In an era shaped by unprecedented displacement and mass migration, Uganda continues to attract global attention. Accommodating over one million refugees in 2016 alone, the East African nation-state has not only received international praise for the sheer magnitude of its humanitarian response, but also for its implementation of relief policies widely deemed progressive. In short, to speak of the 21st century’s “refugee crisis” is to ascribe an exemplary status to Uganda – an inspirational model from the heart of Africa that offers guidance to the rest of the world during a time of heightened divisiveness and uncertainty.
But what exactly led to the development of these responses, policies, and statuses? And to what extent are current patterns of displacement reminiscent of those forged long ago? As a PhD student in the field of African History, my research ventures beyond contemporary understandings in order to excavate deeper processes of refuge-seeking in the borderlands of Uganda and Sudan. In doing so, I trace both historical continuities and transformations in a region dismissed as peripheral—and therefore inconsequential—to centers of power. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, my research has shown how local developments in the borderlands directly shaped the ways in which the abstractions of identity, sovereignty, and humanitarianism came to be imagined and practiced by people throughout the state. From such a perspective, the “refugee” category is seen less as self-evident identity and more as a contested space, bringing domestic issues to reckon with international concerns in everyday choices and events of long-standing consequence.
Of course, time spent in Uganda has proven invaluable to how I think about this subject. Over the past few years, I have had the privilege of meeting with past and present refugees, aid workers, government officials, and citizens of all stripes. Besides enriching my research, these conversations have opened my eyes to the importance of understanding how charitable projects affect communities over time. While some relief agencies are known to bow down to the demands of donors, others pride themselves on upholding their principles in the face of mounting pressures.
Active throughout Africa, International Refugee Rights Initiative is an organization that both promotes the rights of vulnerable populations and undertakes meaningful policy-oriented research. In focusing primarily on the legal dimensions of displacement, IRRI aims to serve as a bridge between what is being experienced on the ground and what is being dictated in parliamentary halls and NGO offices. As someone who sees the value in field-based research, I appreciate IRRI’s commitment to investigating “the root causes of flight.” Unlike many other organizations that solely privilege demands in the here and now, IRRI is dedicated to proposing solutions that are sustainable, equitable, and attuned to contextual particularities. This approach was emphasized to me in 2015, when I met with IRRI’s Sudan Programme Manager, David Kigozi, in Kampala. In a sub-Saharan context scarred by simplistic narratives and harmful misconceptions, more organizations like this are needed. Instead of equating “refugees” with faceless, directionless “victims,” IRRI acknowledges the importance of tailoring its programs to the specific interests of communities—communities that lay claim to diverse ambitions and distinct pasts.
Mitch Edwards is a doctoral student at Northwestern University. His research explores refugee's experiences in North Uganda. He has lived in major world cities and a variety of rural settings including many years in East Africa. Read more on IRRI here.