Panel 10

Invisible Displacements Between Labour Migration and Forced Displacement in African Transnational Spaces

Panel organiser: Jesper Bjarnesen, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden.


This panel invites empirically grounded analyses of involuntary (i)mmobilities that take place outside the purview of state bureaucracies and humanitarian agencies, thereby shifting the focus from the reified administrative categories of “refugees” and “internally displaced persons” towards ethnographies of processes of invisible displacement.

Whether formally categorized as refugees or not, migrants experience varying degrees of vulnerability and insecurity in relation to their mobilities. These vulnerabilities constitute subjective experiences of displacement and may be more pressing for groups of migrants unlikely to be considered formal refugees, such as return migrants or deportees; people stuck in places and positions of extreme vulnerability; as well as migrants who are forced to leave their homes because of the lack of livelihood options. Such mobility-related vulnerabilities rarely register for external interventions but they are also kept below the surface within communities and even within families, either by people turning a blind eye, or by migrants themselves choosing to lay low.

The dynamics of such processes are difficult to place into generic categories of vulnerability, for example of women and children as disenfranchised in relation to adult men. Rather, this panel explores the specific processes of empowerment and disempowerment empirically, asking what does invisibility and invisibilisation achieve? What are the effects of becoming or being made invisible? How does invisibility create vulnerability or precariousness, and under which circumstances can invisibility be used strategically as a desirable position, providing hope for alternative futures? These questions feed into larger debates on agency and social being in the world.

Approved abstracts panel 10

1. Haunted by the hope of kin: Generational Tensions in Senegalese Youth Migration to Argentina

Author: Ida Marie Vammen, Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in Argentina and Senegal, this paper seeks to explore how responsibility, power, and hope play out between different generations in the context of recent Senegalese migration to Argentina.

In the often sensationalist media coverage of African migration towards Europe as well as in the academic literature we often get the impression that the majority of young African men and women dream of going abroad. However, this paper draws attention to the moral ambiguity among a group of young Senegalese migrants in Buenos Aires in Argentina, that despite their own wishes have been put in motion by their family’s hopes and dreams. Rather than embarking on their own Odyssey their mobility is haunted by the hope of others. Hence they are part of the parcel of potentiality that can secure their parent’s livelihoods, reputation and dreams of consumption and travel in Senegal. By contrasting different narratives of these particular forms of ‘invisible displacement’ and “involuntary mobility”, I especially focus on how the migrants over time try to renegotiate their moral commitments to their families and find a foothold in a context that at times look frighteningly close to the economic instability and lack of opportunity they know so well from Senegal. 

Theoretically, the paper brings the concept of friction (Tsing 2005; Cresswell 2014) to the center of the analysis of young migrants’ invisible displacement and thereby lead us to see migration beyond the crossing of a national border, or a question of merely physical movement from A to B.  By juxtaposing the migrants’ experiences and hopes for the future with the social meanings, pressures, and imaginaries that circle and sometimes haunt their mobility, we can explore how mobility and immobility is created in friction and thereby outline the particularities of the politics of mobility (Cresswell 2010).

2. Tracing legacies of conflict: (Children of) Burundian migrants and refugees navigating identity and civic participation in Belgium and the Netherlands

Author: Lidewyde Berckmoes, NSCR Research Institute Amsterdam.

Conflict and crisis are sometimes described as extraordinary events that can be delimited in time and space. Yet as a young man who survived genocide once rhetorically asked me: “For people who suffered violence and flight, can it ever be post-conflict”?

In this paper, I explore how (legacies of) war can be viewed as cultural repertoires that leave influential traces not only for people in conflict-affected societies, but also shape practices in refugee host societies, sometimes across generations. Specifically, I trace how ‘cyclical violence in Burundi’, as transmitted through Burundi-born parents and transnationally through mediatized stories and images, shape young people’s identity and civic participation practices in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Findings are based on qualitative research among Burundian parents and youth in Belgium and the Netherlands in 2016 and 2017, collected together with photographer/artist Marieke Maagdenberg. Using photography in data-collection helped me to ask young people to reflect more explicitly on identity and civic participation, and reveal some of the contradictions regarding their aspirations and practices. These became visible particularly through concerns about ‘doing something’ while ‘not exposing’ what should remain hidden, in order to protect family, friends and self from potential harm. I propose that what some scholars have referred to as ‘cultural fear’ among Burundians may underlie some of the tensions young people expressed. I argue that such fear may be seen as part of the mobile cultural repertoires that reveal how conflict travels and may take new forms and meanings in adapted societies.

3. Invisibilisation as a tactical repertoire: camouflage, cloaking and avoidance in West African migration

Author: Jesper Bjarnesen, The Nordic Africa Institute, Sweden.

Whether formally categorized as refugees or not, migrants experience varying degrees of vulnerability and insecurity in relation to their mobilities (Bjarnesen 2013; see also Bakewell 2008). These vulnerabilities constitute subjective experiences of displacement and may be more pressing for groups of migrants who would be unlikely to be considered formal refugees, as was the case for involuntary return migrants from Côte d’Ivoire to Burkina Faso during the Ivorian civil war.

In this case, the relative experience of displacement – as well as the implications for livelihood options and prospects for well-being – differed significantly between individual family members in ways that are generally overlooked. For example, the gendered dynamics of displacement resulted in the empowerment or disempowerment of both men and women in the process of forced mobility, leading to a transformation of family compositions, or to the marginalization of unemployed men in contexts where women were more able to adapt to new circumstances, or where household strategies involve the transnationalisation of families (Bjarnesen 2013). 

Experiences of displacement also differed significantly across generational lines, even within families. Young adult children were faced with other challenges of integration and endurance, for example in pursuing education or livelihood options, than their parents; some young children were unable to continue their schooling or attend to their basic nutritional and health needs; and elderly migrants were either left out of decision-making processes, given excessive control over household decisions, or faced different health risks. These dynamics of “internal” experiences of displacement within families or households tend to remain invisible to outside observers as well as to neighbours and even to family members themselves, hidden below the surface of family cohesion and respectability.

Conversely, forced displacement may also have unforeseen empowering consequences that differ across generational lines (Loizos 2009, Hammar & Rodgers 2008). And remaining inconspicuous, or out of sight, was also used as a deliberate strategy to blend in; evade attention, or simply stay clear of actors seen to pose a threat to people’s possibilities for integration. This paper suggest a conceptualisation of these diverse practices and predicaments in terms of a repertoire of invisibilisation.

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