“Yet there’s no place for us”: Trump’s Executive Order epitomises a global trend of exclusion

President Trump’s recent Executive Order is, without a doubt, extreme. The four-month hold on allowing refugees into the US, and the temporary ban on travellers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, is both ridiculous and cruel. It is also wrong at multiple levels. It is flawed in its methodology, mistakenly based on the claim that these particular restrictions will make America safer; it violates US law; and it is morally unjustifiable in a context in which the responsibility for refugee protection is supposed to be shared – not to mention the fact that many of those who are fleeing are doing so as a result of wars that the US quite possibly helped to ignite.

Perhaps worst of all, while the ban is being legally challenged and may well end up being over-ruled once and for all, it will be hard to undo the damage that has already been done in further stigmatising refugees.

One of the most dangerous aspects of the Executive Order is that it legitimises, at a political level, the exclusion of those who are seeking safety outside of their own country. Having stripped away all the sweeteners and fancy wrappers that usually coat discussions around refugee protection, the US President has shown us a dystopian reality that is deeply unsettling and raises uncomfortable questions about the trajectory of refugee protection. He has also shown us the extraordinary damage that can be done when a democratically elected leader decides to throw out the rule book.

But it is important to remember that the challenges of exclusion faced by refugees are, unfortunately, neither new nor novel. In his poem “Refugee Blues” written in 1939, W.H. Auden portrays a German Jewish couple seeking a new home:

“Say this city has ten million souls,

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:

Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.”[1]

The failure to find safety the poem evokes reminds us that the history of refugee protection is one that few of us can be proud of.

While the 1951 Refugee Convention (agreed 12 years after Auden wrote the poem in response to the plight of those such as the narrator) continues to provide clear guidance on how to protect a category of people who are, by any standards, some of the most vulnerable on the planet, Trump’s actions have exposed the vulnerability of a system that is reliant on the will of individual States to implement it.

Extreme as his actions are, we have to remember that the world has failed to implement the 1951 Convention in a consistent and humane way and has been marginalising and failing refugees for decades. The sum of the many policies, both national and international, that are supposed to ensure that the 1951 Convention is translated into refugee protection has, in practice, created a situation in which safety and belonging for those who have been uprooted from their homes has constantly eluded them.

Whether a refugee who has spent over two years in limbo while jumping through endless hoops to be accepted for resettlement to a rich, Western country only to then have their claim turned down (the reality for most resettlement applicants); or an asylum seeker who is unable to flee political persecution because neighbouring states have closed their borders; or an asylum applicant who has had their claim rejected on an unjustified technicality, refugees and asylum seekers are repeatedly failed by those mandated to protect them. For most, their experience is one of pushing on doors that are locked, or of having them metaphorically – and, at times, literally – slammed in their faces. In reality, refugees are easy scape-goats in wider political games in which their lack of meaningful citizenship makes them particularly powerless. The Executive Order might be a stark and particularly belligerent example of how governments can deliberately used policy to drive exclusion, therefore, but it still remains part of a broader global failure to share the burden of asylum.

As the poem continues,

“The consul banged the table and said,

‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’:

But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.”

If we were to judge the US (and other western nations) under the old adage that “the moral test of government is how that government treats…those who are in the shadows of life”, most would fail. So it is crucial that the forces needed to mitigate this trend are sufficiently strengthened, co-ordinated and galvanised, to push back against it. In a context in which spaces for belonging are shrinking across the world, and in which governments are becoming increasingly exclusionary in their politics, we must not allow the final word in Trump’s actions to expedite a trajectory towards exclusion. Protests against the Executive Order and the challenge to its legitimacy through the courts are a good beginning. But there now needs to be a sustained and multi-level approach if there is to be any chance of turning this trajectory around – and on that we have no choice.



[1] From W.H. Auden, Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson. Faber and Faber, 1979.

Refugees, Conflict and the Search for Belonging

For those who might be interested, I have just published the book, Refugees, Conflict and the Search for Belonging (Palgrave Macmillan). It is based on seven years of research in Eastern and Central Africa, but has application beyond the region, pointing to drivers and failures that continue to feed the global refugee crisis.

The book 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.

It 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.

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, the book 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. It 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.

The book 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. It 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, the analysis tries to hold 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.

The book does not claim that one or the other is right, but argues that both narratives need to listen to and interact with each other. It 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. The 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 the book 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.


Will a UN summit on migration change anything?

On September 19, the UN Secretary-General will convene a summit meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York to address current “large movements of refugees and migrants.” Its goal is to ensure a re-commitment to the core principles of refugee protection and discuss new frameworks to respond to the increasing number of people on the move.

Without wanting to pour cold water over a meeting that is, in and of itself, a positive move – after all, lack of coordination is often a key stumbling block to protection – the process is unfortunately fundamentally flawed. The summit brings together States, and therefore will be strongly influenced by government agendas. And those governments that are driven by the political need to limit mobility (keep people out), and by the imperative to contain and ghettoize them if they do get in, are among the loudest and most powerful.

On paper, restricting the movement of people might seem like a good way to reduce the global migration crisis. It is certainly politically expedient, and by limiting the number of people on the move eventually it might stop looking like a crisis. In practice, of course, this is almost impossible to achieve. And if it did happen, it would be at an unbearable cost to those for whom staying behind is simply not an option. People will still move, but they will do so without protection and below the official radar, which benefits no-one.

