Governing Refuge in Africa’s Cities

Authors: Angela Subulwa*, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Topics: Africa, Political Geography, Migration
Keywords: Refugees, Africa, Displacement
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 2:35 PM / 4:15 PM
Room: Cabinet Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Global refugee populations are growing rapidly and face numerous legal, social, political, and economic challenges on a daily basis, particularly those living in Africa’s cities. Generally, refugee policy operates under the assumption that refugees are situated in rural areas, as evident by a review of major international agreements. Yet, global and regional trends indicate significant increases in urban refugee populations, necessitating revisions of operational definitions/policies to serve and protect refugees in cities – revisions which have the potential to critically inform how refugees everywhere are understood and governed. I argue that privileging of the rural, camp-settled refugee perspectives within the literature and policy frameworks is detrimental to our ability to understand the realities on the ground in any place that hosts forced migrants/refugees. In recognition of this, my paper pays explicit, direct, and substantive attention to the critical dynamics of African refugees in urban spaces. Beginning with a review of the development of policies governing refugee populations in urban areas across the continent, this paper outlines the most significant challenges facing urban refugees which fall into three broad categories – registration and documentation, access to urban, and widespread xenophobia. Additionally, refugees in African cities often face many of the same challenges as the rest of the urban poor. These challenges are discussed in the context of the UNHCR’s 2014 policy statement – Alternatives to Camps (ATC) – aimed at pursuing alternatives to camps “whenever possible” while maintaining effective assistance, protection, and durable solutions.

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