Rethink forced migration to reflect today's reality

Displaced persons camp outside their makeshift tents at Itare in Kuresoi South, Nakuru in September 2017. [Julius Chepkwony, Standard]

We launched Home and Exile on Thursday this week, at the Alliance Française, Nairobi. This work is a part of my modest contribution to scholarship, a plank in a probable ‘Barrack oeuvre.’ 

As expected, I refrain from delving into the work. That belongs to critics. Some must love it. Others must not. The latter must go on a tear. Render it into pieces, fit only for the furnaces. That is how knowledge grows. There must be creators and admirers.

There must also be doubters. Both tell their story from their parti pris, as Jan Vansina of Oral Tradition as History says. Parti pris is the storyteller’s vantage, or bias. Admirers and doubters alike operate from such platforms – we can even talk of an intellectual parti pris. 

Outside the publication, the story of forced migration and the fate of the forced migrant must disturb both our conscience and consciousness, as the global community. Early enough, as a budding learner, I was always fascinated by narratives of migrations in pre-colonial Africa.

We read of the Luo migrations into East Africa, after 1,000 AD. They arrived under a chain of competing leaders. The Joka Ojok, Joka Owiny, Joka Omolo, Jopadhola and the lot. 

Elsewhere, we read of the Luba-Lunda dispersal in Central Africa, in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Bantu migration into East Africa from about 1,500 BCE, and more recently (1820–1835) the grand crashing called the Mfecane (in Nguni speaking tribes) and Defecane, or Lifaquane, in Sesotho speaking tribes of Southern Africa.

There is little doubt that Basotho people in Lesotho and South Africa are our relatives here in Emanyulia. The Sotho call water ‘metsi,’ we call it ‘amatsi.’ They say ‘pula’ for rain, we say ‘ifula.’ When hungry, they speak of ‘tlala’ pronounced with a click that brings it close to our ‘inzala.’ When they think of meat, they say ‘nama.’ In Emanyulia we say, ‘inyama.’ We call a boy ‘musiani.’ Some of our neighbours say ‘mushiani.’ The Sotho say ‘mushanyana.’ Consider that we lost each other about 3,500 years ago, when we both left the wider Niger-Congo area. Glottochronologists and lexicographers could even use data of this kind to reconstruct the proto-language we both spoke 4,000 years ago. Now our people dispersed throughout the continent over hundreds of years due to diverse factors. The Sesotho words “Lifecane’ and ‘Defecane’ translate to ‘forced migration.’ There is nothing new about forced migration.

Before the modern-day international system, through the League of Nations and later the United Nations, the story of man was about migration, might and conquest. 

European monarchies are all products of invasive conquest. Even recent creations of Germany (1866–1871) and Italy (1820–1871) were factors of mighty movements of people. The architect of German unification, Otto Von Bismarck put it starkly, ‘The questions of the day shall not be solved by speeches and majority decisions, but by iron and blood.’

The international system Woodrow Wilson proposed after World War I morphed into the United Nations, after World War II. It delegitimised ‘iron and blood’ approaches in domestic and global spaces. The UN system has peace at its heart. Seeking to end wars through détente, as a system of easing tensions through negotiations and agreements, the architects of the international system thought resettling European refugees after World War II was the only remaining challenge.

They established the UNHCR in 1951, with a three-year mandate, to resettle forced migrants. The task would last three years, they thought, and UNHCR would be dissolved.

72 years later, there are 110 million forced migrants in the world. A few days from now, this world meets in Geneva to reflect on these matters. As 72 years have not been enough for a ‘three-year job,’ there is need to rethink forced migration.

Universality of humankind and thorough review of the 1951 Convention for expanded freedoms for forced migrants should be central. 

-Dr Muluka is a strategic communications advisor