So why this fear of movement? After all, the movement of people is as old as humanity itself and rather than being made illegal, it needs to be accepted as the norm. Movement is one of the key coping strategies for people caught up in situations where violence and threat compels them to seek safety and livelihoods elsewhere. Yet mobility (forced or otherwise), rather than being seen as an important coping strategy for individuals, continues to be seen as a challenge to state sovereignty. As a result, it fails in fulfilling its potential to contribute to protection with policy structures, securitised narratives around refugees and migrants, and broader issues of xenophobia limiting its implementation. People are moving all the time. But they are often doing so despite the policy context, not because of it; and often in extremely dangerous circumstances as a result.

Of course, on paper the summit meeting is seeking to do exactly this – to regularise and monitor the movement of people. However, for as long as good intentions continue to be blocked by political priorities, in practice they will remain just that – good intentions.

At the same time, the containment and ghettoization of those who do manage to gain access to wealthier states continue to push refugees and migrants to the margins of societies, thereby emphasising and maintaining their exclusion.

That is not to say that refugees and migrants do not show extraordinary resourcefulness in finding spaces for inclusion. Indeed, many forge local forms of belonging, not least through seeking out economic and social resources despite broader political exclusion. However, the precariousness of their situation remains a dominant feature of their lives, and the parameters for discussion need to be broadened. In particular, there needs to be a far more robust focus on creating spaces for belonging that draw people in from the margins.

Indeed, it is interesting to speculate that if post-9/11 US foreign policy had not been driven by the idea of a “war on terror” but rather by a war on marginalisation, the current contours of displacement around the world, particularly in the Middle East, would likely be significantly different. The extent to which the war on terror has sustained and exacerbated marginalisation by creating foot soldiers living on the edges of society who can all too easily be deployed by those intent on generating violent extremism, has been a foreign policy disaster. At the same time, the extent to which this same “war on terror” has validated the growing securitisation of foreign policy has further entrenched the divide between insiders and outsiders.

Migrants – both forced and otherwise – have been particular victims of this approach. In a global context in which there is shrinking asylum space, and where increasingly refugees and migrants are being associated, however falsely, with violent extremism, it has become increasingly difficult for asylum seekers, migrants and refugees – regardless of categorisation – to access places of safety.

Of course, this is not the whole story. Many respond to the arrival of strangers with empathy and a determination to help. And equally, it is important not to characterise refugees and migrants merely as victims of these circumstances.

So will the meeting in New York change anything? Probably not. The fundamental problems facing refugees do not lie in the substance and structures of protection – after all, the principles of integration and safe movement are all there in the 1951 Refugee Convention. They lie in the political will to implement these ideas. Without addressing the realpolitik that continues to drive practice, therefore, any new ideas – or the repacking of old ideas – will continue to be palliative.

Instead, far more needs to be done to persuade governments of the benefits in ensuring that policies pull people into the centre rather than polarise and exclude them; and draw on, rather than negate, the creativity that refugees and migrants demonstrate in their quest to forge spaces of belonging.

In the meantime, refugees and migrants will continue to challenge the parameters of policy and practice, and will continue to test our political imaginations. And long may they do so. Rather than sitting around waiting for the world’s leaders to sign onto agreements, against the odds thousands of refugees and migrants are sending their children to school, generating livelihoods and negotiating their way through exile and through journeys, however precarious. But it should never be this hard.

Call for papers for a Special Issue of the International Journal of Transitional Justice:  “Transitional Justice from the Margins: Intersections of Identities, Power and Human Rights”


For our 2018 special issue of the International Journal of Transitional Justice, we seek scholarship and practitioners’ reflections that engage critically with the intersections of transitional justice and social oppression.

In 2017 the Journal marks its 10th anniversary. We take this opportunity to open a conversation that raises profound questions about the status of transitional justice. This starts not from a series of normative assumptions about truth, justice and reconciliation but rather from an analysis of how the structure of the discipline reinforces power dynamics. We plan to examine how transitional justice intersects with the structural dimensions of marginalization and oppression.

A central critique of the evolution of transitional justice relates to the legal framework and discourse of international human rights law that elevates certain civil and political rights over other norms, realities and dynamics. Systemic structural inequities become invisible or relegated to subsequent policy perspectives that governments or the international community invaribaly push ‘down the road.’ As these issues often reflect the power dynamics of the state, they tend to be ignored in favor of maintaining and consolidating the status quo. The structural nature of social oppressions, often underlying many gross violations of human rights, and the collective resistance of those most directly affected by these oppressions often appear marginalized by transitional justice frameworks and discourses.

The operation of power at the intersections of gender, ‘race,’ social class and/or sexualities is often obscured in the narrow lens of individually focused violations. Some might suggest that transitional justice has, at best, an individualized reductionistic relationship with gender through its hypervisibilization of sexual violence – contributing to what Canadian scholar Sherene Razack (2007) characterizes as “stealing the pain of others” – and a blindness to racism.

Kimberlee Crenshaw (1989) has examined how the focus exclusively on women as individual victims of a singular injustice may lead to revictimization by a legal system that continues to prioritize hegemonic patriarchal and racialised power. Her work – and that of indigenous scholars and others writing ‘from the margins’ – documents the structural economic, political and social systems that constrain minoritized and marginalized communities and their struggles for justice. Those acting and writing ‘from the margins’ or constructing knowledge ‘from the bottom up’ challenge those within the transitional justice field to critically interrogate the current dominant frameworks.

