Why governments prefer spatially segregated settlement sites for urban refugees.

Author:Kibreab, Gaim


The urbanization of Africa has been recent, rapid and notably disimllar from the pattern of urbanization that occured previously in Europe. Significantly, the urbanization of Africa has occured in the absence of structural transformation. Within this reality, refugees are viewed by African host governments as exacerbating the problems of urbanization and are most often located in government-designated and spatially segregated sites-refugee camps or settlements. Often in defiance of such policies, most refugees with urban backgrounds tend to congregate in urban centres. The case study of Sudan illustrates that even where the stay of certain refugees in urban areas may be formally regularised by governments there are nonetheless identifiable common patterns and problems arising out of and causing the spatial segregation of refugees away from urban centres. It is argued that the underlying reality of urbanization in Africa plus the protracted problems for governments created by urbanisation generally and cross-border ethnic solidarity in the case of many refugee movements in Africa, shape current hostile refugee policies towards urban refugees.


L'urbanisation de l'Afrique est de date recente. Elle s'est faite de facon rapide et a suivi un parcours particulierement different de celui emprunte par l'urbanisation precedente de l'Europe. De maniere significative, l'urbanisation de l'Afrique s'est produite en l'absence d'une transformation structurelle. Avec cette realite comme toile de fond, les refugies sont percus par les gouvernements hotes des pays d'Afrique comme aggravant les problemes d'urbanisation, et ils sont le plus souvent installes dans des lieux specialement designes par les gouvernements et spatialement separes--notamment des camps de refugies ou des zones d'installations.

Souvent en faisant fi de telles politiques, la plupart des refugies issus des milieux urbains tendent a se rassembler dans les centres urbains. L'etude de cas du Soudan demontre que meme la ou des gouvernements arrivent sanctionner le sejour de certains refugies en milieux urbains, on peut neanmoins identifier des tendances communes et des problemes qui resultent de, et provoquent, la segregation spatiale des refugies loin des centres urbains.

L'article soutient que la realite sous-jacente de l'urbanisation en Afrique, ajoutee aux problemes a n'en pas finir confrontant les gouvernements et engendres, d'une part par l'urbanisation en general, et de l'autre par la solidarite ethnique transfrontaliere dans le cas de beaucoup de mouvements de refugies en Afrique, tout cela pris ensemble, faconne les politiques actuelles relatives aux refugies qui sont hostiles aux refugies urbains.

Introduction and Statement of the Problem

The question of urban refugees should be placed in the context of the rapid process of urbanization experienced by most African countries. What is peculiar about the process of urbanization in this region is that it is taking place in the absence of structural transformation. (1) In the West, rural--urban migration took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the context of massive process of structural transformation reflected in technological innovation, industrialization, and shrinkage of the primary sector--agriculture. As a result, those who were separated from their means of production were easily absorbed in manufacturing and later in the expanding service sector.

In much of Africa, however, the manufacturing sector is very small and its capacity of absorption is quite limited. The manufacturing sector has been experiencing further constriction due to macro-economic policy reforms introduced in connection with structural adjustment programs. Many adjusting economies in sub-Saharan Africa have been experiencing a process of de-industrialization due to inability to compete with economies that enjoy technological comparative advantages. In most sub-Saharan African countries, the primary sector--agriculture--still remains a dominant economic activity. However, the performance of the agricultural sector has been prejudicially affected by adverse weather conditions, lack of productivity-enhancing modern technological inputs, and high population pressure. Horizontal expansion of commercial agriculture which takes place in the absence of well-developed policy and institutional framework and enforcement capability has led not only to loss of traditional resource rights but also to degradation of productive capability of renewable resources. In the countries that have been experiencing expansion of commercial agriculture, the property rights regimes are so inauspicious that they provide no adequate protection against encroachment by commercial interests. (2) In most cases, those who are squeezed out in the process or separated from the means of production are left with no alternative but to migrate to urban areas in search of sources of livelihoods. Sub-Saharan Africa has been experiencing rapid urbanization in the context of lack of protection of pastoralist and peasant land and resource rights. The poor performance and the low capacity of absorption of the agricultural sector is also substantially exacerbated, on the one hand, by the excessive subsidies paid to farmers in the European Union and North America and, on the other, by the restrictions imposed by the European Union and the US government on imports of primary and processed agricultural products from developing countries, including Africa. Governments in the EU and the US preach liberalism but in reality their markets are inaccessible because they are protected. This policy has had a detrimental impact on the economies of African countries and has resulted not only in the economic stagnation of the agricultural and the manufacturing sectors but also in squalor and poverty in the urban areas where there are large concentrations of unrecognized refugees. The hostility of host governments and, to some extent, host populations towards them cannot be understood in isolation from what goes on in the international arena.

In sub-Saharan Africa, rural-urban migrants invariably end up in the saturated informal sector where competition is fierce. The informal sector is the only conceivable source of livelihood for: (i) retrenched public sector employees; (ii) workers laid off from the private sector due to rationalization/restructuring or de-industrialization; (iii) new job seekers; and (iv) those who need to supplement their meagre incomes. Some of these are consequences of structural adjustment programs. In the past, the informal sector was considered "spongy," reflected in an "unlimited" capacity of absorption. These days, there are no analysts who believe that the capacity of the informal sector to absorb new entrants is unlimited.

The other factor that is contributing to rapid urbanization in Africa is the educational system, which is highly elitist and inevitably detaches students from their particular socio-cultural environments. Most of the curricula taught in African schools are designed to prepare students for employment in the modern urban sector. Unfortunately, this sector is stagnant for reasons explained above, and its capacity to absorb additional labour is either limited or non-existent. The millions of students who complete secondary education often leave school without any vocational skills and are hence unemployable. Those from rural areas often seek an escape from rural life, instead ending up in urban slums, and try to eke out a meagre existence in the informal sector. Though the informal sector is dynamic, its capacity of absorption is not unlimited. In most African countries, it is stretched to a breaking point.

The fact that this rapid urbanization is taking place in the absence of structural transformation also means that the states are unable to generate enough revenues from taxes to invest in the social and physical infrastructures to cope with increased demand. Thus, in most of sub-Saharan Africa, the infrastructures in urban areas are either weak or are on the verge of collapse. This can also exacerbate the HIV/AIDS pandemic due to shortages of housing, sanitary facilities, health services, and educational opportunities. When diverse groups inhabit slum areas in cities and individuals originating from different ethnic, religious, and geographical origins and different cultural backgrounds intermingle, the informal institutional rules and social norms that previously regulated their sexual and other social behaviours tend to weaken if not break down. This creates fertile ground for the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Urban Refugees: Unwelcome Guests

In Africa as elsewhere in developing societies, governments loathe the presence of refugees in urban areas. (3) This is because they see the presence of refugees as a factor that exacerbates the urban condition. Hence they prefer to place all refugees regardless of their occupational, educational, and experiential backgrounds in government-designated and spatially segregated sites--refugee camps or settlements. More often than not, these...

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