Forced Displacement and the Crisis of Citizenship in Africa’s Great Lakes Region: Rethinking Refugee Protection and Durable Solutions

Lucy Hovil and Zachary A. Lomo

Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees, Volume 31, Issue 2 (2015)

This summary is part of a series of summaries of articles on statelessness. The quantitative literature on stateless population is very limited. We include these summaries in our Literature Review Updates and Database to highlight research on statelessness and the need to collect more data to facilitate analytical studies on the related issues.


This article discusses the relationship between citizenship, belonging and displacement in Africa’s Great Lakes region, and how citizenship and exclusion affect the creation, experience, and resolution of displacement. Apart from Tanzania, all countries in the region have generated large numbers of refugees and IDPs since independence, and all have hosted refugees.

The authors define citizenship as “a status, legal or otherwise, that designates full membership in a state or community with concomitant rights or entitlements and duties, including the right and duty to challenge inequality in that state or community.” They define “empirical citizenship” as “a status of being accepted into a given community as a member, even if not originally from there, and being able to exercise citizenship rights such as social and economic rights and fulfill civic duties, including paying local taxes.”

The analysis is based on a desk review and interviews with refugees, IDPs, returnees, civil society, and officials in each of the seven countries where fieldwork was undertaken.

Main arguments:

  • The inability to realize the benefit of citizenship is a root cause of both conflict and displacement in the region and the ongoing failure to find solutions to displacement. Many causes of conflict and forced displacement, such as human rights violations, struggle over control of political and economic power, ethnic conflict and civil war, are symptoms of deeper, interconnected problems. Post-independence leaders failed to reform the colonial state and reorganize political power to address dis-crimination, inequality, and politicized identities that were legally embedded within the colonial state. This has led to the exclusion, at least politically, of those considered outsiders, rather than to make efforts to encourage their integration. Instead of being perceived as a potential asset, refugees have been viewed as a threat or burden, ensuring that their status as outsiders is embedded in the humanitarian response to refugees.
  • The way in which repatriation takes place can either destabilize a fragile situation or contribute to breaking cycles of violence and displacement. Successful repatriation of refugees reasserts the bond of citizenship between citizen and state, enabling the state to provide protection and the citizen to renegotiate the nature of the protection required (relating to governmental and societal discrimination, restrictions on freedom of movement, denial of property rights, access to justice, and exclusion from governance). Without the opportunity to realize their full rights as citizens, refugees are likely to resist return. Refugees are usually best placed to assess whether this bond can be re-established and to decide when and how to return home (possibly involving many movements back and forth, or the splitting of families across locations). The relationship between repatriation and citizenship may be complicated by local politics of belonging (e.g., localized ethnic forms of belonging and citizenship, and notions of indigeneity). Citizenship, local belonging, and repatriation are also intertwined with land ownership.
  • Most states in the region restrict access to their citizenship for refugees. In most of the Great Lakes region, citizenship by birth is accessible only based on inheritance (jus sanguinis) and not based on birth in the country (jus soli), so citizenship cannot be extended automatically to the children of refugees, even if several generations are born in exile. While this leaves open the possibility of accessing citizenship through either registration or naturalization, in practice this rarely happens. Policymakers generally view naturalization as the end point of integration, while refugees perceive it as distinct from their “empirical citizenship”. Critically important for establishing empirical citizenship is freedom of movement and residence.
  • Inclusion within a society needs to take account of local and regional factors, including the arbitrariness and fluidity of colonial borders, increasing forced displacement, migration and mobility, and the ability of citizens to exercise citizenship rights and duties beyond the state of origin. Refugee policies need to view refugees as citizens and rational actors who are best placed to determine what their interests are and how to protect them. Refugee and citizenship policies can be reformed by adopting inclusive criteria already in existence within community value systems or international law and international human rights instruments.