Exceptionalism of the Casamance Refugee Situation

The Casamance refugee situation provides a somewhat counterintuitive case study. Refugees are able to self-settle in host communities due to shared cultural heritage and are recognized by the host government but they are unable to fully integrate given gaps in humanitarian practice, a limited understanding of self-settlement and the subtle sociocultural complexities that play out in communities. At the same time, it can be argued that Casamance refugees have a different integration experience in comparison with other migrants in The Gambia. Kea (2004, 2012) argues at length that some female Senegalese migrants who live in the urban center of Brikama have a less positive integration experience. This is furthered by the fact that some migrants do not have a sense of belonging to communities and:

Hosts ... both deny [her] rights to a feeling of ownership and express their ownership ... by laying emphasis on their status as citizens/hosts and [hers as] a “stranger”. In doing so they reinforce the structural difference between the two. (Kea 2012, 12)

In this respect, by becoming “clients,” migrants have attained local citizenship but are ultimately segregated from the host community. The experience of Sierra Leonean refugees is said to be one more akin to that of Casamance refugees. A colonial heritage whereby The Gambia and Sierra Leone were both under joint British colonial rule proved important for Sierra Leonean refugees. A mix of shared English-based language, historical and cultural heritage and even ethnic similarities (Mande in this case) made it easier for settlement and integration. This is in contrast to the experiences of Sierra Leonean refugees in Francophone countries such as Guinea-Conakry (Carpenter n.d.). The use of social networks in The Gambia also encouraged Sierra Leonean refugees to self-settle (ibid.) in urban communities but rising employment competition strained relations with the host population (Conway 2004; Lester 2005). At the same time, formal legal processes such as encampment and the procurement of a residence permit or alien card for Sierra Leonean refugees discouraged many from registering with UNHCR and discouraged the integration process (Carpenter n.d.). Local integration of Sierra Leonean refugees as a durable solution was not favored by the Gambian government (Conway 2004). In regard to Liberian refugees, the same legal constraints applied and transference into refugee camps was the desired option. Hopkins (2011) explains that as a result of the cessation clause brought into effect for Liberian refugees in 2012, there are still legal gaps on the status of Liberian refugees and many no longer possess papers or travel documents. She explains that “production of a refugee ID card does not help them if stopped by an over-diligent immigration officer” (ibid., 4) and these legal gaps make Liberians feel insecure in the country. There is also evidence to suggest that Casamance refugees who have fled south into neighboring Guinea-Bissau (and are also self-settled in local communities) face difficulties integrating due to refugee-host distinctions on the basis of ethnic and linguistic barriers, which has hindered some Casamance refugees integrating into Bissau-Guinean communities (pers. comm.). Although there are wider political and economic tensions that need to be targeted within these self-settled communities to secure integration, it is clear that where shared cultural heritage is different between groups, it can actually enforce stranger-host relationships.

The integration of Casamance refugees in The Gambia shows that, though long-standing in some form, the conceptualization of migrant labor and stranger-host relations on the ground has evolved beyond traditional academic understandings. In a global context where refugee situations are much more protracted, aid interventions and international, national and regional policy all need to be developed with a deeper understanding of modern conflict, refugee law, and the legacies of colonialism so that the sociocultural, historical, and ethnic characteristics of the relationship between “host” and “refugee” are incorporated.

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