We seek work that contributes to critically discussing the limits of the transitional justice framework for understanding the causes and redressing the effects of social, economic and cultural rights, or explores how transitional justice could/should be broadened to address such challenges. We particularly welcome contributions that address intersectionality and its relationship to violent conflict and political settlements in theory and in practice. This special issues seeks to focus on work that generates new thinking or action which centers scholarship and activist insights that are grounded in and promote postcolonial or decolonizing knowledge produced by or collaboratively with an increasingly diverse and complex global community.

Questions that submissions could explore include:

  • Does transitional justice need to think beyond human rights frameworks in order to address structural inequalities and systems of oppression?
  • How does the current focus on sexual violence reproduce sexual hierarchies in transitional justice interventions, and entrench that focus in transitional accountability?
  • Where are LGBTQI individuals in the transitional justice conversation?
  • Is masculinity intersectional?
  • How does transitional justice reinforce or critically engage categories of identity and forms of hierarchy?
  • How might transitional justice be reconfigured if knowledge ‘from the margins’ traveled to the center? In what ways can or should local or indigenous theory and praxis in postconflict contexts reframe transitional justice norms, knowledge and practices?
  • What does ‘grassroots’ transitional justice really mean in practice and how might it be holistically and meaningfully advanced, acknowledging the communities and individuals who advance it?
  • Can economic, social and cultural rights be adequately addressed through a transitional justice framework?
  • How can the silos of development and transitional justice be integrated and expanded to encapsulate attention to the power differentials that lead to human rights violations?

The issue will be guest edited by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and Eilish Rooney of the Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University. Ní Aoláin is Professor of Law at the Transitional Justice Institute and holds the Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School. Rooney is a Senior Lecturer in Ulster’s School of Sociology and Applied Social Studies. She represents the Transitional Justice Institute on the Transitional Justice Grassroots Toolkit programme, a university–community partnership with Bridge of Hope, a community-based organization focused on supporting persons affected by the conflict in Northern Ireland. Rooney and Ní Aoláin have collaborated extensively in the practice and theorizing of intersectionality in transitional justice.

The deadline for submissions is 1 July 2017.

Papers should be submitted online from the IJTJ webpage at www.ijtj.oxfordjournals.org.

For further information, please contact the Managing Editor at ijtj@csvr.org.za.

Protecting some of the people some of the time: the UN’s peacekeeping mission in South Sudan

Two years ago, war broke out in South Sudan. What started off as a political power struggle between President Kiir and former deputy president Riek Machar was quickly manipulated into ethnically-aligned violence that spread with extraordinary speed and intensity. Civilians quickly became the prime target.

As violence escalated, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) took the unprecedented decision to open its gates to thousands of civilians fleeing violence. While the opening of a number of protection of civilian (PoC) sites across the country did not prevent mass violence, there is no doubt that it reduced the number of people killed or injured. As one man living in a PoC site in Juba said: “If it was not because of peacekeepers all of us would have been killed.” The speed with which the decision was taken to open the gates was crucial in saving lives. It was also a direct response to the shadow that fell over peacekeeping missions during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, when the gates stayed closed and thousands were killed as a result.

A report launched today by the International Refugee Rights Initiative presents the views of a number of these civilians, many of whom who are still living in one of the PoC sites. Two years on, they remain grateful for the protection offered by the camps but are also disappointed that the UN has not been able to do more. Despite the UN’s presence, atrocities have still been committed, and civilians are frustrated that protection appears to be available only inside the camp. As a woman living in the PoC site in Bor said, “They tell us they can only protect us if we stay here. They say that if you go out far from the camp, we can’t protect you.” And while they might be safer inside the camps, (although on occasion the camps themselves have been attacked), the humanitarian situation is dire. People have been reduced to eating leaves and burning plastic to cook the small amount of food they have as there is nothing else left.

Once again, civilians are bearing the brunt of a war they did not start. Defined by the scale and nature of atrocities, this war has forced itself into the heart of communities to devastating effect. The use of ethnicity by those in power as a tool for mobilising constituents within the conflict has been a particularly pernicious strategy. It has torn apart the social fabric that had already been weakened by decades of conflict and injustice, and the legacies of this current conflict at both a local and national level are hard to exaggerate. And not only are these atrocities themselves appalling, but they will make the resolution of this conflict much, much harder. As a member of the donor community said, “We have to acknowledge the collective failure of the international community. And UNMISS has played a big part in that.”

Set against this context, it is clear that the need for better responses to situations of conflict in which atrocities take place could not be more pressing. The opening up of PoC sites was a step in the right direction, albeit one that needs careful evaluation, and has certainly set a precedent for future outbreaks of violence – whether in South Sudan or other places where peacekeeping forces are operating. As one man said, “There should always be a camp like this ready for civilians in danger.” However, while their actions are appreciated by the thousands living in the sites, there are millions more outside who are suffering. They have simply not done enough.

For UNMISS, therefore, the challenges it faces are considerable. With its mandate expanding to monitor the implementation of a peace agreement signed in August 2015, there is a real danger that the protection of civilians will only be diluted further. This would be a disaster in a context in which the trajectory of the conflict continues to deteriorate. Yet the peace agreement presents a conundrum: on the one hand, there is little faith in the agreement and much to suggest that the parties will return to war; on the other, if the agreement is not supported it will definitely fail with devastating consequences for civilians. In addition to internal complications of poor governance and a weak state structure, the conflict’s geopolitical positioning further complicates the situation. With both government and opposition allegedly stockpiling weapons (which are in plentiful supply), and with another internal war taking place over the border in neighbouring Sudan’s Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states, coupled with long-established networks for destabilisation at the disposal of neighbouring governments, many of the ingredients remain in place for a protracted conflict.

