Forced migration and displacement in Africa: contexts, causes and consequences

By Kevin M. DeJesus

The impetus for this special issue is the continuing need to identify, deconstruct, situate, analyze and re-situate the regional, national and internecine conflicts which drive the forced migration of citizens of the continent, and their impacts on the lived experiences of those Africans forced to flee their homes. The contributors to this special issue elucidate the impacts of these conflicts, their spatial, material and place-driven forms, as well as the processes by which refugees, internally displaced persons, and people displaced by environmental factors establish and navigate network, material and economic resources in the course of flight and re-location. These resources enable, inhibit, or make complex the routes and paths required to forge means of survival and sustainability in the making of these new geographies of living. The experience of forced migration, as these authors explore, involve, from the outset, people becoming identified in a multitude of bureaucratic ways that are of great consequence to the outcomes of their lives (Zetter, 1991). Displaced people take on new identities as encamped or urban refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs’), environmentally displaced persons (EDP’s) or those refugees who have been resettled abroad in the course of their personal geography of dislocation and relocation.

Contributors to this special issue are committed to debunking stereotypes of Africa as a continent in perpetual dire straits, wherein war, famine, unending streams of refugees, and the need for charity define the order of the day. Yet, the persistent issue of forced migration across the globe, not excluding Africa, renders its vast territory, these authors evince, a place where critical perspectives and narratives reveal the nuances, intricacies, and numerous complexities constituting the very human phenomena that is forced migration.

Moreover, Africa’s diversity, dynamism, and changing political landscapes and spaces, policy formations and specificities of place render the need to research how peoples, communities and states on the continent contend with the daunting human challenges posed by forced migrations. This special issue is concerned to foreground the ways in which African-forced migrants are individually and collectively forging spaces of survival, and embarking on geographies and practices of adaptation to the forced re-location of their entire lives. This collection of articles centers human agency in interaction with places, routes and networks that foreground the means by which people are contending with their status as displaced persons. Constructing and deconstructing refugeehood in Africa remains a continuous concern – as western media images and reportage regularly reinscribes incomplete and reductionist perspectives on displacement in Africa.

Geographer Angela Subuwla (2012) affirms this need to destabilize the ‘refugee crisis-centric’ constructions, discourses and practices associated with such representations. Indeed, this project, as articulated by Subuwala, invites the cultivation of a steady stream of critical geographic scholarship that centers the analytical utility emergent in a research agenda that emphasizes constructs of agency, contextualized, constructed spaces, places, quotidian narratives, and material practices that are mediated through spatialized social structures in the study of forced migration. These elements of critical analysis are crucial to the rendering of findings and perspectives that advance paradigms, contend with complex issues of human suffering, resilience, policy innovation and its impact on local worlds and everyday lives in a holistic, situated manner.

Feminist scholar of forced migration and geopolitics, Jennifer Hyndman (2009) reminds that refugee policy and humanitarian practice are macro-level products of a neoliberal era, where the effects of this postmodern policy paradigm are deeply embedded in the micro-level ways in which responses to displacement, humanitarian emergencies, and protracted conflict are articulated and manifested in policy, law and practice. The global spread of neoliberal governance, humanitarian practice and its effects constitute the context in which Africa is embedded, as are the displaced persons of the continent.

The global context of human displacement and forced migration in Africa: across political boundaries, and within
According to figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (Edwards, 2016), 2016 proved a record year for persons who crossed an international border seeking humanitarian space – or spaces of refuge. This agency asserts that over 60 million persons are estimated to be displaced. This number constitutes the first time in the history of the UNHCR that this sheer number of people have sought refuge in places across the globe. From refugee flows to smaller groups fleeing on foot, by lorry, boat, or other means, the political violence which provides the trigger for such flight is at once both new and old. The UNHCR argues that earlier, in 2015, the situation of forced migration was not improving, but rather worsening (Wilham, 2016). This assertion provided for the long view that reveals the current state of mass displacement across the globe is hardly diminishing. Africa’s recent sites of displacement are taken up in this special issue, as well as those locations where people originally, or secondarily fled to as a result of wars waged sometime ago, such as in Liberia, or due to more recent phenomena, such as environmental-induced displacement, and in places of on-going political oppression, such as Eritrea.

