Montag, 22. August 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.

Celebration under tension for the International Refugee Day 2015 in Dakar, Senegal.
Von Agathe Menetrier

These few powerful words are L.’s. She has been living as a refugee in Dakar for years. We sat in the office she shares with her colleagues from the refugee women’s committee. The room also serves as workshop for soap production, an activity in which the UNHCR offered them a training to enhance their financial autonomy. The budget is though too scarce to buy supplies, so that the room rarely sees a soap produced.
Asylum is currently at the centre of the public debate. The political debate largely focuses on who deserves a refugee status and who does not. In this context refugees’ biographies are commonly narrated as journeys that start with the flight and end with the obtainment of a legal status in the hosting country. While asylum is understood to correspond to a legal status ensuring protection for persons accessing it, few raise the question of how this protection is ensured along refugees’ long experience of exile. When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) allocates its budget to new refugees crises as a priority, long-term refugees elsewhere are expected to become independent from the organisation and its partners, after years, or sometimes decades, of assistance. For refugees interviewed for this research, it is time to consider their long relationship with relief organisations and remember the promises that have been honoured and those that have not. One of the UNHCR’s missions has notably been to “promote the equal right of women and girls” (2007, 3). In this paper I want to explore how the UNHCR’s advocacy of gender equal protection is maintained in the field over the years, that is to say once the emergency of the mission has past.
The case study upon which this work draws is the situation of long-term urban refugees in Dakar.[1] West Africa has historically been a place of population mobility, from forced displacement due to slave trade and colonial forced labour, to work migrations facilitated by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Over recent decades, the hundreds of thousands of West Africans who had fled violence and persecution in their country of origin, had to turn to an international body, the UN, to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Considering its number of national offices and its significant budget, the UNHCR is undoubtedly the main actor of refugee protection and relief,[2] although the implementation of its activities relies much on local partners. Over the last twenty years, the UNHCR has supervised the protection and assistance to Liberians, Sierra Leoneans, Ivoirians, Gambians and Mauritanians seeking asylum in Senegal.[3] Today the organisation is in an exit strategy. Considering that long-term refugees are in the end of a process of ‘local integration’ into the Senegalese host society (culminating in naturalisation), the UNHCR asks its implementation partners in the field to gradually withdraw from a system of direct assistance to refugees. Refugees and asylum seekers who live in Dakar find themselves in an ambiguous situation. Because of their geographical proximity with UNHCR’s and partners’ offices, their everyday life followed the rhythm of regular visits to these offices. Interestingly, refugees’ relationship with those street-level humanitarians does not stop together with the cessation of aid.[4] Through a focus on programs and discourses targeting refugee women, this paper contributes to understanding the evolution of this relationship.

Exile: a gendered experience.
Especially in times of violent conflict, women are often reduced to the duties of essential biological reproduction (Anthias/Yuval-Davis 1993). Historically, wars have been fought by men to protect the “womenandchildren” (Enloe 1990). Within nation building and protection, different contributions are expected from citizens according to their gender. From these different kinds of citizenship arise different experiences, and experiences during times of wars or armed conflicts provide a poignant illustration of this difference (Yuval-Davis et al. 2005).
Having understood war as a gendered phenomenon, it is not surprising that the aftermath of violent conflicts entails gendered differences, too (Jones 1994). When a conflict explodes next door, it tends to violently affect civilians (women, older men and children) as well as the men in combat, with the difference that men often remain the primary targets of killing and imprisonment. The civilians, of whom the majority are women, who have remained at home to take care of the children and the elderly, are the ones who will flee. If one includes internally displaced persons, a large majority of the world’s refugees are indeed women and children (Lindsey 2001). Becoming a refugee is inevitably a gendered experience, since war is a gendered experience. But how well has this gender aspect been taken into consideration within asylum law and refugee assistance?

