Refugees are often thought of as actors with scarce agency who have to rely on external advocates for support. However, Suzan Ilcan’s research into the activism taking place within the Osire Refugee Camp near Windhoek, Namibia proves that migrants are capable of transforming themselves into political subjects. By creating a political identity around which they can organise, the migrants can work towards wide-ranging goals, from demands to be granted social and legal rights in their country of residence to improvement in living conditions in the camp itself.
Ilcan’s piece was published in the Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies in 2014 and it focuses on the politics involved in overseeing and managing the movement of migrants, or the politics of mobility. The purpose of the piece is to fill a gap Ilcan sees in the literature about migrant politics, which tends to hone into the “humanitarian government,” of refugees in camps conducted by the institutions that run them rather than the migrants’ own political organising. The administration of these camps involves a series of actors, and while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is chiefly responsible for the management of the camps Ilcan cites, including Osire, it needs to work together with the states the camps are located in and often outsources day-to-day operations to a variety of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The author provides a brief overview of the methods by which camp authorities, in conjunction with state authorities, exercise control over refugees. Forced resettlement plans allow for the direct control over the movement of refugees living in camps. Biometric technology is used to collect data of refugees and categorise them. The camp and its perimeters are policed using the latest surveillance and security technologies. Each of these factors build upon one another to lead to an intense securitisation of refugee camps, where the people living in them become seen as threats that need to be contained and kept at arm’s length from wider society.
To better illustrate the concepts she has brought up, Ilcan calls upon the Osire camp as her case study. It is run not only by an array of aid organisations and NGOs, but also the Nambian state, who provides education and healthcare services as well as camp guards and police. In this sense, the refugees are “governed” by the state they live in despite not bearing citizenship of it. They do have access to basic public services, while at the same time they must have permission from the state to leave and are detained when committing crime such as when trespassing on surrounding land. The NGOs also exercise a large degree of control over the refugees’ activities. Food rations are closely monitored by hired security guards, requiring refugee ID cards to access, and refugees’ biographic and biometric data is kept on searchable databases. Structures of surveillance and monitoring are only pervasive to this extent at borders, where states deem it necessary to exercise control over the movement of people between its own territory and places deemed “alien” to it.
What Ilcan seeks to understand, however, are the acts through which the refugees voice their concerns about and, if necessary, resist securitisation of the spaces in which they live. She cites a number of sites where refugees have organised politically other than Osire, and draws connections between these struggles as “citizenship struggles that challenge territorial and national orders as well as other governmental practices” (p.190). She argues that the commonly understood meaning of citizenship as held by states - institutional politics and legal status - is rather narrow, and that it ought to be broadened, especially as the political acts of non-citizens so closely resemble those of citizens. Ilcan brings up two other dimensions of citizenship as demonstrated by her case study. Firstly, there are refugees who engage in institutional political processes that call into question their marginalised “outsider” status. Thus, new kinds of citizens are created through the responses to their actions. Secondly, many refugees organise in protest of the institutions that mistreat them, playing into their “outsider” status but in ways that open up new political battlegrounds. These are two forms of what Ilcan calls “activist citizenship.”
The root of political activism in the Osire refugee camp was in a 2003 riot over food distribution. The camp had recently implemented a new identification system, and those who were not registered into it were not allowed access to food. In 2009, women who escaped the threat of gender-based violence in their home countries sought to meet with local officials to demand solutions to poor living conditions. They eventually formed an organisation called Cry from Refugee Women to advocate for their goals. Through their actions and their calls for rights that would normally be afforded only to Namibian citizens, Ilcan argues that they are pushing the boundaries of commonly accepted notions of citizenship. A similar organisation, called the Association for the Defence of Refugee Rights, was formed in 2004 to protest against their poor circumstances. Activists faced harsh repression by local authorities, reporting death threats and were eventually deported.
While political activism in the Osire Refugee Camp has not necessarily led to the refugees’ acceptance as citizen by the Nambian state or wider Nambian society, it has proved that refugees have the capacity to transform themselves into political subjects. Ilcan’s work is a valuable look into the ways refugees empower themselves, and is a good reference to anyone seeking to understand how some of the world’s most marginalised people seek political change on their own terms.
Ilcan, S. 2019. “Activist citizens and the politics of mobility in Osire Refugee Camp,” in Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, edited by Engin Isin and Peter Nyers, 186-194. London: Routledge.
Viandito Pasaribu is a final year undergraduate at SOAS in BA Politics & International Relations. He is an Intersections writer as well as a contributor to the SOAS Spirit, an independent student-run newspaper.