Internal Displacement on the continent remains a consistent consequence of political violence, natural disasters such as flooding or drought, as well as intersecting factors, such as the growing famine and drought crisis in Somalia (IDMC, 2017).

What is also known about the impact of displacement on individual lives, families and communities, is that the status of being displaced, in one manifestation or another, is a process, experience and circumstance that often lasts for a considerable span of one’s life. This longitudinal view further expands the human developmental and lived geographies of biography that are central to the experience of displacement, deepening our contextual approach to analyzing the spatiality of forced migration and its lived, material, political and economic impacts.

Special issue articles
The authors have comprised a fascinating, timely, relevant and innovative approach to a variety of forced migrations on the continent. With 12.6 million African citizens internally displaced on the continent in 2016, and an estimated 5.4 million persons deemed refugees from Africa (IDMC, 2017), wide scope of these author’s collective contribution proves a valuable array of case studies and analysis.

Augustine Yelfaanibe and Roger Zetter explore the complex issue of securing rights for persons who are environmentally displaced in Ghana. This intervention considers the status of Dagara farmers, who these authors describe as being forced to migrate due to ‘environmental scarcity – land degradation coupled with diminishing land size and returns on land, poor and unreliable rainfall patterns and threat of desertification.’ Through the bureaucratic terrain of Ghana’s legal and policy frameworks, these authors offer an insightful perspective on the nexus of national law (Ghana), international law and the lexicon of displacement in Ghana, exposing limitations and gaps in protecting EDPs.

The making of livelihood, personal refugee geographies and their relationship to socioeconomic status is the subject of Naohiko Omata’s innovative study. Ghana once again proves an important place from which research on the experience of refugees and forced migrants deepens understandings of both intersectionality and the outcomes of economic strategies to adapt to these new places. Toward the acquisition of sustainable resources, this study underscores how mobility is overdetermined as a strategy for supporting refugees and IDPs in establishing livelihoods. Omata provides the reader with a robust survey of the literature on mobility and refugees, illustrating further the importance of his empirical data as the course of the article proceeds.

Connor Joseph Cavanagh argues through his case study that the need for an expanded understanding of the causative factors of forced migration must include land acquisitions for both conservation and commercial agriculture. Exploring the impact of these drivers of forced migration, Cavanagh’s research probes the making of new ‘green economies’ in the local places of Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the legacies of the Manu River Wars constitute a complex context from which emerging patterns of economic development and displacement are intricately entangled.

Ways of knowing the experience of forced migration are importantly explored through life history narratives in the work of Elizabeth Bollaert and Brij Maharaj, who engage with refugees re-located in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Foregrounding the spatiality of the refugee experience in South Africa, where the lack of refugee camps engender particular geographies both within and amidst urban space, this research underscores how the making of social margins as lived space evidences. The author’s describe the experience of being a refugee in terms of the ‘spaces of obscurity’ they inhabit, where risk of attack and marginality are common consequences of a lack of discourses of support, and the subsequent social valorization of refugees and migrants writ large, both nationally and locally. These dynamics, yielding constricted social, economic and political space, leads the authors to argue for an end to this devalued status through the expansion of national and local spaces – where refugees are a part of the making of social space, not relegated to the margins of it.

Across the continent, to spaces outside of Africa, the complex experience of being a refugee is contextualized within the critical observation that human rights are not embedded within specific political spaces. Tanja Müller argues that the global order in which refugeehood is constituted and highly unevenly accessed, where the rights of refugees are attempted to be realized, is comprised of fluid political locations that embody an increasingly apparent, shrinking capacity to actualize individual human and refugee rights. Utilizing Israel as a case of this changing lived context that refugees must navigate, Müller explores the impact of these dynamics on refugees from the enduringly repressive East African state of Eritrea.

Traversing territorial space, this special issue considers also representational and discursive space, through a literary exploration of the displaced African child soldier in contemporary African literature. Tony Simoes da Silva examines the constructs of the displaced African child soldier as a source of commentary and narration on the postcolonial African experience, where displacement is a far-too incidental aspect of contemporary life.

