Rethinking Refuge: Processes of Refuge Seeking in Africa and Beyond

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the workshop, “Rethinking Refuge: Processes of Refuge Seeking in Africa and Beyond”, which will take place on June 6-7th at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. We have been talking to the convener, Marcia C. Schenck, about the upcoming workshop.

The aim of your workshop is to develop “a long-term approach to the history of African refugees”. How could a long-term approach revise our understanding of the process?

The historical study of African refugees is currently a new and exciting research field. This young field is still constituting itself and most work focuses on the 20th century, tracing particular refugee contexts around the continent from Angola and Mozambique to Cameroon, Rwanda, and Tanzania, to name but a few examples. But if we read slavery in the context of forced migration, the scope suddenly broadens. Recently, I was preparing a primary source for class, Kiungani; or, Story and History from Central Africa. Written by boys in the schools of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa. Translated and edited by A.C. Madam, M.A. Student of Christ Church, Oxford. London: George Bell and Sons, 1887. In this book, I came across the “story of a Bemba boy” in which the young protagonist first flees a war between different groups in what is now Tanzania and moves with his family to a different place, “a safe country”. When it is time to go home again, they come across a village that had just been raided and whose inhabitants had been murdered. When they are observed stealing food they are enslaved. They are then marched towards the coast, changing owners several times in the process. Upon arrival in Kilwa, the boy is put on a Dhow by his Arab owner and sailed away in the Indian Ocean slave trade. The Dhow is intercepted by the British and the boy is taken to a mission school on Zanzibar where his story is recorded.

The students and I discussed whether we would call this young man’s experiences akin to those of a refugee. He and his family were fleeing violence and moved to a different polity to seek safety. They then were displaced again in an attempt to repatriate home and became enslaved. As slaves they were no longer in command of their whereabouts and had to move along the nodes of the commercial networks. In the end, he reached another ‘safe heaven’ in the form of a mission school where he had to follow a strict routine of schooling, apprenticeship and religious training. The other freed slaves in residence and himself lived apart from the Zanzibari population and depended on the humanitarian aid from Europe. There are many parallels to present day African refugee experiences, but for better or worse, our present day understanding of refugees is often limited to those that fall under the legal definition of a refugee as set out in the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 with its protocol of 1967.

To my mind, expanding our perception of a present-day phenomenon in its historical dimension safe-guards us from myopic claims about the unprecedented nature of the current “refugee crisis”. According to recent estimates, 12.57 million people were forced to migrate in the transatlantic slave trade between 1501-1867 alone. This huge number leaves out all those forced to migrate during the trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean trades earlier and later. Not to mention that the slave trades reconfigured African polities on the coasts of Africa, leading to the formation of new slave supplying polities like the Oyo and Asante kingdoms and feuds between local leaders over the control of traffic, for instance in the Kongo kingdom. This all lead to civil wars that in turn not only produced more slaves (captured warriors, kidnapping) but also displaced many people, in the process producing many people who had to migrate to look for a place of refuge.

What are the methodological challenges for the topic? How can one study “seeking refuge” in archives? How far can one go “back” in time?

The methodological challenges start foremost with the definition of the term “refugee” and are thus intimately connected to the question who can and should be considered a refugee and who does not qualify. This debate is not limited to a historical approach to the study of refuge but is still actively waged in refugee studies. The two positions are perhaps best illustrated by James Hathaway, who maintains that refugees are only those who qualify under the 1951 Refugee Convention.[1] Here the refugee experience is understood as fitting into a legal category, offering protection to those in need. On the other end of the spectrum, anthropologists like Liisa Malkki, maintains that one cannot speak of a singular refugee experience in terms of an analytical use of the term refugee. She argues that context matters in determining the extremely diverse historical and political circumstances that motivate people to flee their homes and the equally different situations that displaced people face.[2] This is a difficult debate because one does not want to risk diluting legal categories that offer protection, especially not in a political climate in which it is unlikely that a more favorable deal than the current international legal protection standards would be the result of a renegotiation of the term. On the other hand, this approach makes no sense from an historical perspective. Following Hathaway would restrict the timespan in which we could study “refugees” significantly.

Confining the historical study of refuge-seeking to the post World War II context, however, would prevent us from understanding historical antecedents to the population movements we are witnessing in the second half of the twentieth-century and beyond. Yet, people have been forced to flee from violence and persecution and have been seeking sanctuary far from home for a very long time. My colleague Brett Shadle has just published a brilliant summary of the state of the field, in which he makes the argument for shifting our attention away from the study of refugees towards the study of processes of refuge-seeking in its social context in African history.[3] 

From a historian’s perspective, categories, policies and laws come to be understood as historical products of their time and place, not as natural givens. Therefore, we need to turn our attention to how the term refugee was used in different refugee-producing contexts around the continent and over time, also paying attention to what other terms were used to refer to this diverse group of people. In the decolonization and post-independence Tanzanian context of the 1960s, refugees were referred to as “settlers” for instance, to emphasize the role the Tanzanian government envisioned them playing in the nascent state-building process; locally they were known in Ngara district as ‘immigrants’ or ‘watoro’ (those who flee justice), but initially not as ‘wakimbizi’ (refugees). They only became ‘refugees’ in a discursive and legal sense in contested negotiations of access to land and aid as the fascinating work by Jill Rosenthal demonstrates.[4] These developments can be traced in government archives to a certain extent, but also need to be supplemented through oral histories with (former) refugees and host country inhabitants as well as through examining oral traditions for instance for African “traditions of hospitality”. Once we shift our attention from a legal definition of “refugee” to a historical pattern of refuge-seeking, a more complex picture of forced mobility emerges.

