Hovil Presents Research on African Refugee Experience

Bapst Library

As President Donald Trump weighs potential curbs on refugees entering the United States, including a possible month-long ban on any entries from Iraq, Syria, or Iran and a 120-day halt on any refugee entries, Boston College welcomed a researcher to present her findings on refugees from a less-discussed area—the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Lucy Hovil, managing editor for the International Journal of Transitional Justice and a leader in the International Refugee Rights Initiative, presented her research on Wednesday.

After six years interviewing over 1,100 refugees and migrants in eastern Africa, Hovil witnessed the resilience of migrant populations largely marginalized in society and the myriad of ways in which they work around restrictive policies to more quickly become permanent residents.

Hovil identified two themes of a refugee’s experience in a new country. First, they strongly dislike being isolated from the general population upon entry. Second, they are actively seeking an end to their marginalization. Refugee camps are not a permanent solution in the effort to naturalize migrants moving to new African and European countries. One of the issues with the camps stems from a lack of education for the children of migrants, Hovil said.

How can the youngest generation naturalize and grow up in a society that does not teach them? Even when policymakers claim that refugees are free to leave camps to find work and housing, often such necessities are difficult to access. Hovil mentioned that Uganda, a country lauded for its accepting immigrant policy, still physically isolates immigrant townships that it claims are unrestricted.

“Mobility [for refugees] is possibly one of the most unpopular notions and ideas in the world today … and yet it is an absolutely critical coping-mechanism, particularly for people fleeing from conflict,” Hovil said.

If mobility and inclusion are critical for immigrant naturalization, why do countries isolate them? As a result of radical terrorist groups, and other migrants from war-torn African countries, restrictive policies for refugees often arise from fear of the unknown. In response to the national security threat posed by potential criminals, Hovil said that dangerous migrants will carry out their missions whether or not they were initially detained in an encampment.

She went on to argue that more time spent in camps increases anger and possible violence in innocent minds. Also, when men and women of age go looking for work, they often must leave the families that rely on them behind. For women left behind to care for children, there is a greater chance of becoming victims of sexism or sexual violence. The tension this can create in the psyches of immigrants can create dangerous individuals out of an amiable and hopeful population.

“The more you exclude them, the more they become a potential security threat,” Hovil said.

In the Q&A session, the feasibility of true integration was questioned. Even if governments stopped regulating immigrant shelters and put naturalization programs in place, would it do any good? Hovil acknowledged that this still largely relies on the whims of society. Even if they are given official citizenships, those seeking jobs still rely on the keenness of employers to hire.

Racism against immigrants of color, especially the darker-skinned expats from eastern Africa, Hovil said, is one issue with no real solution. Additionally, even if the refugee obtains the resources to buy a house, the local community must sanction the purchase. This obstacle confines many to ethnically divided living spaces, further limiting the possibility of pure integration.

To combat the limitations, immigrants are making active efforts to learn what rights they have and how they can leverage them in the pursuit of freedom. According to Hovil, one of the main threats for governments detaining refugees has been the internet. As we advance further into the tech age, it has become much easier for migrants to become educated on their civil liberties, Hovil said.

There are also some communities, especially on the Sudanese border in Hovil’s study, that have made strides in fully integrating desperate travellers. They largely look past where the person comes from to if they pay taxes and contribute positively to local society. In these types of environments, where just a sliver of an advantage presents itself, there lies much promise for intelligent and motivated refugees.

“Despite the policy environment … refugees show incredible resourcefulness in finding solutions,” Hovil said.

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff