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Refugees, Conflict and the Search for Belonging

By Lucy Hovil
(Palgrave Macmillan, September 2016)

(27 September 2016) The International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) is pleased to announce the publication of Refugees, Conflict and the Search for Belonging by Lucy Hovil, IRRI’s Senior Researcher. This timely publication, based on seven years of research by IRRI in Eastern and Central Africa, has application beyond the region, pointing to drivers and failures that continue to feed the global refugee crisis.

The book, described by Jeff Crisp as “[a]n indispensable analysis of the complex dynamics of displacement and citizenship in Eastern and Central Africa,” examines the convergence of two problems: the ongoing realities of conflict and forced migration, and the crisis of citizenship and belonging. By addressing them together, it examines how a holistic approach can more effectively point the way towards possible solutions.

Hovil argues that issues of inclusion and exclusion animate and sustain cycles of violence, and that the likelihood of conflict increases when collective identities are mobilised, politicised and “hardened” by conflict entrepreneurs. By the same logic, expanding spaces for belonging helps create the conditions for sustainable peace. These spaces are ones in which multiple identities can exist; in which identities are seen as fluid and changeable; and in which systems for marking out “difference” are carefully crafted so as to not create these hardened boundaries of insiders and outsiders. It argues that citizenship and belonging are both a cause, and part of a possible resolution, to ongoing conflict and displacement in the region.

In the words of Professor Makau Matua, “Hovil has produced a work of epic importance that unravels the most persistent and stubborn genesis of state collapse and dysfunction in the Great Lakes region. She pinpoints the failure of citizenship and belonging – for refugee and indigene alike – as the bane of the post-colonial state in one of the most volatile regions on the planet. The book's payoff is in the suggestion of a sophisticated understanding of conflict and reconstruction. This is without doubt one of the most insightful works on the political cauldron that is the Great Lakes.”

Based on 1,115 interviews carried out between 2008 and 2014 with refugees, internally displaced groups and returnees in seven countries of the Great Lakes region, Hovil argues that the reality of exile provides a litmus test for understanding these dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. Causes of exile, failures to belong in exile, and the illusive nature of “durable solutions” all conspire to create exclusion and to leave those who have been uprooted from their homes on the margins of societies. She argues that shortcomings in refugee policy, which often maintain marginalisation as the default position for those who have been exiled from their state, collude with the logic of exclusion that is at work in formal, legal mechanisms of citizenship in postcolonial states.

Hovil utilises two connected but different approaches to understanding dynamics on the ground: a policy lens that engages with the primarily state-centric legal framework; and a socio-anthropological lens that nuances and challenges a narrative that is driven by categorisation. She considers ways in which policy and the lived experience of exile interact – or fail to interact – in order to try and make sense of why the international human rights framework that holds so much promise continually fails to deliver rights on the ground.

In using these two approaches, she holds in tension the fact that, on the one hand, spaces for refugee protection are continually shrinking and the label, refugee, is a crucial tool for targeting and maintaining protection of the rights of a specific legal category of people both during exile and at the point of return. On the other, realities on the ground demonstrate that refugees have multiple identities, deploy multiple coping strategies, and often defy neat categories.

Hovil does not claim that one or the other is right, but argues that both narratives need to listen to and interact with each other. She maintains a clear engagement with legal categories through an emphasis on policy and the extent to which she upholds the use of categorisation; but also demonstrates the inadequacies of an overreliance on these categories, and shows the need for far greater nuance and flexibility in adapting to specific contexts. Her findings reveal the multiple ways in which refugees forge spaces for belonging in ways that often contradict – or even subvert – national and international policies, and point to the somewhat obvious fact that policy needs to be bottom up, rather than top-down, something that has long been recognised by practitioners and academics alike but has yet to infuse much programming on the ground.

The findings, therefore, point to the tenuous nature of state-bounded citizenship that has failed to accommodate the reality that notions of inclusion and exclusion function in multiple ways that go beyond – or even discard – national citizenship. At the same time, they also demonstrate that whether for those living on the margins within their own state, or refugees pushed to the edges of a polity in exile, citizenship retains strong symbolic – as well as, at times, real – value. Both the possibility of citizenship and its continual failure to deliver beat at the heart of the book.

Thus, refugees continue to challenge the parameters of citizenship and belonging, and to test our political imaginations. But, as Hovil concludes, it should never be this hard for those uprooted from their homes to find spaces in which to belong. Instead, in order for responses to be anything more than palliative, policies need to be rooted in understandings of identity and belonging that are more supple; that pull people into the centre rather than polarise and exclude; and that draw on, rather than negate, the creativity that refugees themselves demonstrate in their quest to forge spaces of belonging.

Read the full introduction.

See the whole book, available for purchase.