In the Heart of the City: The Case of Long-Term Refugees in Dakar, Senegal, by Agathe Menetrier (2017)

Worldwide, the majority of refugees now lives in urban areas. Refugee camps have long since become the hallmark of prolonged refugee crises, so that researchers and aid organisations now increasingly focus on urban spaces. Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is a good example of such an urban haven. Central to the issue are the questions whether and for whom an urban space – rather than the refugee camp – can offer manifold possibilities of local integration.

Stand_Dakar_Agathe Menetrier

I met Ramata (name changed) in the office of a Senegalese non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Dakar. Staff members as well as refugees had recommended Ramata to me as an excellent interlocutor. She was said to have participated in countless training courses and programmes by aid organisations, to be an expert on gender equality, and to work as a community volunteer for the ‘sensitisation’ of refugee women in Dakar.

After a few days, Ramata invited me to visit her at home in a suburb of Dakar. She lives there in a three-room-apartment together with her daughter, her son, and a subtenant. I was indeed impressed by Ramata’s résumé. After her flight from Mauretania in 1989, she stayed in a so-called ‘site’ (one could speak of an open refugee camp) near the Mauritanian border for a short time. After hearing that Dakar offered better job opportunities, she made her way to the city. She first worked as a member of the cleaning crew at the university, where she attended a few classes. One of the professors prompted her to apply for a UNHCR stipend allowing her to study. She managed to obtain a stipend for a teaching degree in English and French. Unfortunately, the stipend ran out before Ramata could complete her degree. She immediately fell back into her old cleaning job, but she continued to look for new education opportunities with the UNHCR. Over the following years, Ramata developed a friendship with the head of the department of ‘local integration’ of the Senegalese partner-NGO of the UNHCR. He offered her to attend training courses in business management and computer sciences as well as classes in ‘community development’ and ‘sensitisation to gender equality’. Ramata quickly rose to the position of training instructor for community development. At UNHCR’s and partner-NGO’s request, she regularly held sensitisation trainings, predominantly on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). She was also often invited to serve as mediator in meetings between aid organisations and refugees. However, for this work she received payment from neither the UNHCR nor the NGO. The resulting financial difficulties forced Ramata to move from the centre of Dakar to a suburb and to reduce her activities as mediator because of the high commuting expenses. Twenty years after her flight from Senegal, Ramata recalls her own journey and says: “I would rather have had the right kind of help once for good so that I could find a job instead of having to beg for scraps again and again.”[1]

Mauritanian exile in Senegal

Ramata belongs to a group of persons who are seldom mentioned: refugees from Senegal’s neighbouring countries, even in the 1990s, when they counted more than 100,000. The majority were Mauritanian nationals who had fled their country during the time of the border conflict between Senegal and Mauritania (1989-1991). In April 1989, hostilities broke out between animal herders and farmers on the border between the two countries. After closing the borders, both governments agreed to repatriate citizens to their respective home country as quickly as possible. Mauritania’s history and geopolitical situation are quite complex: desertification increased the competition over land resources; the development of transatlantic trade led to a decline of the trans-Saharan trade; and contradictory colonial policies aggravated animosities between so-called ‘black Mauritanians’ and ‘Moor Mauritanians’. The Mauritanian government, then led by Colonel Ould Taya, utilised such ethnic narratives in order to deport thousands of ‘black Mauritanians’ to Senegal. After they had been dispossessed and their identification documents confiscated, they found refuge in Senegal and Mali (aid organisations registered 60,000 exiled persons in each country). The first wave of displacement erupted quite suddenly and the number of arrivals abated only slowly until the summer 1989. Mauritanians fled their country due to arbitrary arrests up to 1991. Some settled in the valley of the River Senegal, others made their way to Saint-Louis or Dakar. In many places, the advent of refugees initially prompted the distribution of vital relief supplies such as food or medication. Even though Senegal is party of the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, the amending Protocol of 1967, and the 1969 convention of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the government remained reluctant for some time to take an official stance on the status of Mauritanian refugees. Under UNHCR leadership, UN agencies continued to coordinate aid and relief services. It was only in December 1989 – almost a full year after the arrival of the first displaced persons – that Mauritanian refugees were recognised as such by presidential decree.

