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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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Research group project scrutinizes refugee camps


As part of the Cluster’s Research Section “Mobilities”, the research project “Africa in the Global History of Refugee Camps (1940s to 1950s)” has set out to examine the make-up of refugee camps in Africa looking beyond the Eurocentric history of the topic and focusing on three interrelated case studies. The research project is designed to run for a period of four years.  

Criticism of refugee camps from both scholars and humanitarian practitioners has been well established in recent years. However, those camps are still the number one key instrument when it comes to managing the refugee (im)mobility in Africa. In this context, the project “Africa in the Global History of Refugee Camps (1940s to 1950s)” started in the middle of July 2019. As part of the Research Section “Mobilities” and led by the Africa Multiple Cluster of Excellence’s Principal Investigator Prof. Dr. Joël Glasman, the project aims to conceptualize and examine refugee camps as mobile devices for the control of refugee mobility. Set out to examine the role of “Africa” in the hitherto largely Eurocentric history of refugee camps in the post-World War Two era, the project is looking into the global history of this seemingly ahistorical and technical humanitarian device. Focusing on the “emergency phase”, the researchers ask why and how refugee camps emerge and what knowledge, personnel and things must be mobilized in order to “make” a camp in the first place.

Changing the narrative

History portrays refugee camps as a device that emerged in the 1940s in Europe and was transferred to Africa in the 1960s. However, the research project acts under the assumption that there is a longer, and more entangled, history of encampment in Africa. “We would like to take a closer look into the common narrative of refugee history”, explains Joël Glasman. “We thus focus on the encampment processes in three interrelated case studies: Firstly, we examine the transfer of colonial knowledge from Africa to the European, post-war refugee administration tracing it through the paths of former colonial administrators who changed their employment to work for UN refugee aid organizations. Secondly, we consider the hosting of European refugees in African camps during World War Two, focusing on the work of UNHCR’s predecessor organizations UNRRA and IRO in Africa. And thirdly, we analyse the emergence of refugee camps in Uganda in the late 1950s –these camps were established under colonial rule to deal with refugees from Rwanda, Sudan and Kenya and were only later taken over by international aid organizations.”

International exchange

The project will run for a four-year-period ending in July 2023. It is especially designed to promote an international and interdisciplinary exchange on the topic. In preparation for the research project, Joël Glasman and Jochen Lingelbach convened a panel on the topic at ECAS in Edinburgh in June of 2019. For 2020, more events are planned. (sg)

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