Ultimately, of course, the antidote to these atrocities is not a peacekeeping force that can never be anything more than palliative, but an inclusive political solution to the conflict and accountability for what has taken place – a solution that goes beyond the redistribution of power among a small minority who have access to weapons and the inclination to use them. But in the meantime, while some protection for some of the people some of the time is undoubtedly better than no protection at all, it offers little comfort to the majority of civilians whose lives, as a result, remain fundamentally unsafe.

(This blog first appeared on African Arguments http://africanarguments.org/2015/12/15/un-peacekeepers-in-south-sudan-protecting-some-of-the-people-some-of-the-time/)

Transfers from Israel are a symptom of the global refugee crisis seizing Europe

For decades, Europe has managed to ignore the majority of refugees housed in countries along the borders of those in crisis – including TurkeyLebanon and Africa’s Great Lakes region – and has had its collective head in the sand over the critical failures to offer them adequate protection and assistance. It has wrongly assumed that aid budgets are a suitable substitute for proper engagement with deeply-entrenched causes of conflict and forced migration. As it turns out, throwing money at a distant refugee crisis without an assessment not only of the broader context of the conflict, but also of the extent to which actions taken by European governments have contributed to instability, eventually catches up with you. So now, as images of thousands of asylum seekers in train stations in Hungary and those coming ashore in Greece show, the protection crisis is no longer out there. The challenge of protection has been laid squarely at Europe’s feet.

Inevitably, the response to the growing visibility of this global refugee crisis has been mixed, ranging from generosity and empathy (as displayed by the welcome received by Syrian asylum seekers arriving in Germany after their gruelling journey from Hungary), to hostility and anger (as evidenced by the image of a camerawoman tripping up fleeing migrants). One of the key factors that determines public opinion is the ability to engage with individual stories – stories that work as an antidote to the xenophobic language that turns individuals into marauding hordes and personal tragedies into a perceived threat. But in order to understand individuals, we must understand why they flee and why they choose Europe. We need to grasp the fact that their stories are inextricably linked to failures of protection and a lack of viable opportunities for livelihoods elsewhere. And to do that, we need to re-trace their steps and understand the many factors that led them to Europe.

One of these stories is told in a report recently published by the International Refugee Rights Initiative. The report, “I was left with nothing”: “Voluntary” departures of asylum seekers from Israel to Rwanda and Uganda is based on interviews with 25 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, 22 of whom were sent from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda between February 2014 and May 2015 under a so-called “voluntary departure” programme. Due to the circumstances under which they left Israel, and the way in which they were treated on arrival in Rwanda and Uganda, most have subsequently been forced to flee once more. Many are now trying to make their way into Europe. Some have succeeded, others have not.

Their stories show how the dangerous voyage to Europe is not so much a choice as simply the only option left after trying countless other ways to find safety for themselves and their families. All those interviewed had fled conflict and persecution in their home countries, and had gone to Israel in the hope of finding not only a safe place to stay, but also a job to support themselves and their families. To get to Israel, many had risked being kidnapped by Bedouins in the Sinai desert and taken to a hidden camp where families are then extorted for ransom, as shown in the documentary, Sound of Torture. Those who made it to Israel, however, found that their problems had only just begun. More than two thirds of those interviewed had either been put into indefinite detention in Israel’s Holot detention centre (described by one interviewee as “a place not fit for human beings”), or had been threatened with detention, in line with Israel’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers. Until 2013, they were not even allowed to apply for asylum, and afterwards they faced an unfair process. Not surprisingly, since the beginning of 2013 approximately 10,000 African asylum seekers who had fled to Israel seeking refuge have once more been forced to flee – either back to the places from which they had fled, or to other destinations including Europe.

Meanwhile, approximately 1,500 Sudanese and Eritreans were persuaded to join a “voluntary departure” scheme, also documented by Human Rights Watch, run by the Israeli government, under which asylum seekers are sent to Uganda and Rwanda with a promise that they will receive legal status and a cash payment of approximately USD 3,500 on leaving Israel. They chose to leave not because they wanted to go to the third countries offered, but because they could not go home. In the words of one Eritrean asylum seeker: “They said: ‘you can either go to your country or to Rwanda.’ I said: ‘if I could go to my country, why would I even be in Israel to begin with?’” (This determination not to return contrasts sharply with controversial UK Home Office Guidance on Eritrea, which suggests that individuals can return safely as they will not face prosecution for having left without permission on return).

Yet the research documented the fact that, on arrival in Uganda or Rwanda, they were not only not offered any kind of automatic status, they were left with no valid legal documents (often having the few documents that they did have taken off them). They were then approached by people smugglers and “encouraged” to leave the country – or, by way of an alternative, risk deportation due to the fact that they had no legal status. As a result, all of those we interviewed who had arrived in Rwanda, and most of those who had been sent to Uganda, had once more fled. Another Eritrean who was transferred from Israel to Rwanda and was then smuggled into Uganda, explained: “Out of 16 people [who came on the same flight] I am the only one still here. They are all in Libya. I don’t need to go to these places. You go to Juba, from Juba, Sudan – it is dangerous. I don’t want to go there. I want to leave [Uganda] by plane.”