What role did the Cold War play for the specific history of the category “refugee” in Africa?

The Cold War in Africa often took the shape of hot proxy wars causing millions of refugees to lose their homes and trying to find safety beyond national borders. The Mozambican Sixteen-year War from 1976-1992 between Renamo and Frelimo for instance caused two million refugees, three million internally displaced people, and about one million war-related deaths in a population of only 15 million. Then there are the wars in Angola, the Congo, the Ogaden War…, the list continues. These proxy wars which where fought for party-political, national, regional and international political and geostrategic reasons have wreaked havoc across the continent and produced more and more refugees. In 1964, there were only about 400,000 legally defined refugees in Africa. By 1972 the number had risen to about 1 million, and for 2019 the UNHCR projects a staggering 7 ½ million refugees in Africa. Yet, decolonization has done more to rewrite the conceptual history of refugees on the continent than the Cold War.

Anti-colonial solidarity in the 1960s allowed many African politicians to reframe refugees (especially from southern Africa) as freedom fighters. These refugees were then worthy of protection and support by recently independent African states, who fought against colonization on the continent. While this resulted in what some scholars term a ‘golden age of asylum’ in Africa, the tensions between securitization and sovereignty on the one hand and pan-African solidarity on the other hand already came into focus early on in debates about the importance of the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of the newly independent states. Tracing the international circulation of ideas and concepts about refugeehood, sanctuary, and protection, but also of sovereignty and statehood in the context of decolonization reveal the inherent tensions between political and moral imperatives.

In how far is the story of African refuge-seeking a global or transregional history? How can one study it transregionally?

Thinking about what is commonly known as the “global refugee crisis” today, the transregional ramifications of forced migration are evident. African people from various origins are making their way to Europe and the US but are also migrating across the continent itself. South Africa, for instance, has been receiving millions of refugees from neighboring Zimbabwe, from Somalia and Nigeria and beyond, transforming the country into a potpourri of cultures and stretching the practice of African hospitality to its very limits, as the repeated outbreaks of xenophobic violence demonstrate.

I have spoken about understanding the history of slave trades as one of forced migration and refuge seeking, which ties the fate of Africans from across the continent to the Americas, Europe, Middle East, and Asia. But more recent examples, for instance the study of the Organization of African Unity’s (OAU) 1969 refugee convention (Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa), on which my next research project will be focused, can serve as an example of Africa’s place in a global history of refuge-seeking. Africa began developing the first regional refugee protection regime worldwide in 1964. The OAU did so in response to the formulation of international law about refugees after the Second World War and in conversation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international organization tasked with the safe keeping of refugees. Some legal language in the OAU’s 1969 convention later came to inspire formulations in the Latin American Cartagena Declaration of 1984. That is to say that legal and policy ideas that are developed for regional contexts can reverberate nationally and internationally.

This transnational perspective tends to get lost in more conventional national approaches to refugee history. The study of processes of refuge-seeking, like the study of migration and mobility more generally, brings to the fore connections, encounters, and relations between different places and social networks. Yet, we cannot stop there. The other side of the coin, the breakdown of social ties, the restriction of movement, and the failure to build new lives are just as important in telling transnational refugee history. That is why refugees and forced migrants are well suited to the study of global history more generally concerned with how global developments reverberate in Africa, and events in Africa resonate abroad, tracing African refugees and migrants in Africa and around the globe as historical actors.

About the Convener

Marcia C. Schenck is currently a visiting researcher at Princeton University, NJ, USA, on leave from her role as lecturer at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institute, Free University Berlin. She received her PhD in history at Princeton University in September 2017 and holds a MSc in African Studies from the University of Oxford. Her dissertation Socialist Solidarities and their Aftermath: Histories and Memories of Angolan and Mozambican migrants to the German Democratic Republic, 1975-2015, traces the migration experience and migrant memories of Angolan and Mozambican migrants to East Germany. Peer-reviewed articles have appeared in Africa, African Economic History, Labor History, Stichproben and Atelier. Her research interests include the history of refuge seeking, migration history, labor history, African history, global history, micro history, and oral history. She can be reached at marcia.schenck@fu-berlin.de. 


[1] Hathaway, J. C. (2007), “Forced Migration Studies: Could We Agree Just to ‘Date’?”, Journal of Refugee Studies 20(3): 349–369.

[2] Malkki, L. (1995), “Refugees and Exile: From ‘Refugee Studies’ to the national order of things”, Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 495-523.

[3] Brett Shadle (2019), “Refugees in African History”, in Charles Ambler, William Worger, Nwando Achebe (eds.), A Companion to African History, Wiley-Blackwell: Hoboken, NJ, 247-264.

[4] Rosenthal, J. (2015), “From ‘migrants’ to ‘refugees’: identity, aid, and decolonization in Ngara district, Tanzania”, Journal of African History 56: 261-279.


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