Academic journal article Refuge

Tragic and Heroic Moments in the Lives of Forced Migrants: Memories of Political Asylum-Seekers in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Academic journal article Refuge

Tragic and Heroic Moments in the Lives of Forced Migrants: Memories of Political Asylum-Seekers in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Article excerpt


This article examines the memories of a group of Cameroonian asylum-seekers in South Africa, analyzing personal accounts of memories of fear, suffering, and pain as well as resilience and heroism during their forced migration. The article argues that the legitimacy of applications for asylum often depends on accurate and consistent memories of specific life-threatening episodes at home and during migration. Drawing on theoretical conceptions such as construction of memory, autobiographical memory, and politics of storytelling, this article teases out how personal memories of asylum-seekers provide a discursive space to access and understand the asymmetries of seeking political asylum in post-apartheid South Africa.


Cet article etudie les souvenirs d'un groupe de chercheurs d'asile d'origine camerounaise en Afrique du Sud. Il analyse leurs temoignages personnels de souvenirs associes a la peur, la souffrance et la douleur, ainsi que ceux de la perseverance et de l'heroisme lors de leur migration forcee. L'article maintient que la legitimite des demandes d'asile depend souvent des souvenirs precis et coherents de situations specifiques impliquant un danger de mort qu'ils ont subies dans leurs pays ainsi que lors de la migration. En faisant appel a des conceptions theoriques telles que la construction de la memoire, la memoire autobiographique, et la politique des recits narratifs, l'article fait ressortir la facon dont les souvenirs personnels des chercheurs d'asile produisent un espace discursif pour acceder et comprendre la dimension asymetrique inherente a la recherche d'un asile politique en Afrique du Sud post-apartheid.


In the asylum application process, "the decisions [to grant political asylum] very often rest on a judgement whether or not the claimants and their story are credible." (1) This entails "the ability to recall specific memories" in a narrative that is deemed consistent and coherent by the asylum determination officers. (2) Although experiences of forced migrants are those of fear, pain, and suffering, which they would rather forget than remember, the inclusion of specific details of key moments in their lives is often construed as a marker of credibility. (3) This approach to asylum narratives lends itself to "the question of the relationship between 'facts' and emplotment, truth and representation." (4)

In the case of South Africa, the legitimacy of claims for political asylum resides not only in the techniques of narrative construction but also in the recollection of life-threatening experiences at home and during the journey to exile. (5) However, because of the inadequacy of resources to manage the increasing influx of asylum-seekers, and the prescripts of the South African immigration policies such as the infamous Aliens Control Amendment Act of 1995 or Refugees Act of 1998, the term illegal immigrants remains the dominant discourse and often is used as a pretext to reject applications of bona fide asylum-seekers. (6) Certain immigration policies have been amended to respond to the changing characteristics of global human mobility, but stories of asylum-seekers from war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia are often privileged by the refugee determination officials because of South African media coverage of devastating wars in these countries. (7) For Cameroonians, this process entails remembering moments of immeasurable suffering, fear, and pain, as well as feats of heroism in a country rated by South Africa as politically stable and therefore a non-refugee-producing country. (8)

To understand the subjectivity of Cameroonians' exilic experiences, we need to examine how these experiences are recalled and how Cameroonian asylum-seekers "build themselves into the world by creating meaning [and] by fashioning out of [traumatic images], a sense of what the world is all about. …

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