From a state of emergency to a state of permanence

To the present day 16,000 to 20,000 Mauritanians in Senegal are labelled as so-called ‘persons of concern’ by the UNHCR. For a long time long-term solutions seemed unattainable for this population. Repatriation to Mauritania was unfeasible because Mauritanian President Ould Taya had been instrumental in the 1989-1991 mass displacements and was only ousted by a military coup in 2005. More years passed until the situation of the displaced persons was openly discussed in Mauritania and repatriation programmes were initiated. Despite many Mauritanian refugees applying to be resettled in third countries, only very few were able to emigrate to countries of the global north.

In the 1990s, a number of conflicts erupted in the region, also forcing thousands of people from Liberia, Guinea-Bissau and Ruanda and soon after from Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea and the Central African Republic to seek asylum in Senegal.

Aid organisations had to react quickly and set priorities: Mauritanians still living in Senegal were considered to have been ‘integrated’ and were therefore expected to care for themselves. As one aid worker put it:

“We exclude Mauritanians immediately [from aid services], with only few exceptions. Mauritanians are people whom we practically consider to be Senegalese. They’ve been here since 1989! We’d rather work with new arrivals, also because the UNHCR has officially repatriated the Mauritanians. Some managed to return and stir up trouble for the UNHCR. We turn them away.”


From camps to cities

For decades refugee relief focused on camps. Relief organisations ignored urban refugees, although a few researchers engaged the topic early on. This focus on camps as places of exile induced a harsh treatment of those who settled in other areas. Urban refugees were often denied the proper refugee status and leaving a camp often meant the loss of that status.

However, both academia and humanitarian organisations became increasingly critical of refugee camps. A recent illustration is Barbara Harrell-Bond’s keynote address at the Humanitarian Congress 2016 in Berlin. Recalling her first visit to Uganda in the 1980s, she said: “Back then, I was convinced that camps were the best option”. Today, the anthropologist is one of the strongest opponents of placing refugees in camps.

Similarly, the UNHCR began to change its stance on cities as places of exile. The UN agency dedicated to refugee protection, administrator of a worldwide network of camps, recently began to change its position on the phenomenon of urban refugees. It began to accept urban areas as ‘legitimate sites of residence’. Whereas 1997 had seen the publication of the ‘Comprehensive Policy on Refugees in Urban Areas’, confirming camps as the appropriate refugee accommodation, twelve years later the UNHCR recognised for the first time that more than half of the persons within its field of responsibility do live in urban areas, as published in 2009 in the ‘Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas’.

Promoting integration

The UNHCR’s newfound interest in urban areas as promising prospects coincides with the organisation’s increasing difficulties to find long-term solutions.

The persistence of violent conflicts worldwide – as the example of Mauritanian refugees shows – threatens many repatriation efforts. As a result, many long-term refugees decline such options, as they are delayed for decades. Another option traditionally sought by the UNHCR, namely resettling refugees in third countries is, in the wake of the “War on Terror”, increasingly met with xenophobic, islamophobic, and racist opposition in the global North, invalidating it as a long-term solution. This wider context of a lack of long-term alternatives fueled the integration-promoting reputation of urban areas, especially of urban areas in the global South. In 2014, the UNHCR’s own ‘Policy on Alternatives to Camps’ describes residence in urban areas as “(…) more sustainable and cost-effective, because they harness the potential of refugees, rationalise service delivery and allow for more targeted assistance to those most in need.” (2014: 9).

Urban areas: promoting whose integration?

Agricultural development was considered as the driving factor for integrating refugees in rural areas in Africa, entrepreneurship nowadays takes on a similar key role in relief organisations’ interest in urban areas. The idea that entrepreneurship will contribute to the financial autonomy of refugees has gained more and more prominence in past years, supported by an increased cooperation between private businesses and governments.

In the past few years, the increasing media presence of the topics displacement and refugees has gained the attention of international companies. Microsoft, Intel, HP, and Ikea are the most prominent examples of companies that claim to be supporting the self-sustainability of refugees in e.g. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Such initiatives are regularly celebrated in the media, while harsh critique are formulated by some, especially in academia, for their attempt to shape refugees as neoliberal agents, ready for use in the market economy.

The media and commercial attention is focused principally on Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. Other populations in exile in other parts of the world enjoy much less media attention, notably those who have been living in countries of the global South for years, sometimes decades. Many of these people seek out a new life in urban areas rather than in the countryside or in refugee camps. However, urban life comes with its own challenges. Urban refugees like Ramata and other Mauritanians in Dakar are expected to be able to earn their own livelihoods independent of aid services. “They’ve been here since 1989” commented a relief worker.

