Being a refugee is more than one’s status in relation to their host nation or the international community, it is a state of being that implies hopelessness and the complete lack of agency. In a 2012 article on child refugees in Dar es Salam refugee camp, Tanzania, Gillian Mann attempts to define a concept that she identifies as ‘Refugeeness’. In this article Mann discovered that not only did the children who lived inside this camp have limited resources due to their marginal status, but that many believed that being a refugee was actually worse than enduring the pain and suffering of the conflict in their home nation. For example, Diddier, an 18 year old boy who had been a child soldier and a refugee on and off since he was five, claimed that his life was actually better in in the DRC, his home nation, when compared to his life in Dar es Salaam. He stated that ‘life there was difficult…but at least we weren’t refugees.’ (Mann 2012: 450).
So, what is this quality of ‘refugeeness’ that millions around the globe experience. I suggest that it is a state of being that implies social, political, and economic marginalization and disenfranchisement. It is the inability of entire populations to meet their full potential because they are systematically rejected from their home nation, their host nation, and the international community. Each of these parties deflect responsibility for these communities because refugees are considered perpetual dependencies that have the potential to drain the already fragile economies in the nations they reside. From the perspective of the international community, primarily the UNHCR in addition to various NGOs and church organizations, the goal is to preserve life and generate temporary solutions to refugee problems that are obviously not temporary.
Mann (2012: 450-451) demonstrated what she believe ‘refugeeness’ based on the perspective of her participants (Congolese refugees living in a Tanzanian refugee camp):
“Their undocumented status and the hostile environment in which they lived meant that most adults and children lived in constant fear of exposure and its dreaded consequences. Most were highly distrustful of Tanzanians, Tanzanian authorities, international agencies and, often, other Congolese. Their illegal status meant that they needed to exercise extreme caution in their efforts to find paid work, access services or assistance from churches, government, or NGO sources, and in their interactions with unknown individuals who might be able to assist them with employment, housing and other ways of addressing their material needs. These challenges were experienced alongside sometimes tense and difficult relationships between parents and children. The result was a life characterised not only by extreme poverty and a lack of basic social services such as healthcare and education, but also by high levels of fear, isolation and disappointment, and low levels of social support.”
These experiences are not unique to Dar es Salaam or Tanzania but are in fact extremely common in any country in which refugees are forced to live inside of a refugee camp. Camps such as these are not built for the protection of the inhabitants inside its walls, but rather act as a containment system preventing refugees of conflict from integrating legally into their host nation. In countries that host extremely large populations of refugees like Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, host governments intentionally make life unbearable inside their home of ‘refuge’ as a method of pushing refugees to ‘voluntarily’ repatriate back to their home nation despite ongoing conflict.
The state of being that is defined as refugeeness is the antithesis of freedom and agency, the systematic marginalization of millions of people present in virtually all parts of the developing world. People who are labeled as refugees, particularly in eastern and central Africa, but certainly in the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas, automatically lack the abilities that most adults living in the 21st century just assume that they are entitled to. Such rights include but are not limited to the right to move freely, the right to employment, the right to advocate for your political and social rights, and the right to free yourself from a constant state of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty.
Ironically, refugees who have found themselves within the refugee system fled their homeland because they believed that the lives of themselves and their families were at risk, a fear that has changed faces since entering the refugee system but is equally as oppressive and violent. The state of being for a refugee is like being imprisoned simply for the crime of being a victim of violence. This state of being might be justifiable if these circumstances were guaranteed to be temporary (and therefore keeping to the UNHCR’s 5 years timeline), however since the turn of the century there have been over 30 protracted refugee populations (defined as a group of refugees totaling at least 10,000 people who have been displaced for a minimum of 5 years).
So while the ‘temporary’ is justifiable from the perspective of the international community, the timeline for temporary is extremely vague and can last for decades without a change of intervention to address the issues faced by protracted refugee populations. Instead refugees are forced to maintain a continuous state of refugeeness, which according to Mann is equivalent to suffering, the loss of hope, and the complete lack of agency in one’s own life and their community around them.
The state of being a refugee, defined here as ‘refugeeness’, is a state of abjection and continued suffering, caused not only by war and conflict, but also by the entire world’s inability or refusal to change the circumstances of millions of people who are unable to fight for themselves.
Mann, Gillian 2012 Beyond War: ‘Suffering’ among Displaced Congolese Children in Dar es Salaam. Development in Practice 22(4): 448-459.