Marnie Shaffer, Giulia Ferrato and Zaheera Jinnah engage a ‘threshold’ approach to comprehend the experience of Somali forcibly displaced persons. The continual natural and political crises in Somalia co-constitute an ongoing circumstance of displacement, where often multiple dislocations are experienced in the lives of those who flee the country. As so often archetyped into the imagined experience of refugees and internally displaced people, what is the construct of the ‘final destination’ is roundly destabilized and reconsidered through an emphasis on the co-operating role of routes, locations and social imaginaries in the decision-making of Somali geographies of refuge and transnational home life.

This unique collection of papers underscores the need for critical geographic scholarship as a means by which to validate, valorize and expand how our understandings of how refugees and forced migrants endure their displacement. These articles also destabilize the far-reaching, deeply embedded common (mis)understandings that so rigidly constrict spaces of discourse and dialog about displaced persons. In this time of complex human and state security needs, and rising in-security among local peoples, communities, states and regions, nuanced approaches to engaging forced migration remains an urgent priority.

Find all of the special issue articles here: Causes and Consequences of Conflict-Induced Displacement

This work was supported by the Faculty Research Fellowship program through the Faculty Center for Academic Excellence & Innovation and the Provost’s office at Johnson & Wales University.

The author wishes to acknowledge that this work was supported by the Faculty Research Fellowship program through the Faculty Center for Academic Excellence & Innovation and the Provost’s office at Johnson & Wales University.

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About the Author

Associate Professor Kevin M. DeJesus, Ph.D., grew up in Massachusetts’ south coast region, and he is fascinated by New England history and its way of life and history. He graduated with honors from Rhode Island College, where he found a natural fit with his interests in global politics, international relations, human rights, culture, society, and the non-western world.

Although he originally intended to obtain a degree in the special education of students with severe and profound disabilities, his early general education courses in Political Science, Anthropology and Geography led him to pursue a path studying the intersections of international relations, violent political conflict, and their impacts on state, society and the self — in particular, researching how people survive their harrowing experiences and effects of armed conflict.

He was particularly impacted by the world’s inaction on Rwanda and the question of how genocide could again be the result of humanity’s indifference to such mass-scale atrocities — a direct outcome of the global politics of non-invervention.

As an undergraduate student, DeJesus studied abroad in Cape Verde and then in Beirut, Lebanon. In fact, he was one of the first American students to return to study at the American University of Beirut after the travel ban was lifted, due to the country’s nearly two-decade civil war. During his studies there, he completed an internship with a non-governmental organization (NGO) that worked in support of the country’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. This experience was life-changing and resulted in the pursuit of his current career path.

DeJesus earned his master’s degree and Ph.D. at York University in Toronto after a year of study with the Refugee and Forced Migration studies program at the American University of Cairo. His master’s research involved the study of religiously-motivated aid to Sudanese refugees, while his Ph.D. dissertation focused on the politics of armed conflict and the insurmountable stresses that that surround the people who must survive the scourges of war, including displacement, intergenerational refugee encampment, torture and the enforced disappearange of kin as an act of political terror. His dissertation work was nominated for the Faculty of Graduate Studies doctoral thesis competition, and he is currently working on using it as the basis for a book on Lebanon. At York University, he also earned a graduate diploma in Migration and Refugee Studies.

DeJesus first joined the John Hazen White College of Arts & Sciences as an adjunct professor of Social Sciences. He later transitioned to full time, and was instrumental in developing the bachelor’s degree program in Political Science in the spring of 2015.

Currently, DeJesus teaches courses in political science and serves as the program co-director. He also coordinates JWUs Media & Politics Cafe; serves as the JWU liaison to the Washington Center; and is working on his research project, “The Politics of Human Rights: Enforced Disappearance, Grievable Lives and Geopolitics in the Balkans.” (In 2020, Professor DeJesus conducted interviews in Belgrade and Kosovo with families of those who disappeared during the Balkan conflicts; he also interviewed NGO staff who worked in support of these families.)

Professor DeJesus has lectured, researched, presented at conferences and/or studied in Acera, Ghana; Belgrade, Serbia; Beirut, Lebanon; Cairo, Egypt; Milan, Italy; Cape Verde; West Africa; Gaza City, Palestine and Kosovo.

Ph.D., York University
M.S., Environmental Studies, York University
B.A., Rhode Island College

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