Liminal Spaces: Changing Inter-Generational Relations among Long-Term Liberian Refugees in Ghana

Article excerpt

This paper reports on changing inter-generational relations among long-term Liberian refugees in the Buduburam settlement camp in Ghana. Four months of fieldwork were conducted in the settlement, using a range of qualitative methods to elicit emic understandings of the nature and causes of changes in inter-generational relations: focus groups, individual interviews, participant observation, and diary-keeping by refugees. Various aspects of the refugee experience, in particular the strategies used by young people to cope with long-term livelihood insecurity, are seen by camp inhabitants to have led to a reconfiguration of relationships between older and younger people and even to the blurring of generational categories. There is a powerful discourse linking economic impotence of older people with the erosion of inter-generational relations of authority and deference. This is seen to have encouraged both a devaluation of old age and experience within the community and an increase in tensions between young and old. In response, some older people choose to transgress generational boundaries by adopting aspects of youth culture and style, while younger people express considerable ambivalence about their own ability to make the transition from youth to adulthood. We argue that the camp and policy context of Buduburam diminishes the ability of refugees to become full social and economic adults in their own terms, as well as pushing young people in particular into risky livelihoods strategies. This has important implications for the ability of everyone, both young and old, to cope with the demands of refugee life.

Key words: refugee camps, Liberian refugees, Ghana, youth-elderly relations, Buduburam


While young people have been shown to be particularly vulnerable in situations of conflict and forced migration, it has also been increasingly recognized in recent years that they can exhibit remarkable resilience and ability to overcome adversity when faced with new and changing situations. However, where this is the case, the relationships between older and younger people may be reconfigured and generational categories blurred. In this paper, we present an emic perspective of changing inter-generational relations among long-term Liberian refugees in the Buduburam settlement camp in Ghana, focusing on the social implications of disruptions to "normal" life course chronology.

Theoretical Background: Changing Inter-Generational Relations in Refugee Situations

Conflict and the various disruptions associated with forced migration are widely considered to affect children and young people disproportionately (Machel 2001 ; Berman 2001). The negative impact of conflict on young people can be heightened when they are conscripted into armies, which has been widespread in Liberia and other conflicts in Africa (Human Rights Watch 1994). However, a growing literature finds that young people affected by war and displacement can act positively as agents in overcoming adversity. Boyden (2003) suggests that children and young adults often adapt to disruption and the demands of change more easily than elders. Young people may be better able to take up new livelihood opportunities during times of conflict and social change, and to interact with personnel from aid agencies (Vincent and Sorenson 2001). Chatty and Hundt (2001) found that young Palestinian refugees coped with conflict and displacement though mobilizing diverse social support systems (family, friends, and formal and informal youth groups), as well as engaging in religious and political activism. Swaine and Feeny (2004) show how, during the Kosovo conflict, adolescent girls took active steps to pursue their own wishes and needs (despite considerable obstacles) which helped them to make sense of their situations.

Conflict and displacement frequently lead to the transformation of young people's roles and responsibilities. Boyden et al. (2002) noted that children and young people caught up in conflicts in South Asia often took on increased productive responsibilities, as well as being involved directly in armed struggle. …