Gendering asylum law and refugee assistance.
There is no doubt that, thanks to women’s groups’ and feminist lobbying of the UN and the EU in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gender-related persecutions have been put on the international agenda. However, its transfer into policy of national asylum regimes have been much slower or non-existent (Freedman 2007, 93). Local constraints, political interest or cultural beliefs have often prevented national institutions and local actors from legally interpreting gender-related persecution as a continuum of structurally embedded gender inequalities (Moser 1993; von Braunmühl 2013).[5]
Pressure by human rights feminist defenders and women’s groups, as previously touched upon, have initiated attempts to gender asylum law as well as the entire system of refugee relief. At the first World United Nations Conference on Women held in Mexico in 1975, the First World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, published by the UN, uncovered the scale of sexual violence suffered by women not only while they flee but also once they obtained the status of refugee. The UNHCR reacted by presenting a paper titled The Situation of Refugee Women the World Over at the World Conference for the Decade on Women in 1980 in Copenhagen. It marked the beginning of a growing international attention towards refugee women. At the end of the 1980s the UNHCR mandate had adapted to states’ reluctance to host refugees and its mission evolved towards emergency relief; providing material aid to refugees sheltered in camps in regions of conflicts (Glasman 2016). Highlighted by the closed setting of the camps, the number of women among the refugee population became much more visible. The unequal access to food and non-food items (NFI) and the lack of opportunities for women to participate in decisions regarding the organisation of the camp highlighted the need for a more gender-sensitive method of assistance (Freedman 2007, 41). In reaction to the critiques climaxing in the creation of an International Group for Refugee Women, the UNHCR appointed a Senior Coordinator for Refugee Women in 1989 and a series of reports focusing on refugee women were published by the UNHCR.[6] According to its self-assessment, the organisation has managed to evolve from an approach of “targeting women as a special group” to “mainstreaming gender, diversity and age” (2013a, 4). In other words, the UNHCR acknowledges that the needs for protection and the expression of these needs differ not only between refugee men and refugee women, but that they also vary according to a person’s sexual orientation, age and social environment. This intersectional intention has been welcomed by scholars, who however criticised the limited effort to operationalise according to the needs (Freedman 2007; True/ Parisi 2013).

Making refugee women visible.
Making UNHCR guidelines operational is precisely the task that street-level humanitarians are left with in the field. As is customary for UNHCR missions, a local NGO is paid by the UNHCR to run activities with refugees in Dakar. Each year a convention has to be signed, regulating the management of programmes and the funding allocated. The signing of the convention for the year to come depends upon the results presented by the partner NGO and the UNHCR’s satisfaction with those. Evaluating results is a central task in street-level humanitarians’ work-life. They are thus confronted with the difficulty of making their mission of mainstreaming gender (along with Age and Diversity) traceable, quantifiable. Communicating on refugee women is easier than communicating on gender inequalities. The number of sensitisation sessions organised during a period of time and the percentage of women participating in symbolic celebrations is easier to determinate than the degree to which these sessions address refugee women’s preoccupations. It is therefore not surprising that the often denounced shortcuts about gender unequal protection seem to be at stake when one observes activities targeting refugees living in Dakar: refugee men (or men in general) are completely absent from talks about what is depicted as refugee women’s issues, and refugee women are displayed as a homogenous group, a group which must be made visible. Five years after the introduction of the UNHCR’s policy on Age, Gender and Diversity Mainstreaming from the 2010s onwards, little trace of an intersectional endeavour is to be found in UNHCR and partnering NGO practices of assistance.

Giving priority to refugee women “at risk”.
If gender mainstreaming remains a women’s issue in street-level humanitarians’ assistance to refugees in Dakar, it seems to be based on refugee women’s intrinsic vulnerability. Refugee women are considered at risk, even though the risks they are specifically facing are never stated explicitly. Refugee women’s vulnerability is aligned with their role as mothers, whereas here again, the types of risks they specifically face as mothers remain blurred. Activities directed at refugee women (mainly sensitisation sessions and rare material distribution) all involve subjects that concern their bodies (nutrition, hygiene, uterus cervix cancer). Sexual assault is also treated as a women-only issue, since sensitisation sessions target refugee women and aim at changing their risky behaviors.[7] Handling these subjects as refugee women’s problems creates an amalgam between the consequences of these issues, displayed on women’s bodies, and the structural social roots behind them, which obviously go beyond women’s bodies.
Refugee women are categorised as vulnerable per se, women heads of household as particularly at risk, and sexual assault as being central to the risks they face. This prioritisation might have been operational and even justified in situations of emergency relief in camps, where interveners[8] had to be careful that women were not left out of camps organisation; to distribute more food and other NFI to women heads of household; and to protect refugee women from sexual assaults at the fringes of the camp (Freedman 2007). But it is questionable whether this focus on vulnerability is adapted to address the preoccupations of long-term refugee women living in an urban setting and to whom direct aid is no longer distributed. Indeed, if one agrees that a sick person no longer necessitates care when he*she[9] is healed or that a child is no longer vulnerable when he*she grows up, when is a refugee woman considered to have overcome her vulnerability? Street-level humanitarians interviewed have presented women’s vulnerability to be a tool to measure priority for aid distribution. Simultaneously vulnerability is advanced as the reason behind the very risks that refugee women are considered to be facing. One must note the apparent tautology of this relationship between women and vulnerability. It is therefore hard to conceive that refugee women will ever be considered by street-level humanitarians for other activities than those emphasising their risks.