With their options now even further reduced (as one man said, the only document he had left was his Israeli prison identity document), some have subsequently taken the difficult decision to undertake the treacherous journey to Europe. Those interviewed were well aware of the dangers: in April 2015, three Eritreans who had left Israel under this so-called “voluntary” programme were executed by Islamic State in Libya. As one interviewee who knew one of the victims personally said, “Many have left [Uganda] to South Sudan and then they go to Libya. But now there is ISIS there. I don’t know if you saw on Youtube, there was one, he was with us in Holot, I know him. They [ISIS] have slaughtered him. We were together in Holot. I also know of two who are in Benghazi in the jail… They are still waiting there to go to Europe, by sea.”

Their stories point to some of the circumstances that drive individuals and families to risk their lives and get into a leaking boat to cross over the Mediterranean to a fundamentally uncertain future. They are circumstances driven by the fact that the ability to seek a place of safety is becoming increasingly difficult for millions of people – circumstances in which we are all, to some extent, complicit whether through foreign policy decisions taken by our governments or our own inaction. Europe’s refugee crisis, therefore, is not just a European crisis but a global one needing a global response. We need not only to show solidarity and take in more forced migrants in Europe, but to support protection globally, and to engage with greater honesty in the resolution of deeply entrenched causes of forced migration. We also need to hold Israel accountable for its treatment of asylum seekers. While other countries in the region are hosting millions of refugees fleeing Syria, Israel is hosting none, and is forcing out the several thousands of African asylum seekers already in it. It is not only sending those refugees to countries that already host large numbers of refugees, but is also putting their lives in danger and is eventually contributing to refugee crises in other countries.

(Reposted from OpenDemocracy)

Burundi: no business as usual

If ever evidence was needed to show that the transition from conflict to sustainable peace is a long, hard road, recent events in Burundi have demonstrated it.

The announcement on 23 April 2015 by President Nkurunziza that he would run for a third term sparked fierce opposition. Although Burundi’s constitution contains a two term limit, Nkurunziza argues, and the Constitutional Court agreed (albeit reportedly under pressure) that his first term does not count because he was appointed by parliament rather than in a general election. Serious protests then rocked the capital Bujumbura, with increasing reports of violence between government forces and protesters. Such reports would have been worrying in any country, but were particularly concerning in Burundi, a country with a long history of mass violence that has been negotiating a protracted and painful transition to peace since the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in August 2000.

The situation then evolved fast. On Thursday 14 May, an attempted coup d’état took place when the president was in neighbouring Tanzania for an emergency meeting with members of the East African Community. The coup has now been quelled, the President has returned to Burundi, and many of those responsible have been arrested. However, the media black-out that has been forcibly imposed on the country through the burning down of the main media and radio houses remains in place, and the situation remains highly charged.

Yet again, it feels like Burundi has reached a crucial junction. In many respects, the government’s actions and words over the next days and weeks are likely to determine whether or not the country’s trajectory will take it closer to civil war or allow it to continue the painful progression towards greater stability. For the situation to diffuse rather than escalate, a number of things need to happen.

First, President Nkurunziza needs to ensure the fair treatment of those arrested – and already there are concerning reports that this is not the case. While the forcible seizure of power is clearly a breach of national and international law and needs to be treated as such, their actions have to be considered within the broader political context in which they took place. Therefore, the president needs to ensure that any action taken not only respects national and international human rights protections, but also is sensitive to the genuine grievances of protesters and others. Ultimately, the president should accept that he is, in part, responsible.

Second, and related, the issue of President Nkurunziza’s third term in office needs to be addressed. The old adage says that that which does not kill you makes you stronger, and there is a danger that, having weathered this threat, President Nkurunziza will emerge emboldened. However, it would be a huge mistake to overlook the strength of feeling that has been, and still is being, demonstrated, quite literally, on the streets of Bujumbura. Renouncing his intention to stand for a third term would avoid conflict and allow Nkurunziza to ensure a proper democratic transition of power.

Third, while much of the attention over the past days has been on events in the capital, Bujumbura, there is a growing refugee crisis in neighbouring countries. Since 2005, the return and reintegration of those who fled previous violence was a crucial component to the broader reconstruction of the country. Now, once again, the return of those who have fled will be a crucial marker of the government’s legitimacy: indeed, the government can prove its commitment to peace by ensuring that those who have fled into exile are able to return voluntarily and with dignity.

Fourth, and facilitating return, it is vital that the government bring its armed elements under control. Allegedly one of the main causes of flight has been threats from, and human rights abuses committed by, the government’s notorious armed youth wing, the imbonerakure (meaning “those who can see from far”). Its continuing presence is likely not only to increase the refugee crisis, but also to prevent those who have fled from returning.

Fifth, press freedom is crucial. The fact that so little information is available within Burundi is extremely dangerous: the vacuum it leaves is inevitably filled with rumour. And rumours generate instability as people are living in fear and uncertainty. Therefore it is vital that a free press be allowed to function as crucial evidence for – and the function of – democratic space.

Finally, it is clearer than ever that the elections slated for June need to be postponed until there is a environment in which they can viably take place in a free and fair manner. Forging ahead with the mechanisms but not the substance of democracy never works. Although the president might appear to have contained the current crisis (although that remains to be seen), an unfree and unfair election will, at best, simply be a holding exercise. At worst, it could fuel considerably more violence as tensions simmering under the surface re-emerge.

