Negotiating rights: the politics of local integration.

Author:Polzer, Tara


Advocacy campaigns against the "warehousing" of refugees in camps suggest the facilitation of local integration as a preferred policy option for states, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations. This paper argues that the institutions, assumptions, and habits that the international refugee protection system has developed over the past forty years hinder our understanding of local integration as a fundamentally political and refugee- and host-driven process. The paper uses African case studies to show how local integration is part of broader processes of local politics. It proposes alternatives to three key assumptions of conventional policy-oriented approaches to local integration: (1) that local integration is a form of local politics rather than institutionalizable process for an exceptional category of people (e.g., refugees); (2) that local integration is negotiated by refugees based on a range of legitimacy claims and forms of exchange rather than primarily based on "refugee rights"-related claims; and (3) that local integration is enabled by hosts for a variety of reasons rather than mainly for reasons related to the idea of "refugee protection."


Les campagnes contre le > des refugies dans des camps suggerent la facilitation de l'integration locale comme option a privilegier par les Etats, organisations internationales et organisations non gouvernementales. Le present article soutient que les institutions, hypotheses et habitudes developpees par le systeme de protection internationale des refugies au cours des quarante dernieres annees entravent notre comprehension de l'integration locale en tant que processus fondamentalement politique mis en oeuvre par les refugies et les hotes. La recherche s'appuie sur des etudes de cas africains pour montrer comment l'integration locale fait partie du processus plus large de politique locale et propose des alternatives a trois hypotheses cles des approches classiques a l'integration locale axees sur les politiques : 1) que l'integration locale est une forme de politique locale plutot qu'un processus institutionnalisable pour une categorie exceptionnelle d'individus (par ex., les refugies); 2) que l'integration locale est negocie par les refugies a partir d'une serie de revendications de legitimite et deformes d'echange et non plus principalement a partir de revendications liees aux >; 3) que l'integration locale est permise par les hotes pour une variete de raisons, plutot que pour des raisons essentiellement liees a l'idee de la >


The "local integration" of refugees is usually conceived of as a policy option: something which professional institutions could and should plan and implement as a response to displacement. From the perspective of these institutions, such as United Nations agencies, governments, and nongovernmental organizations, this conception is understandable, given that they are debating their own programming options and impacts. However, this paper argues that a policy-oriented approach significantly limits the possibility of understanding the process of local integration and the contexts which facilitate or hinder it. I follow Oliver Bakewell in arguing that academics must move beyond the assumptions and categorizations of policy-oriented thinking and bring the interaction between refugees and others "back into history" (1) by applying "broader social scientific theories of social [and political] transformation and human mobility" rather than "privileging their position as forced migrants as the primary explanatory factor" for protection outcomes. (2)

This paper starts by outlining several key assumptions which the "refugee protection industry" has adopted about itself and about refugees in the past forty years which predispose institutions against local integration. It then discusses a prominent advocacy campaign which critiques some of these assumptions: namely the "anti-warehousing" campaign which promotes local integration as an alternative policy solution to the encampment of refugees. While this campaign against camps is valuable within the policy field. I argue that in critiquing camps and advocating for integration its policy focus nonetheless maintains three related conceptual blinkers. Firstly, it implies that local integration is an institutionalizable process for an exceptional category of people (e.g., refugees); secondly, that refugees integrate through claiming "refugee rights"; and thirdly, that hosts enable integration with the aim of providing "refugee protection."

In contrast, this paper uses predominantly rural African case studies to show how local integration is in practice part of broader processes of local politics. By local politics I mean a process through which individuals and groups negotiate with local power holders for access to needed resources. This approach places refugees and hosts at the centre of the process, rather than professional refugee protection institutions, and assumes that refugees are political actors, using political strategies and tactics just like other individuals and groups. This argument is based on an analysis which includes recognizing a range of legitimacy claims used locally by refugees, apart from "refugee rights," and a variety of reasons why hosts allow and enable integration, apart from reasons relating to "refugee protection."

The paper ends by returning to the policy field and assessing potential policy-based critiques of such an empirical and political understanding of local integration. It concludes that as local integration is largely a process which happens without or in spite of currently dominant institutional interventions, future interventions which wish to support rather than undermine local integration must first have the conceptual tools for understanding its locally specific logics.

Framing Local Integration

Before outlining the policy debate about local integration as an alternative to refugee encampment, let me clarify my understanding of local integration. The term has been used in many, often conflicting, ways. (3) I am not referring to the various types of purportedly self-sufficient refugee settlements, where refugees are largely isolated from local populations by host governments and international actors. (4) Even though these settlements may reduce some of the worst economic dependency problems of fully-catered camps, as it were, they do not change the essential separateness of refugees and therefore their removal from local political life.

Some authors define "local integration" in terms of a final state of similarity to (although not necessarily of assimilation with) local populations. Jacobsen, for example, describes what she calls de facto integration as "where the lived, everyday experience of refugees is that of being part of the local community." This includes lack of physical danger; freedom of movement in the host country and freedom to return to the home country; access to sustainable livelihoods; access to government services like education, health, and housing; social inclusion through intermarriage and social interactions with the host community; and comparable standards of living in comparison with the host community. (5) Jacobsen also emphasizes the importance of formal legal status, ideally permanent residence or citizenship in the host country, as the final step to full integration, since without it de facto integrated refugees remain vulnerable. (6) Crisp defines local integration primarily as reflecting the "assumption that refugees will remain indefinitely in their country of asylum and find a solution to their plight in that state," (7) in contrast to the assumption of temporariness inherent in camps and repatriation programs.

Jacobsen's description of "being integrated" is valuable, as is Crisp's focus on "indefiniteness," especially since both include the understanding that integration need not preclude eventual repatriation or cross-border livelihoods and identities. However, these authors retain many of the assumptions about the refugee protection system which I analyze below--such as the primacy of international and national law, and the "refugee" label--by underemphasizing the social and political process of integration and the local actors involved (not only "refugee protection" professionals). I believe that a very broad, process-focused definition of integration is necessary in order to overcome many of the thought-blinkers "refugee-studies" academics have developed. I define local integration as a process of negotiating access to local legitimacy and entitlement on the basis of a variety of value systems determined by local power holders in dialogue with refugees. Such a broad analysis of negotiation strategies, local value systems and local actors is necessary to develop a subtle, rather than a blueprint, debate on integration. I will return to this below.

There is an extensive literature on the integration of refugees in northern countries, focusing on the interaction between the individual/small group and the host state/society around issues of cultural assimilation, economic access, etc. (8) There are fewer studies on refugee integration in the context of "mass" movements in the "South," but it is definitely a phenomenon that occurs more often than is academically observed. (9) The examples of local integration I will discuss are all African and mainly rural or small-town based, (10) including on my own research among Mozambican refugees in South Africa (2002-2006). (11) The analysis applies equally, however, to locally integrated urban-based refugees, who now make up over half of recorded refugees worldwide. (12)

Finally, my understanding of local integration applies at all stages of the displacement process. (13) Refugee protection institutions commonly distinguish between interim or "temporary" responses to displacement, where the main policy options are seen to...

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