The UNHCR, cooperating with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), offered such refugees to take part in training courses to increase their entrepreneurial skills. But in a long-term situation such as this of Mauritanian refugees in Dakar, far away from media attention, Microsoft, Intel or HP are not exactly lining up to provide the basic technical facilities for concrete entrepreneurial projects. Making the connection between training an actual gainful professional activity does not seem to be on the agenda of the UNHCR nor its partner-NGO. The metropolis Dakar is obviously thought to supply this lack.

In Dakar, Ramata was quite optimistic and had strong faith in the ideal of the ‘entrepreneurial refugee’. Yet, in reality, her own business ideas faced a number of challenges: microcredit agencies refused her application due to her refugee status; authorities did not recognise her identification documents; local merchants were skeptical of and even hostile towards the foreign competitor. Many refugees in Dakar thus realised: irrespective of all the training courses in ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ they attended, they repeatedly come up against obstacles directly linked to their refugee condition.

Especially female refugees are in a tough situation. On the one hand, they are often considered crucial for the harmonious functioning of a community and the family. A staff member at UNHCR-partner NGO put it that way: “Rather rely on women, they always think of their relatives!” On the other hand, refugee women are seen as inherently vulnerable. For gender sensitive research in forced migration, this paradox is nothing new. Like Ramata, many made the effort to participate in numerous training courses without ever being able to use those skills. The regular participation in such programs turned these refugee women into experts on the functioning and operation of aid organisations rather than into successful small business owners. This led to new types of dependency. Many women like Ramata work almost full-time as mediators between aid organisations and refugees or as course instructors of sensitisation activities – all without payment. Thus the city might have become synonymous with integration for them, but it is an integration into the workings of humanitarian aid organisations rather than into the local economy.


The misconception that urban refugees need less support than ones in camps was quite persistent. In truth, however, the support of urban refugees requires different concepts as employment, housing and commuting conditions in urban areas are vastly different from the situation in rural areas or refugee camps. Focusing on the financial emancipation from aid services is not per se wrong as it can help overcoming the stigmatisation of refugees and prompt more actors than only the classic aid organisations to take an interest in the refugees’ conditions in exile (e.g. in our case the Senegalese state or stakeholders on the city level).

The example of long-term refugees in Dakar showcases the contradictions between integration programmes and actual access to local labour markets. Aid organisations often view measures to promote integration only as a ‘last option’ for long-term refugees and not as a vital element of its aid services so that such measures are effected too late. In a city like Dakar it is all the more important to facilitate cooperation with local decision-makers as early as possible, because refugees are confronted with the local population and local authorities from the early stage of their life in exile.

The city provides many opportunities for refugees that a camp cannot, but the biggest obstacle for the integration of urban refugees is the unequal access to resources and networks on the labour market, de facto discriminating between refugees and citizens as well as between refugee women and men. Urban areas cannot per se be regarded as an emancipatory tool. Urban life can only foster the integration of refugees if the framework is accordingly adapted. It means that both international relief organisations and public authorities at a national and city level ought to recognise social networks established by refugees in urban areas, as well as to invest in the administrative infrastructures necessary to ensure their non-discriminatory access to the labour market.

 [1] All interviews were conducted between June and July 2015. The quotes were translated from the original French by the author.

A first version of this article was published in German within the Blog series ‘Flucht und Vertreibung’ initiated by the working group on Africa of the Refugee Research Network


Acharya, Nish. 2016. Finding Talent and Entrepreneurs Among 21 Million Global Refugees. Forbes, September 29, 2016. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Amnesty International. 1990. Pays Mauritanie. Violations des droits de l’homme dans la vallée du fleuve Sénégal. (accessed March 02, 2017).

Ärzte ohne Grenzen. 2016. The Politics of Compassion. XVIII Humanitärer Kongress. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Becker, Charles and André Lericollais. 1989. Le problème frontalier dans le conflit sénégalo-mauritanien. Politique Africaine 35: 149-155.  (accessed January 03, 2017).

Blundo Giorgio and Pierre-Yves Le Meur. 2009. The Governance of Daily Life in Africa Ethnographic Explorations of Public and Collective Services. Leiden and Boston: Brill.