        Making entrepreneurial refugee women.
As the UNHCR gradually withdraws from direct aid to long-term refugees residing in Dakar, the organisation and its partners increasingly emphasise the importance for refugees to become financially autonomous. Street-level humanitarians consider that most urban refugees in Dakar have resided long enough as refugees amidst the local population to be assimilated and treated as Senegalese. They celebrate refugees who have managed to find a job in the city and now earn a relatively good income, presenting them as examples to follow. This path of integration through a successful career does not seem to be open to refugee women. Indeed refugee women are considered to have a poor entrepreneurial spirit, and are therefore trusted with smaller micro-loans[10]. They are though still expected to prove their enthusiasm and motivation to become financially autonomous, as the contrary is regarded as profiting from relief organisations. On the one hand UNHCR and its partners train refugee women, teaching them the importance of becoming financially autonomous, because they consider them to be better providers for their family than refugee men.[11] On the other hand it is precisely this social responsibility or carefulness that is reproached to them by interveners (when they prefer not to trust them with important micro-loan amounts, for example). Refugee women are expected to become financially autonomous from the UNHCR and its partners but considered unfit for the entrepreneurial ideal celebrated by street-level humanitarians.
Refugee women’s continuous adjustment to contradictory incentives.
The refugee women I met, who have resided in Dakar for several years (sometimes decades), try to adapt to the aforementioned incentive of financial autonomy. To manifest their will to become autonomous from interveners’ aid, they even often themselves use UNHCR and partners’ vocabulary of becoming autonomous, go to trainings.[12] Their willingness to become autonomous economically extends as far as the private sphere. For example they would agree to open their homes to a micro-loans company who assesses mortgageable belongings, in order to prove their ability to reimburse a potential loan. But their belongings do not suffice as a guaranty to be granted a micro-loan. In general refugee women’s adjustments to incentives of financial autonomy do not suffice to be taken seriously as economic agents by the UNHCR and its partners.
The refugee women I interviewed in Dakar thus continue positioning themselves as vulnerable in front of street-level humanitarians. Consciously portraying oneself as victim has often been pointed out by scholars as a tactic among others to survive and gain access to aid from relief organisations (Utas 2005; Ratner referenced in Freedman 2007, 115). In Dakar, long-term refugee women have learned the vocabulary and criteria of vulnerability upon which direct aid might be distributed. Even though direct aid has been cut, they plead for their case in the hope to be granted the scarce remains of financial or material aid. This incentive of proving one’s vulnerability to access aid extends to the private sphere, as refugee must be open to an inspection of their home at any time for surprise visits aimed at assessing their living conditions. I find home visits quite striking as examples of refugee women’s adjustments to interveners’ contradictory incentives. Indeed the micro-loan company can visit a refugee woman’s home on a Monday morning to verify her entrepreneurship potential (finding mortgageable goods, as mentioned before), then in the afternoon the same person can receive a surprise visit from the NGO social worker coming to verify the vulnerability of her situation, according to which she might be granted direct financial aid. But again, neither adjusting to incentives of entrepreneurship nor vulnerability can insure a regular income in this time of UNHCR’s exit strategy. Indeed none of the refugee women I met in Dakar had beneficiated of a micro-loan, and material or financial aid has become so scarce that it is impossible to count on it on a regular basis.
Refugee women’s body as site of collision of contradictory incentives: the example of paid sex.

Street-level humanitarians taking a break in Dakar, Senegal.

It is hard to know how many or how often refugee women practice paid sex in Dakar. Noting that every refugee woman I interviewed raised this topic without me previously asking about it, I had to conclude that many refugee women relate to the subject, directly or indirectly. Considering their lack of opportunities to become financially autonomous through entrepreneurship, and the impossibility to count on regular aid, refugee women seem to see prostitution as one option to earn money in order to meet their basic needs:

“If someone offers: ‘I will go out with you in exchange for money’, do you think that you will refuse? Sometimes you do not have a choice. I do not have another source of income.” (L., refugee women’s committee)

