hold up exclusive nationalitylaw (Kagan in this issue). As Kibreab points out in this issue, in nearly all developing countries, refugees are received as temporary guests until the conditions that prompted their displacement are eliminated. Once the political conditions that caused displacement cease, refugees are expected to return home regardless of the duration of exile. Spatial segregation of refugees is seen as an important instrument of preventing refugees' integration into host societies by prolonging their refugee status. This strategy is defeated if refugees are settled in urban area, and helps explain why host countries in the South regulate the presence of refugees in urban areas.

Finally, the authors in this issue describe the ways in which refugees carve out a space under adverse conditions not simply by reacting to unfavourable state policies and practices but also through creative engagement and mobilization of social networks in search of viable livelihoods, often with a transnational dimension, against all odds. …

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