What prompts violence against refugees?

July 1

The small towns of Kentzou, Garoua-Boulai and Ngaoui in eastern Cameroon are overrun by people seeking refuge from the slaughter and pillaging in neighboring Central African Republic (CAR). Some travelled all the way from the CAR capital Bangui, in buses or trucks, while others left their villages on foot. (Thomas Dehermann-Roy/EC/Echo)

Kim Yi Dionne: This guest post by Ato Kwamena Onoma draws from his recently published book, “Anti-Refugee Violence and African Politics,” and is the second installment of our African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular.

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Announced on World Refugee Day June 20, the UNHCR estimated the world’s refugee population to be 16.7 million at the end of 2013, with African countries being both significant sources and recipients of these refugees. African societies have a reputation as exemplary refugee hosts despite the economic and political stress associated with their arrival. This often leads to talk of a ‘traditional African hospitality.’ Importantly, peaceful relations between refugees and local host populations have often persisted despite strenuous efforts by host states and insurgent groups to foment violence against refugees. Anti-refugee violence by local hosts is rare, but when it occurs, it has involved open and systematic killings, routine sexual violence, forced removals, and the seizure of property.

Anti-Refugee Violence and African Politics” does not take either peaceful refugee-host relations or outbreaks of anti-refugee violence as normal. It instead seeks to explain how social peace between refugees and locals is produced and maintained in African communities despite the challenges inherent in such refugee situations. The book also explores the question: Why do hosts sometimes attack their refugee guests?

My research compared instances of violence and non-violence against refugees, drawing from multiple events, some in the same country. For example, in September 2000 former Guinea President Lansana Conté publicly called on Guineans to expel refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia, accusing them of aiding rebel incursions. The Guinean capital Conakry saw a week of attacks on refugees, including the systematic rape of refugee women. But Guineans in the Forest Region, which suffered many of the attacks by armed groups from Sierra Leone and Liberia, resisted the state’s call to the expel the refugees.


Highlighted regions in Guinea responded differently to Guinea President Lansana Conté’s call to expel refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia. Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage

In the Great Lakes region, the refugees that fled the 1959 Rwandese Social Revolution had similarly varied experiences. When the late President Mobutu ordered their expulsion from the Democratic Republic of Congo (what was then Zaire) in 1964, local populations in eastern Congo joined state agents in attacking the refugees. In 1982, the government of the late President Milton Obote of Uganda similarly called for the expulsion of refugees from all areas outside of the UNHCR camps in southwestern Uganda. But unlike in eastern Congo, locals refrained from attacking the refugees and sometimes tried to protect them from state agents.


Different countries responded differently to refugees fleeing 1959 Rwandese Social Revolution. Figure: Kim Yi Dionne/The Monkey Cage

In my book, “Anti-Refugee Violence and African Politics,” I argue that attacks by locals on refugees occur in situations of political instability and only happen when states permit and encourage them. Even relatively weak states have the capacity to prevent systematic attacks on refugees by local populations. States encourage and organize such attacks when some refugee get involved in local opposition groups that pose a serious challenge to state leaders. Anti-refugee violence allows the state to punish refugee activists and dissuade further opposition activism. The state also burnishes its nationalist credentials and paints the opposition as stooges of foreign refugees. Further, anti-refugee violence can act as a cover for the crackdown on citizen opponents that the state can label as refugees. Attacks on refugees by host states thus have to be partly understood as the use of refugees as pawns by local actors in domestic struggles for political dominance.

Ironically, locals join state attacks on refugees when refugees settle in areas where one’s residence in an area is more relevant than one’s origin in determining rights to land and power. In these areas, which many would characterize as more ‘open’ to strangers, refugees can settle autonomous of local elites. This ensures that influential locals come to know little about the lives of the refugees. When state officials incite violence against refugees, accusing them of plotting against host communities, locals with little knowledge of the refugees either buy into these narratives or attack refugees out of uncertainty.

In areas where one’s origin is given more weight than one’s residence in determining rights to land and power, refugees are allowed to settle only based on their subjugation to local notables. This subjugation gives locals a deep understanding of refugees’ lives. Local notables refuse to buy into the demonization of refugees by state leaders, resist being roped into attacks on refugees, and hinder opportunists from joining in such attacks. In these situations, locals opt instead for counter-insurgency measures that do not target all refugees.

A key finding of my research is the pacifying effects of “closed” societies that privilege “indigenes” over “strangers.” Closed societies relegate strangers to the position of minor dependents of their local hosts. In contrast, in open societies all residents are allotted similar rights regardless of their origins – and subsequently, it is these societies that have greater potential of mass violence against refugees.

The book suggests mitigating abuse associated with subjugation of refugees in closed societies while at the same time exploiting closed societies’ protections against large-scale anti-refugee violence. Another policy implication of the research is the need to put in place protective measures such as safe houses and efficacious evacuation plans in open societies, instead of seeing them welcoming places where mass violence against refugees is unlikely.

As the al-Shabab attacks in Kenya become increasingly enmeshed in conversations about local political disputes, the world should prepare for a further escalation of violence against refugee pawns in the struggle for local political dominance.

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See earlier posts for the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular.

Ato Kwamena Onoma is a program officer in the research program of CODESRIA, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. He is also the author of “The politics of property rights institutions in Africa.” (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

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