Cheikh, Abdel Wedoud Ould. 1988. Éléments d’histoire de la Mauritanie. Institut mauritanien de recherche scientifique, Centre culturel français Antoine de St-Exupéry.

Crisp, Jeff, Tim Morris and Hilde Refstie. 2012. Displacement in Urban Areas: New Challenges, New partnerships. Disasters 36 (1): 23-42. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Daniel E. Valentine and John Chr. Knudsen. 1996. Mistrusting Refugees. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Pres.  (accessed March 02, 2017).

Fees, Dorothee, Ulrike Krause and Hannah Schmidt. 2016. Overview of Research Literature About Refugees’ Engagement, Coping and Resilience. CSS Policy Paper 4. Marburg: Philipps Universität Marburg. (accessed January 3, 2017).

Ferguson, James. 2010. The Uses of Neoliberalism. Antipode  41 (1): 166-184. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Fresia, Marion. 2008. Humanitarian Governance: Assisting Mauretanian Refugees in Senegeal. In: Giorgio Blundo and Pierre-Yves Le Meur (eds.). The Governance of Daily Life in Africa. 10.1163/ej.9789004171282.i-347Ethnographic Explorations of Public and Collective Services. Leiden: Brill, pp. 279-300. (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 2008. De l’exil au retour : le rapatriement des Mauritaniens réfugiés au Sénégal en perspective. REVUE Asylon(s) 3, (accessed January 03, 2017)

Garnier, Adèle. 2016a. Die Zukunft von Refugee Resettlement. Netzwerk Flüchtlingsforschung, October 03, 2016. (accessed March 02, 2017).

——.  2016b. The Future of Refugee Resettlement: Will the September Summits Make any Difference?, September 20, 2016. (accessed February 28, 2017).

International Labour Organization. Start and Improve Your Business Programme.–en/index.htm (accessed January 03, 2017).

Koizumi, Koichi and Gerhard Hoffstaedter. 2015. Urban Refugees. Challenges in Protection, Services and Policy. Oxford and New York: Routledge.

Krause, Ulrike. 2016a. Humanitären Flüchtlingsschutz entwicklungsorientiert gestalten? Erfahrungen aus Uganda. Netzwerk Flüchtlingsforschung, August 22, 2016.  (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 2016b. Die Flüchtling – der Flüchtling als Frau. In: Cinur Ghaderi and Thomas Eppenstein (eds.). Flüchtlinge: Multiperspektivische Zugänge. Wiesbaden: Springer, pp.79-93. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Lejeune-Kaba, Fatoumata. 2010. UNHCR Resumes Repatriation of Mauritanian Refugees in Senegal, October 19, 2010. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Menetrier, Agathe. 2016. It’s a War Against Our Own Body. Long-term Refugee Women’s Strategies of Adaptation to the Withdrawal of Relief Organisations in Dakar, Senegal. Preview: E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students – Witnessing the Transition, August 22, 2016. (accessed January 03, 2017).

N’Diaye Boubacar. Mauritania’s Stalled Democratization. Journal of Democracy 12 (3): 88-95. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Sommers, Mark. 2001. Fear in Bongoland. Burundi Refugees in Urban Tanzania. Oxford and New York: Berghahn.

The White House. 2016. Fact Sheet on the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees. Office of the Press Secretary. (accessed January 03, 2017).

UNHCR. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Geneva: UNHCR Communications and Public Information Service. (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. Solutions. (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to Camps. (accessed January 03, 2017)

——. Urban Refugees. (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. [1974]. OAU Convention. Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Geneva: UNHCR Communications and Public Information Service. (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 1997. UNHCR Policy on Refugees in Urban Areas.  (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 2003a. UNHCR Statistical Yearbook. West Africa. Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Others of Concern to UNHCR.  (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 2003b. UNHCR Yearbook. West Africa. (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 2009. UNHCR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas.  (accessed January 03, 2017).

——. 2014. Fact Sheet Senegal. (accessed January 03, 2017).

Votuira, Efitihia and Barbara E. Harell-Bond. 1995. In Search of the Locus of Trust: The Social World of the Refugee Camp. In: E. Valentine Daniel and John Chr. Knudsen (eds.).  Mistusting Refugees. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, pp. 207-224.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: