Disappearing across the border: circular return and the social dynamics of secrecy and concealment between Uganda’s Nakivale Refugee Settlement and eastern DRC
Issue 3 of the Congo Research Briefs presents a condensed and early analysis of dynamics of secrecy and concealment in relation to the circular movements of Congolese refugees between Nakivale and eastern DRC. In this paper, the realities that Nakivale’s inhabitants present to the “outside world” allow a better understanding of the role and position of refugee camps in regional conflict mobilities. Fear of losing reputation and social status ‘back home,’ and of being persecuted abroad resulted in ruptures of communication and the fabrication of stories thought to be more “acceptable” for those who had stayed in DRC.
Actual return, therefore, encompasses the risk of losing the protective cover refugees have created for themselves in an environment and political/humanitarian regime that is profoundly characterized by top-down processes of protective anonymity and isolation. While research on the isolation and seclusion of refugee camps is, rightly, increasingly being balanced by scholars who emphasize the many socio-economic and political connections and linkages with their broader environments (e.g., Jansen 2011, Betts et al. 2014), social dynamics between camp inhabitants and their compatriots abroad are rarely part of such analyses. Yet, they constitute an important reality not to be neglected. Indeed, the practices and strategies of secrecy and concealment discussed here often provoked a conception of the refugee camp as a secret, hidden universe.
This work was supported by the Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research, a Global Challenges Research Fund collaboration of the Economic and Social Research Council; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council [AH/P005454/1].
The Congo Research Briefs are published as a collaboration between the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), the Conflict Research Group at Ghent University (CRG), the Bukavu-based Groupe d'Etudes sur les Conflits et la Sécurité Humaine (GEC-SH), the Governance-in-Conflict Network (GiC). Issue 3 is a part of the partner's collaboration with the Politics of Return and Reintegration project at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
A note of gratitude to an anonymous Congolese research participant, professor dr. Koen Vlassenroot, dr. David Mwambari and dr. Naomi Pendle, for their much-appreciated comments on the paper. Thanks also to the remarks given at the workshop on ‘the politics of return’ in Gulu, July 2019, on a presentation that was based on this paper. Many thanks to the researchers in Goma and Bukavu who provided crucial orientation during my stay, help with paperwork and research permits, indispensable insights and analyses, and, at times, a much appreciated beer in the evening: Irène Bahati, Vianney Cukas Muderhwa, Stanislas Bisimwa Baganda, Christian Chiza Kashurha (in Bukavu), Chrispin Mvano and Olivier Ndoole (in Goma). Final credits to Sara Weschler for terrific language editing.