Ultimately, the need for equitable governance to become strongly entrenched within Burundi is vital to its political health moving forward. It is important to remember that although President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term was clearly the trigger for recent events, tensions have been simmering in Burundi for some time with the ruling regime being accused of becoming increasingly dictatorial. Local and international human rights organisations have been sounding the alarm for years. This misuse of political power is antithetical to dealing with legacies of violence. It leaves the country in a permanent state of suspended animation, always waiting to see if a trigger will lead to the kind of violence and unrest that has been witnessed over the past days. The people of Burundi deserve far more. And it is the responsibility of their government to deliver.



The government of Sudan, the bombing of civilians, and the silence of the international community

The recent elections in Sudan call into question the legitimacy of the government soon to be re-elected. Even if the elections had been free and fair (which they have not), the government’s legitimacy would be challenged unequivocally by the fact that the very same government currently being re-elected into power is authorising the continual and systematic bombardment of civilians who are technically part of its polity.

On average, the Sudanese government has dropped three bombs a day on rebel held territory in its Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States since April 2012. The impact of this bombing campaign on those living in the area has been devastating. Not only do the bombs often kill or maim civilians, but they also coincide disproportionately with planting and harvesting cycles, as well as market days, suggesting a deliberate strategy to decimate livelihoods. Yet despite the disruption to the local economy, the government of Sudan refuses to allow humanitarian access to these areas, citing fears that aid would be used to support rebel fighters.

As a result, 1.7 million people – roughly half of the population of the two states – have been displaced. Those who have remained, live with the daily threat of aerial bombardment, of government land forces breaking through the rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement–North (SPLM-N) frontline, and a chronic lack of food and medicine.

A report released today highlights the voices of civilians living in the midst of this conflict. It emphasises the devastating impact of the conflict on every aspect of people’s lives. But it also talks of the resilience and resistance of those who are living through it. Despite unrelenting attacks against them, local organisations and activists have taken it upon themselves to educate the population about the means of surviving Antonov[1] attacks, in particular by digging foxholes and learning when and where to take cover.

This resilience, in many respects, is fuelled by defiance: many people have remained in Southern Kordofan not only because the alternatives are bleak (most of those who have been displaced have fled to South Sudan, itself in civil conflict), but because they see their ongoing presence as a form of resistance to a state they believe is trying to destroy them. As a result, many aspects of day-to-day life continue in rebel held areas of Southern Kordofan, as evidenced by children going to school and markets functioning (albeit under the daily threat of bombing and with chronic shortages.)

Furthermore, the extent to which the current government of Sudan is seen to lack any form of legitimacy is reflected by the fact that civilians are putting their faith in alternative structures of government. The rebels have recently set up a civilian administration in conjunction with the military structures that already exist, which the findings in the report demonstrate are broadly accepted by the civilian population. Civilians hope that this administration will eventually create an alternative, inclusive form of governance – in contrast to those of the Sudanese state, which they see as highly exclusionary.

However, it is important not to over-romanticise this resilience which, not surprisingly, is being severely depleted. The population’s efforts have certainly helped to minimise civilian casualties and allowed many people to remain in Southern Kordofan despite the substantial impact of the conflict. But their ability to survive is also being worn away by the continuing onslaught.

While primary responsibility for what is taking place lies with the government of Sudan, it seems unlikely that they will end their military campaign in the foreseeable future – and certainly not without considerable coercion from the international community (or at least certain parts of it). But the international community has remained, for the most part, silent.

Courageous local organisations and citizen journalists have been reporting on the intolerable circumstances in which civilians live in Southern Kordofan. Yet these organisations remain limited in their external reach. Indeed, civilians caught up in this conflict are struggling to have their voices heard – or rather, heeded. With the government of Sudan blocking independent media and international organisations from the field in a deliberate effort to cover up the consequences of the violence, there is both insufficient awareness at the international level about what is taking place, and a failure to mobilise around what information is available, with reports from NGOs regularly being dismissed as biased.

One of the strongest messages that came through the research was that those living in Southern Kordofan do not want pity: they want solidarity. They want the international community to acknowledge what is taking place and work with them to end the conflict. Their resilience is not being matched by support from the international community, which appears caught between denial and helplessness. The consequent lack of decisive action is proving disastrous, and the disconnect between the standards of international humanitarian and human rights law and their lack of enforcement could not be more stark.

It is hard to see a military victory for either side any time soon. Furthermore, for as long as the government fails to put in reforms that have been demanded, for decades, by those on the peripheries within the broader context of Sudan, there will be a reason for people to fight. In this context, a stalemate is unacceptable – a stalemate that is taking an intolerable toll on a civilian population that has been depleted of most of its reserves.

So what can the international community do? Obviously, there are no easy answers. It has already tried to call the president of Sudan to account in Darfur with an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court. This strategy has so far failed to reap any direct benefits to those in Darfur, let alone those in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. One recommendation that the report makes is for the United Nations or the African Union to conduct an independent inquiry into what is taking place. Once such an “official” body has documented the situation for themselves, key members of the international community will find it harder to dismiss the evidence of massive attacks on civilians. Maybe this will lead to action. Or maybe not. But for now it might be a step in the right direction. At the very least it would send a powerful message to the people of Southern Kordofan that the international community are aware of their plight, and it would shed some light on an increasingly dark chapter of Sudan’s already shady recent history.

