- Rethinking Refuge:Processes of Refuge Seeking in Africa; An Introduction
"Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person," explains Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author. Eloquently articulating "the danger of the single story" in her homonymous Ted Talk (2009), she cautions how the single story, created by power, not only stereotypes and flattens people's lived experiences, but emphasizes how those people are different from or are part of others. To understand the principle and role of nkali (an Igbo word, which she loosely translates as "power") in the telling of stories, we must consider how the stories are told, who tells them, when they are told, and how many of them are told. We have aimed in this special issue to have contemporary African refugee and migrant stories told and understood as multiple stories, rather than one single story. In so doing, we were attentive to how we wanted the stories to be told, who should be involved in telling them, how many of them should be told, and what the frames for them should be. This aim is reflected in the nature of the articles contained in this special issue, written by scholars from across continents, countries, institutions, and disciplines, all of whom remained conscious of the historical complexities of the stories they had set out to tell. Collectively, these articles demonstrate that rather than being an aberration, African migrant and refugee experiences are more embedded in global historical and contemporary events than the world has cared to admit.
This special issue, "Rethinking Refuge," therefore dives into the history of refuge seeking by Africans on the continent and beyond and, interestingly, of Europeans in Africa, precisely to offer counternarratives to the single-story mediatized depictions of African refugees to which we have become accustomed. In so doing, it adds complexity to refugee studies in three ways. First, Africa emerges as a producer of refugees but also as a sanctuary for people fleeing war and repression in Europe. Second, Africa emerges as an emancipatory site, where refugees emerging from the chaos of decolonization and the postindependence era are hosted by young, independent nations like Tanzania, but limits to pan-African solidarity become apparent as national politics trump commitments to refugees over time, not only in Tanzania, but also in other African countries. Third, refugees themselves emerge as diverse groups of [End Page 1] people with multiple identities, one of which might for a time come to encompass that of a refugee, an asylum seeker, or a refuge seeker outside of official categories: refugees in the Africa of the 1960s were understood to comprise "refugee students" (meaning those seeking secondary or tertiary education), "urban or professional refugees" (meaning those possessing a professional background in blue- or white-collar professions), "rural refugees" (meaning those with agricultural backgrounds), and sometimes also "freedom fighters" (meaning those who took up weapons for the cause of independence). Over time, we have forgotten about white flight to Africa and pan-African commitments to liberation struggles from which emerged several refugees. We have thus reduced the refugee to a person in need of food, shelter, and protection. The fact is that a historical inquiry aids us in telling more diverse, complex, and ambiguous stories about refugees' history and experiences in Africa.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of March 2022, found in Africa about "30 million internally displaced persons, refugees[,] and asylum-seekers," almost one-third of the world's refugees. In 2021 alone, millions of new displacements occurred as conflict flared up in Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Many more Africans are on the move within the continent than are trying to make their way to Europe, but Fortress Europe has been enacting physical barriers. This new iron curtain largely reflects the collapse of communism and socialism. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, has aptly remarked that with the collapse of socialism, the iron curtain moved southward, to the middle of the Mediterranean, where...