Trans-border mobility in Africa is a study area which presents interesting paradoxes on border crossing and refugee hosting. Borders on the continent have implications on refugee movements and the positioning of refugees in border regions of African host countries. This is salient within the historical context of the colonial borders that split ethnic communities into different countries. In defiance of these borders, co-ethnics who straddle international borders have maintained historical ties that play an important role in mediating official refugee policies. Borders in Africa engender a paradoxical situation based on conflicting loyalties in which citizenship in the host country coexists with affinity and a sense of obligation to co-ethnics crossing the border as refugees. In this context, trans-border relationships challenge notions of territorial integrity and sovereignty, which appear to be unproblematic outside the history of territorial borders and the modern nation-state in Africa. Historical trans-border relationships between refugees and host communities highlight the gap between official refugee policy and everyday practice informed by ties that date back to pre-colonial social organisation and political configurations.
Colonisation and the border paradox
Prior to colonisation, Africans traversed the continent. Notable examples of large-scale migrations on the continent are the Bantu migration (4000–3500 BC), from West-Central to Central, East and Southern Africa, and Mfecane (a time of political strife and migration in 19th century Nguniland, in present-day South Africa). In particular, Mfecane dispersed Nguni people across Southern Africa, a dispersal that is not only reflected in the demographic composition of contemporary nation-states but is also relevant to conversations on contemporary trans-border mobility in the region. In contrast to this uninhibited migration, European colonial powers’ scramble and partition of Africa in the nineteenth century created colonial states whose borders were established in total oblivion to indigenous notions of nationhood, statehood and belonging. The colonial borders split ethnic groups into different countries and generated new loyalties built around citizenship rather than traditional political structures. The main paradox of these borders is that the physical boundaries that they drew did not necessarily produce social and economic boundaries for ethnic groups straddling borders. There are many instances across the continent where citizens in one country identify more with people living across the border than with fellow citizens who belong to different ethnic groups.
The postcolonial state’s inheritance of the colonial borders has not necessarily erased pre-colonial loyalties among the ethnic groups that they cleaved into different countries. On the contrary, these groups maintain historical ties fostered by mutual identification and interdependence in defiance of the nation-state’s legalistic structures that punish ‘transgressive’ and ‘trespassing’ mobilities occurring outside its sanction. They maintain trans-border socio-cultural relations and economic activities outside the ambit of the state, defying its problematic notions of territorial integrity and belonging that categorise people as either insiders (citizens) or outsiders (foreigners). What are the implications of this state of affairs when people on one side of the border cross as refugees or asylum seekers to the other side inhabited by their co-ethnics?
Kinship, affinity and host community initiatives
When people flee to neighbouring countries’ border regions inhabited by their co-ethnics, the official narrative of the host country’s government categorises them as refugees. This label obscures categories that are more pertinent to host communities and refugees whose relationships predate and were disrupted by the modern nation-state in Africa. Flight as refugees may not necessarily be the first time these people are crossing the border. Instead, they may have crossed the border countless times because of social relationships by kinship or affinity, business and homage to traditional leaders living on the other side of the border among other established connections. These ties can mediate official refugee policy and state regulatory norms, as exemplified by clan relations between Somali refugees and host communities in the Somali region of Ethiopia and the northeastern region of Kenya. Journeyman’s documentary on the Mlambo clan, which straddles the Mozambique-South Africa border, vividly illustrates conflicting loyalties – that is, loyalty to the country of citizenship and loyalty to trans-border traditional authorities and ethnic affiliation. Cross-border flight in cases of established historical economic and social ties facilitates informal integration within host communities outside state regulation and control. Host communities and refugees use these ties to informally integrate the refugees, which challenges the categorical assumption that citizens are resentful toward refugees. Considering that most African countries pursue refugee encampment policies, initiatives and displays of hospitality by host communities (as opposed to hostility towards refugees) create a discrepancy between the official refugee policy and local practice which works in favour of refugees. Angolan refugees self-settled in rural Zambia and Somali refugees who fled to their clan’s territory across the border in Ethiopia and Kenya attest to how trans-border relations enable refugees to circumvent structural obstacles deriving from official refugee encampment policies and find solutions.
Trans-border ethnic affiliation, loyalties and contestation by trans-border communities of notions of oneness, nationhood, legality and belonging built around the modern nation-state in Africa create spaces of possibilities for refugees who are unable to access solutions through the often-restrictive policies of the host countries. Trans-border ethnic communities and the historical mutual dependence that survived colonial partition provide support structures that facilitate refugee integration and, in the process, transform refugee-hosting regions into sites of both overt and covert resistance to official refugee policies. This calls for a shift from state-centric biases that have hitherto rendered local traditional structures and everyday practice invisible in the quest for solutions. Local and refugee initiatives highlight the need for refugee policies to build on historical ties, local traditional structures and affinities in refugee-hosting regions. The dominant focus on official refugee policies and formal state and non-state institutions in the study of and the quest for solutions obscures ‘policies on the margin’ – yet these, more than the former, directly shape refugees’ everyday experiences and sense of belonging.
Rose Jaji is Senior Researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), Bonn. Her research areas of interest are migration/refugees, conflict and peacebuilding. Rose’s most recent book is Deviant destinations: Zimbabwe and North to South migration (2019, Lexington Books).