(This post first appeared on OpenDemocracy https://www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening/lucy-hovil/silence-over-sudan%E2%80%99s-bombing-of-civilians)

[1] Antonovs are cargo aircraft designed in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Because they are cargo planes, they lack any sort of guidance system and bombs are simply rolled out of the cargo hold, and are therefore inherently indiscriminate.

Talking justice in Uganda: has the conversation evolved?

(Reposted from African Arguments)

The relationship between the International Criminal Court (ICC) and African civil society is certainly an interesting one. On the one hand, the proliferation of conflict on the continent has led to an ever increasing deficit in justice, and the ICC is seen by some as a crucial component to filling this hole. On the other, many actors have expressed concern about the prominence accorded to the ICC: some have accused it of being another form of neo-colonial domination; others have expressed concern about its detrimental impact on domestic peace processes or wider justice efforts, especially in the context of inadequate understanding of local contexts; while others have criticised it for failing to protect those who collaborate with it or address the needs of victim communities. Meanwhile, the water around those with legitimate concerns and critiques has become increasingly muddied by attacks on the court by those in positions of power who see rubbishing accountability as key to their survival.

While these differences of opinion have sometimes led to constructive debate, with local and international civil society genuinely seeking to find the right paths forward, they have also – possibly more frequently – led to an acrimonious stand-off. Too often, raising concerns about how the ICC is doing its job has been equated with favouring impunity.

In many respects, the reaction to the ICC’s engagement in northern Uganda was the first iteration of this debate. Eleven years later, the recent reported surrender in Central African Republic of Dominic Ongwen, one of the commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and the prospect of his trial, provides a good opportunity to revisit these disagreements. While the landscape has shifted considerably since 2004 – including an end to armed conflict in northern Uganda, the Juba Peace Process, ongoing local initiatives such as the Beyond Juba initiative, and the creation of a division of the Ugandan High Court to hear war crimes and related cases, not to mention heavy investment by the ICC in outreach activities in northern Uganda, and a new prosecutor at the ICC itself – many of these tensions remain. Without wanting to simply rehearse old and tired debates, it is worth looking back to the ICC’s initial engagement in Uganda in order to reflect on whether or not the renewed focus that has been put on the war as a result of Ongwen’s pending trial, presents an opportunity to address them.

When the government of Uganda announced on 29 January 2004 that it was making the first referral of a country situation to the ICC, the stakes were high. The ICC was a new institution with the formidable mandate of ending impunity for the worst crimes throughout the world, and northern Uganda was its first situation. On paper, the LRA seemed a perfect target. Its notorious leader, Joseph Kony, abducted and abused children, carried out atrocities of the most appalling nature, and had a cultish aura that seemed to negate any rational political agenda. It was also responding to a request from the government of Uganda to investigate the LRA, which presented it with the opportunity to test out its mandate in the relatively uncontroversial waters of a state referral.

However, the announcement of the ICC’s investigation, followed by the issuing of arrest warrants in 2005, created considerable tension and a bitter debate on the ground in Uganda. Positions polarised around the appropriateness of different forms of justice, with the ICC and a number of international human rights organisations speaking out in favour of criminal accountability as a necessity for peace, and many local human rights and civil society organisations, and community leaders in the north, speaking out in favour of prioritising peace negotiations and considering other forms of justice. The vigorous exchange that followed significantly undermined the areas of mutual understanding and common ground that could have led to a healthy discussion on ending the war and creating an environment of sustainable peace – and the role of pursuing accountability for international crimes in those pursuits. Instead, it set up a false distinction between the demands of justice and the demands of peace.

One of the substantive concerns that local civil society expressed was the lack of focus on accountability for the actions of the government of Uganda. For those in the north caught up in the midst of the war, although there was minimal support for Kony’s actions, the government was perceived to be as much a source of instability and human rights abuses as the LRA. It had not only failed to protect its citizens, but had compounded their misery by forcing much of the rural population into so-called “protected villages”. Therefore, they wanted accountability not only for the government’s inability to protect civilians, but its alleged complicity in their suffering. By focusing so predominantly on the role of the LRA alone (reports to the General Assembly do not even mention information on government crimes until 2010), the ICC was seen to be not only failing to recognise wider grievances that lay at the root of the conflict, but was inadvertently promoting the government’s narrative of the conflict – that the LRA had no legitimate political agenda and was merely a “terrorist” or “criminal” group. As a result, it appeared to have become complicit in the political manoeuvring that has enabled President Museveni to maintain power for almost three decades.

Eleven years later, this concern remains valid, not least given the fact that political space in Uganda seems to have only contracted. The fact that the ICC has still only brought charges on one side of the conflict (albeit recognising the legal realities around this decision) means that many still see the ICC as pursuing one-sided justice. The difference now, is that even those that have always been strong supporters of the ICC have acknowledged this as a problem – although their response has been somewhat different, arguing that it is better to take what justice we can get and continue to work on government accountability in other fora where possible.

Of course, the ICC was only ever intended to be part of the solution. It cannot address the many injustices that are the result of structural inequalities in society, rather than the result of individual actions – although, ideally, individual prosecutions would help to highlight and expose these structural factors. However, the risk is that a focus on the “criminality” of a few may actually come to be seen as an explanation for all the violence, thereby obscuring the root causes. It points to the need for complementary approaches that significantly take into account the role played by the government of Uganda in the war, and allow for the re-building of civic trust that has been so severely depleted. Inevitably, these concerns have come sharply into focus with the appearance of Ongwen at the ICC, suggesting that any outcome of his trial is unlikely to be seen as “justice” from the perspective of those who lived through this painful conflict unless broader issues are also addressed.

