Refugees in cities: the politics of knowledge.

Author:Lammers, Ellen


Forced migration studies is a politically charged field of study. The phenomenon of forced migration challenges its researchers to tackle complex questions about the limits of gathering knowledge in the face of political interests and human suffering. However, explicit critical reflection on the politics of knowledge inherent in individual refugee research has been very scant. This article addresses some of the relevant issues, that is, questions of perspective and positionality, truth and representation.


Les etudes sur la migration forcee representent un champ d'etude politiquement sensible. Le phenomene de migration forcee presente a ses chercheurs le defi de s'attaquer aux questions complexes concernant les limites du rassemblement de la connaissance face aux interests politiques et a la souffrance humaine. Cependant, la reflexion critique explicite sur la politique de la connaissance inherente a la recherche sur les refugies individuels a ete tres peu abondante. Cet article traite de quelques problemes pertinents, c'est-a-dire les questions de perspective et d'angle de rue, de verite et de representation.


Perhaps more than other (sub)disciplines of the social and political sciences, forced migration studies enjoys a widely shared political engagement on the part of a great number of its academic practitioners. Many refugee researchers appear motivated by their political or moral principles. They aim at a critical evaluation of the controversial representations and dubious policies that define today's refugee regime, and endorse the notion that research into other people's suffering can only be justified if alleviating that suffering is an explicit objective. (1) While this exemplary politically engaged scholarship is something that refugee studies as a field can be proud of, what strikes me is that it barely goes hand-in-hand with an explicit critical reflection on the politics of knowledge and representation inherent in individual research. This is especially peculiar given that such issues have long been prominent in the social sciences and humanities. The workshop in Cairo that this Special Issue is based on brought out very clearly the host of ethical and methodological issues that complicate the practice of research in urban areas. Only three papers, though, addressed the thorny epistemological issues that accompany every search for knowledge--what can be known, who can know, how do we convey our knowledge?--and that acquire particular relevance in the politically charged context in which the creation, production, and dissemination of knowledge about forced migrants takes place.

I spent two and one-half years in Uganda (1998-2001), working with young men who fled war, insecurity, and the absence of future prospects in southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. They had ended up living in Kampala and were thus labelled "urban refugees." When I first went to Uganda, the literature on urban refugees was much scarcer than it is today. I decided on an exploratory study, looking at why young refugees came to Kampala, and how they secured their basic needs of food, shelter, and medical care. My primary focus, though, was to be on these young men's non-material or emotional well-being; on how their experiences of war, flight, and exile affected their identities and ambitions. At an early stage in my research, I learned that a major preoccupation of the young refugees was with the question "Who am I?" Their existential query became the main focus of my study.

In this article I will discuss some aspects of the "politics of knowledge" as encountered by me throughout the research process as well as during the writing-up.

Political Contexts and Political Narratives

I was admitted to Nsambya Hospital on 11/07/99. At my own request, I was discharged on 16/07/99. An Ethiopian friend warned me that those who had attacked me could bribe nurses to effectively poison me when they administered injections to me. It was for this reason that I chose to be discharged. While forced migration is a humanitarian issue, it is first of all a political one. The politics involved are not something abstract or external, but rather pervade people's daily lives. Refugees unwittingly find themselves in a political minefield, and at the same time contribute to its construction. For one thing this is manifested in the nature of people's relationships--with other refugees, with Ugandan citizens, and with government, humanitarian, and UN officials. The statement at the start of this section is taken from an account by an Ethiopian young man relating the details of an assault he suffered close to his home in a Kampala slum. It is just one out of numerous illustrations which show that suspicion and distrust invariably were people's daily companions. Notably, people would always be extremely evasive about what they were doing or where they were headed (an infectious attitude: I soon caught myself answering in terms of "Oh, I'm just going down the road"). So-called friends would share very little information about themselves and it often struck me how little people who lived together in one house or room knew about each other. I remember talking to a group of Congolese girls who all lived together in one house on the outskirts of town and discovering that they did not know who among them still had parents alive in Congo and who did not. Of course one could positively conclude that, among friends, privacy was the accepted and valued norm. To a certain extent I think it was as simple as that: people were aware of the pain, and painful secrets that each of them carried, and wanted to avoid making friends feel uncomfortable by asking too many questions. Yet the silence about private issues was also caused by fear and trauma. Many refugees adamantly questioned the actions and motives of others, and incessantly expressed their concern that "others" were after them, that is, after their lives. I came across several instances where people were attacked on the streets (by both known and unknown assailants), robbed in their houses, threatened by security agents, arbitrarily arrested and detained by the police or, in the case of defectors from the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), spotted in town by their former commanders. But the fear and distrust were not necessarily or for all related to Kampala's "objective" security situation. I think of what Carolyn Nordstrom writes about Mozambique: "Worlds are destroyed in war ... Not just worlds of home, family, community, and economy but worlds of definition, both personal and cultural." (2) For the young men, and especially for those who had just arrived in Kampala, things were no longer what they seemed: their memories of war, their insecurity, fear, and loneliness all fed a way of looking at things which from my Dutch point of view at times seemed hard to grasp, but which was in fact a normal response to so much existential confusion. Both the actual insecurity and the ever-tangible atmosphere of suspicion meant that for most people Kampala, their place of refuge, provided anything but the quiet and peaceful environment where they could get their breath back.

People were not only distrustful of other refugees or Ugandan neighbours, but also very outspokenly so of the UNHCR and the Ugandan government. As for the latter, both the Congolese and Sudanese refugees questioned the ability and willingness of the Ugandan government to protect them. Uganda's long-term involvement with the SPLA in southern Sudan, the very army that most of the Sudanese boys and young men in Kampala had fled or deserted, was a widely shared source of concern. Similarly, with the Ugandan army so heavily involved in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, many Congolese refugees articulated that they were "sleeping with the enemy." Yet on a daily level, more unsettling than the government of Uganda seemed to be people's contentious relationships with UNHCR and its implementing agency, InterAid. A great deal can be said about this relationship, from both parties' points of view, and it was a popular topic of conversation in Kampala. For most refugees, the way they were treated at the UNHCR and InterAid offices reflected a very negative, not to say deeply humiliating, experience. One young Ethiopian man, telling me about the school he had just joined, said:

I especially like my fine art. I'm improving my drawing. I'm not interested in graphics, I want to draw real life people, cartoons and colours. I need it to express myself. Some things you can't express in words. Like the situation at InterAid. But I can draw the police guard with his Kalashnikov. The fact that people were time and again subjected to an environment of indifference and an...

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