Urban refugees: introduction.

Author:Fabos, Anita


Interest in refugees who live in urban settings, especially those of the global south, has developed fairly recently, although refugees themselves have always been part of urban society. In 2002, the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program at the American University in Cairo held a workshop to explore some of the methodological and ethical issues implicit in doing research among urban refugee populations in developing societies. Many of the papers in this issue developed from this initial endeavour. However, it was evident that the contributing authors had concerns with the systemic context for urban refugees that went beyond the epistemological aspects of the research process. In particular, the experiences of refugees in the cities described by contributors--Kampala, Cairo, Johannesburg, Khartoum--are characterized by a high level of vulnerability stemming from arbitrary and schizophrenic international protection policies deriving from anxieties embodied by the nation-state system.

This special issue is devoted to the analyses of political, social, economic, and legal barriers for refugees in urban settings, particularly as these shape the opportunities, strategies, vulnerabilities, and livelihoods of refugees in African cities. We are interested in framing the central thrusts of the contributions through considering regional urbanization, shifts in global patterns of refugee movements, and transnationalism. State policies concerning immigration, naturalization, and citizenship produce some of the structural factors shaping these complex developments, although to a large degree they are the inevitable result of globalization processes. The scholars whose work is represented here provide research-based evidence that policies designed to manage the symptoms of refugees "out of place" are unable to accommodate the fundamental challenge refugees pose to the nation-state system.

Clearly, state policies that tighten up borders, reduce immigration, and limit access to citizenship are at odds with regional processes of urbanization, increased population movements globally, and the development oftransnational spaces, and urban refugees are caught in the middle. These policies that attempt to make the presence of refugees in urban--and national--settings illegitimate are counterproductive inasmuch as they try to counteract irresistible demographic trends.

In what follows we show that urbanization is an irreversible process in the African context, and that the movement of refugees to urban areas can only make sense in this context. Furthermore, state policies of segregation, securitization, and criminalization of urban refugees are inextricably linked to the objectives of states to create and perpetuate differences between insiders and outsiders--of which citizenship is a key determinant. Generally, refugee law is the exception to domestic immigration law because it allows certain people to enter the territories of other states without a visa or other requirements. In Africa, however, refugee law is used as an instrument of exclusion and separation--but only to hold up exclusive nationalitylaw (Kagan in this issue). As Kibreab points out in this issue, in nearly all developing countries, refugees are received as temporary guests until the conditions that prompted their displacement are eliminated. Once the political conditions that caused displacement cease, refugees are expected to return home regardless of the duration of exile. Spatial segregation of refugees is seen as an important instrument of preventing refugees' integration into host societies by prolonging their refugee status. This strategy is defeated if refugees are settled in urban area, and helps explain why host countries in the South regulate the presence of refugees in urban areas.

Finally, the authors in this issue describe the ways in which refugees carve out a space under adverse conditions not simply by reacting to unfavourable state policies and practices but also through creative engagement and mobilization of social networks in search of viable livelihoods, often with a transnational dimension, against all odds.

The urban spaces where the human consequences of these ongoing developments are most starkly apparent are the cities of the global South. The authors of these papers have chosen to emphasize the African context for the dramatic contrast between global and regional developments that support increased migration and population control policies that stem from the rationale of the nation-state. The rapid expansion of Cairo, for example, from a city of half a million people in the 1940s to the eighteen million plus of today is largely due to rural-urban migration. The Egyptian state has sought to control and counteract this process through denying permission for house-building, slum-clearing, relocation of wholesale markets where rural migrants make a living to the desert beyond city limits, and other mechanisms of urban planning. The population of Khartoum, on the other hand, has swelled due to famine and war in other parts of the country; the Sudanese government has reacted by criminalizing begging, bulldozing settlements of displaced Sudanese and moving their people to more distant sites, among other things. In both cases, moving to the capital city represents access to security, services, and opportunities for citizens whose governments seek to keep them in the provinces without any regard to their physical safety and well-being.

Refugees who join the steady advance of people moving to African and other Southern cities go for particular reasons related to their search for safety, access to international links (to receive remittances, for example), and options for resettlement. However, the explorations of refugee experiences and livelihoods offered by contributors to this issue additionally illustrate that refugees choose urban areas for the same reasons as citizens do. Even in the most poor countries in Africa, the relationship between urban and rural areas is marked by uneven development and skewed distribution of opportunities for income-generation, education, health care, housing, clean water supply, and sanitation, as well as transportation. Evidence abounds that the level of income earned by urban dwellers, including those who live in slum areas, is higher than in rural areas. As might be expected, refugees--like other people--are strategic decision makers and may "vote with their feet" en route for cities where chances of staying on the right side of the razor's edge of survival are better.

Another attraction of the city is the opportunity for anonymity. In comparison to national urban dwellers, the number of refugees in African cities is insignificant and, as a result, they may be able to melt into the urban throng by assuming fictive identities, (1) especially if they share common language, ethnicity, and way of life. The benefit of anonymity, besides providing physical security, enables refugees to engage in different forms of income-generating activities by hiding their true identity. In Sudan, for example, according to the Sudanese Asylum Act 1974 refugees are prohibited from leaving the officially designated places of residence. They are also not allowed to own property or to leave government-designated sites without permission. There are tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees, especially those who share common traits of ethnicity, religion, language, and way of life with some members of the local community in Eastern Sudan who own property, who live in the cities, move freely and engage in diverse income-generating activities in defiance of the formal government policies. Most of this would have been unachievable in a rural setting, where people generally know each other and associate with one another on the basis of common residence or descent.

This does not, however, suggest that all African refugees can escape the tyranny of being "othered" by simply relocating themselves to cities. Whilst in some African contexts, such as Kassala, Kigoma, and even Dares Salaam, (2) refugees are able to hide among urban populations, passing for nationals, in others they make up a visible minority. Sudanese, Eritrean, and Congolese refugees in Cairo are routinely singled out for harassment by security forces as well as ordinary Egyptians. In either case, however, refugees are unambiguously distinguished from citizens by their legal status, rendering them ineligible for services and dependent on the beneficence of the state for residency rights. As non-citizens, they are not perceived as part of the national interest--they are seen as foreign objects in the body politic-and most policies are designed to control, contain, and segregate them from the rest of the population. The acquiescence of their fellow urbanites to these policies is achieved through state...

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