Positively, Ongwen’s status as both a victim and a perpetrator (however that might be interpreted) has been widely debated since his arrest, highlighting not only the atrocities he is alleged to have committed but also the government’s failure to protect him from abduction in the first place. The extent to which this narrative is explored and addressed in court is going to be a key component to the quality of justice delivered by the trial. The emphasis that is placed on the issue of cause and effect and the complicity of both sides will have an impact on the external perception of the validity of the final judgment, whatever it may be. If managed appropriately, actors outside the court could use it to help build pressure for other justice processes.

The trial of Ongwen, therefore, creates an opportunity for local and international civil society to put the pressure on the government of Uganda to renew dialogue on, and promote implementation of, its transitional justice policy framework, and to expose factors behind the war that have remained concealed. Of course, these are all complex issues and the ICC’s proceedings against five people, much less the trial of a single individual, were never going to be sufficient in addressing the massive deficit in justice in northern Uganda. However, unless Ongwen’s case is understood in its broader context, it has the potential to, inadvertently, do more harm than good.

Statelessness averted? Former Burundian refugees to receive Tanzanian citizenship

On 29 September 2014, at the annual meeting of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Governing Executive Committee in Geneva, the government of Tanzania announced that it finally intends to deliver on its 2008 promise of citizenship to tens of thousands of former Burundian refugees by offering them proof of their new status as citizens. This promise – if delivered upon – will avert a growing crisis that had made those caught up in its midst effectively stateless.

This predicament has arisen from good intentions: the government of Tanzania was seeking to end exile for this group, not create a situation in which their exile would metamorphose into statelessness. It is rare for countries to offer citizenship to groups of refugees, especially in the Great Lakes region where millions have been displaced. Instead, most governments wait for circumstances to change so that refugees can go back to their home country. In official refugee policy language, therefore, repatriation is typically favoured over local integration as the most desired “durable solution”. In 2008, however, Tanzania challenged this trend. It took the bold and commendable decision to offer naturalisation to approximately 200,000 Burundian refugees who had fled their country in 1972 and were living as refugees in Tanzania. It was an offer that was unprecedented and exceptional in scale not only in Tanzania, but globally. While some of this group of refugees opted to repatriate to Burundi, 162,256 took up the offer to apply for naturalisation.

The catch, however, is that so far implementation has proved elusive, and this generous offer has, over the past six years, become increasingly caught up in realpolitik. The process itself, therefore, has revealed a huge gap between the idea of citizenship and its realisation. Although the notification that refugees were accepted as citizens should have been enough to confirm their citizenship in law, in practice research with the population has shown that these former refugees, having been required to renounce their Burundian nationality, have spent the past few years being told that the process is incomplete and being refused certificates confirming their new status. As a result, neither the status “refugee” nor “citizen” can be applied unproblematically to this group, leaving their legal status highly ambiguous. As one of these individuals said, “We have been told by officials that we are only 95% Tanzanian and 5% is still incomplete.” And being only 95% Tanzanian is, in reality, as good as not being Tanzanian at all.

Part of the problem was the fact that the former refugees were told that receiving their certificates was contingent upon relocating to other areas of Tanzania – something that they resisted. Arguments for relocation were made by government officials, some members of the host population, and even a few of the naturalised former refugees, who emphasised the need to break with localised expressions of “tradition” in order to ensure citizenship built on “new” (i.e. non-ethnic) forms of social affiliation – which is how citizenship has been constructed in Tanzania for decades. Arguments against relocation were articulated by the majority of former refugees: they believed that if they have become citizens, they should be allowed to move and settle freely in the country like any other Tanzanian. In addition, some believed that being forced to relocate would create vulnerability as it would undermine forms of local belonging they had already established, that allow vital access to livelihoods. Likewise many Tanzanians living in proximity to the former refugees for decades wanted them to be allowed to stay: they have become a vital part of the local economy and are exporting food around Tanzania. With little local government impetus to initiate the process (not least due to an almost total absence of funds), the situation became gridlocked.

Therefore, the announcement by the government of Tanzania that it intends to break this impasse and ensure that the citizenship process is finally completed – and not to make it contingent upon relocation – represents a considerable breakthrough. While these words still need to be translated into the actual handing out of citizenship certificates, this announcement is a major step forward and is certainly a feather in the cap of the Tanzanian government, which has shown itself willing to change its mind on the issue of relocation.

The whole process, however, highlights the fact that today’s refugees are potentially tomorrow’s stateless people. With the launch of UNHCR’s campaign to end statelessness it is vital that “protracted” refugee situations such as this one are not forgotten. All across the Great Lakes region, tens of thousands of people are currently caught in a state of legal limbo having fled the country of their birth – or of their parents’ birth – and yet unable to secure citizenship in their country of exile. Although they may de jure have access to citizenship in their parents’ country, the longer exile continues and the less documentation of their previous citizenship that they have, the less meaningful this legal category becomes. In the current context in which durable solutions continue to be evasive, it will inevitably tip over into statelessness unless appropriate action is taken.

For now, however, as one of only a few examples of a refugee-hosting government promoting full local integration through the granting of citizenship to a particular group of refugees, what is taking place in Tanzania should be a model response to situations of protracted exile not only in the Great Lakes region, but around the world.