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The relevance of context and overarching tendencies in refugee-hosting policies worldwide: The case of Namibia

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Picture by Werner Bayer on Flickr (CC0 1.0).

‘This is called a settlement; it is not a camp.’

– Settlement administrator, Osire Refugee Settlement.

Namibia is the second-least densely populated country in the world and its magnificent and rough desert landscapes make it a very appealing tourist destination. Since its independence from Apartheid South Africa in 1990, Namibia has neither experienced forced emigration nor a high influx of refugees from surrounding countries, except during the Angolan civil war which lasted until 2002. Currently, Namibia hosts approximately 6,000 refugees, mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a so-called refugee settlement in Osire (200 kilometres northwest of the capital, Windhoek). Refugees are obliged to stay in the settlement unless they successfully obtain a permit to work or stay outside for a limited amount of time. Generally, Namibian refugee policy has drawn very little academic attention, partly due to the relatively low numbers of refugees hosted in the country. However,  a closer look at Namibian refugee policy allows us to investigate the legal framework and surrounding discourses that are specific to the Namibian context, while also revealing arguments and instruments that are universally present across national refugee policies. During my fieldwork in Windhoek and Osire, I interviewed policymakers, implementors, civil society representatives and refugees. In this article, I draw on my empirical findings and discuss the interesting entanglement of context sensitivity and universality.

Namibia has ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention but put a reservation on article 26 which guarantees refugees freedom of movement within the hosting country. This single reservation depicts a fundamental part of the Namibian refugee hosting policy, as it allows the Namibian government to place refugees in a single settlement while still being in line with the UN Refugee Convention and international regulations. Policymakers and implementors have often referred to international frameworks such as the UNHCR-promoted three durable solutions (local integration, resettlement or voluntary return), as examples of a liberal and open refugee policy. The very positive image of Namibian refugee policy that policymakers and implementors tried to create during the interviews was accompanied by the idea of Pan-African solidarity and the common struggle against colonialism and Apartheid in the 20th century. Namibian political activists against the South African Apartheid regime had been hosted in surrounding African countries that were already independent. Therefore, many interviewees perceived Namibia’s hosting of refugees as a historical responsibility. In this context, the encampment of refugees at Osire Settlement was not seen as a breach of this responsibility and solidarity claim, but as a beneficial measure for their safety. Here, many interviewees introduced the counter-example of the South African decentralised refugee-hosting policy which, according to them, did not bring more freedom, but a high degree of racist violence against refugees. More generally, South Africa served as a villain in the interviewees’ narrations, presented as ‘violent’ and ‘ignorant’. This conception might stem from the long oppressive relationship between South Africa and Namibia.

These aspects of Namibian refugee policy already evoke similarities with other contexts and refugee policies. First, the Osire Settlement administrator insisted, as cited above, that Osire is called a settlement and not a camp. According to UNHCR, one of the main characteristics of a refugee camp is its temporariness. Osire does not fulfil this condition, as it has been in place since 1992 and many refugees stay there for more than ten years. However, all other control mechanisms that characterise a refugee camp are still in place; and ‘settling’ there was never a matter of free choice but an obligation for refugees. Here, a similar euphemism can be found in Tanzania, where camps are called ‘designated areas’. Secondly, the interviewees referred many times to the UNHCR’s three durable solutions for refugees – without mentioning that Namibia has not implemented a local integration framework. Instead, refugees stay at Osire until they return voluntarily or are resettled to other countries. The discrepancy between what states say and even ratify and the practice of national refugee protection depicts a general problem within the international refugee regime. Thirdly, despite drawing on pan-African solidarity, many policymakers and implementors regarded refugees as a social, cultural, and economic burden to Namibian society. Refugees were characterised as poor, uncivilised, and carriers of disease. These prejudices and stigmatisations are fundamental aspects of othering, a practice by which certain people are deemed outsiders to a homogenous community (in this case, a nation-state society) due to their ascribed inferior character and capabilities. The Other’s presence is per se a threat to the community. Othering is not only present in right-wing discourses but appears at the centre of societal discourse, for example when refugees are seen as culturally incompatible with European norms. Finally, the refugee policy rhetoric in Namibia paternalises refugees. Paternalistic discourses regard refugees not as active human beings but as passive and helpless victims in need of a saviour. In the Namibian case, policymakers and implementors argue that refugees are safer within Osire as they would struggle to find housing and work outside the settlement. The refugees I interviewed argued against this logic but as in the international refugee protection regime, refugees often do not have a saying in the decisions affecting them. As refugees are seen as helpless victims, it becomes justifiable to speak for them

How to understand, then, the entanglement of contextual specificities and universal instruments and argumentation patterns in Namibian refugee policy? Namibia’s historical trajectories and socio-economic frameworks deeply affected its refugee policy. However, the instruments and discourses are not unique to the Namibian context but also reveal some cross-contextual patterns in national refugee policies, both in the Global South and North. Two explanations might help to grasp the similarities between various refugee policy instruments and arguments. First, states learn from each other and adopt or at least take on parts of other states’ policies. As a young independent country, Namibia had a whole range of refugee policy instruments and discourses to choose from. Secondly, nation-states often view migration as a potential threat to their sovereignty. As Namibia and other colonized spaces adopted the Westphalian nation-state model, Namibia’s refugee policy can be regarded as an expression of methodological nationalism, bounding every society to a territory and a nation-state. Through their presence, refugees challenge this logic and therefore are excluded and paternalized.

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Dominique Haas

Dominique Haas is a Master's student in his final semester at the University of Osnabrück where he studies International Migration and Intercultural Relations. His academic interest lies both in the study of specific migration policies and instruments, especially in Southern Africa, and general patterns of migration control and management. For his master thesis, he investigates information campaigns of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) which aim to discourage people in the Global South from migrating. Apart from his studies and work at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, he is a passionate table tennis player and cook.

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