Receiving money in exchange for sex is not illegal in Senegal, and the UNHCR does not criminalise prostitution[13] (UNHCR 2003; Department of State 2009). Fouquet’s extensive research on night life and paid sex in Dakar has shown that it covers a multitude of different practices. From occasional paid sex in night clubs to continuous financial support by a much older partner, those whom he calls city adventurers reinvent their social positioning and try to enter new worlds through their practices (Fouquet 2011). It is interesting to note that refugee women who talked to me about paid sex never mentioned the word prostitution. They live in Dakar for years, sometimes decades, and all of them have a legal status. They consider themselves protected from the persecutions they fled (“You are not persecuted” L., refugee women’s committee) in their country of origin. Their recourse to paid sex does not occur during the emergency of war[14] but rather in a context of economic emergency, within the safety of the host country. The message transmitted by refugee women I interviewed in Dakar was that being paid in exchange for sex is for them a constrained, but active decision.[15]
Observed on a financial level, the income that refugee women earn through paid sex represents an amount that they will not ask in the form of aid. By (partially) sustaining their needs, they thus successfully adjust to interveners’ incentive of becoming financially autonomous. If one considers this activity through the lens of the income it generates, refugee women who practice paid sex behave like the entrepreneurs that the UNHCR and its partners encourage them to become.
However, paid sex does of course not correspond to relief organisations’ image of entrepreneurship. Even though its financial outcome responds to incentives of financial autonomy put forward by interveners, paid sex does not represent an activity easily valuable, nor evaluable as such. It is hardly quantifiable as source of revenue, it implies physical and health related risks and slippages into situations of coercive or forced prostitution are hard to prevent. It is thus difficult for street-level humanitarians to speak of refugee women who live from paid sex as successful autonomous entrepreneurs.
On the other hand, prostitution of refugee women is a phenomenon which interveners can hardly ignore (as mentioned earlier, every refugee woman interviewed openly mentioned the subject). As field agents, they must therefore position themselves in relation to it. As the UNHCR and partners do not directly criminalise refugees’ practice of paid sex, their rejection of refugee women’s behaviours finds its expression under the more excusable explanation of women’s vulnerability. Indeed being an activity linked to refugee women’s bodies, prostitution is easily explained by the intrinsic vulnerability they are considered to embody (“She is at risk, that someone tells her that he wants to help her, but in exchange for payment, that she has to sleep with him.” (N., NGO worker)) The subject of paid sex is covered in sensitisation sessions together with the topic of sexually based violence (“In terms of violence against women, sexist and sexual violence and also fight against, how shall I say, because there are certain women who prostitute themselves.” (A.D., NGO worker)) Paid sex is solely regarded as a risk facing refugee women’s bodies, like sexual assault and rape. The subject is solely framed in terms of forced prostitution, quite telling for this is the appellation survival sex with which interveners systematically report prostitution on official documents (it would be provocative but one could ask if continuously asking for aid at interveners offices could be called survival begging). Rape and prostitution are dealt with by interveners as interchangeable illustrations of one and the same general risk to refugee women’s bodies. Refugee women are therefore not considered as agents but as victims of their decision to practice paid sex.
Essentialising paid sex as yet another risk facing vulnerable refugee women poses a problem for refugee women who try to adjust to street-level humanitarians’ incentives both of financial autonomy and vulnerability. This contradiction is quite evident in the way refugee women who work as relays between interveners and their community[16] have framed the topic. On the one hand, as mentioned before, they express that prostitution constitutes a source of financial autonomy, on the other hand they are also responsible for sensitising their peers against it (“We sensitise against it a lot” L., refugee women’s committee). This contradiction results in turn in their alignment of refugee women being victims of rape –a crime of which they have been passive victims– with refugee women’s –constrained but active– decision of prostituting themselves:

“The person who raped her will give her money so that she remains quiet. She will get a taste and continue. She’ll tell you: ‘I do not have others means, that’s all I can do.’ […] If someone comes to offer her money, it is not rape any more, she will give herself freely to feed her child” (A.B. & L, Refugee women’s committee)

In the words of refugee women working as relays, paid sex is blamed on the woman’s wrong decision, much like the position of street-level humanitarians interviewed, as described earlier (“she will get a taste and continue”, L. refugee women’s committee). This failure is simultaneously excused or explained by refugee women’s general weakness. A.C., a refugee woman working as community relay, said: “They are subject to attempts of prostitution for example, if they want to take the easy option. They are easy targets, just like children.” For A.B. & L.: “The more the woman notices she lacks certain things, the most she would be ready to do, if she is not strong.” (Refugee women’s committee)
         Prostitution is practiced as an active answer to economic misery, but simultaneously justified as an illustration of refugee women’s vulnerability. These justifications can therefore be analysed as adjustments to interveners’ contradictory incentives of becoming financial autonomous on the one hand and being inherently vulnerable on the other.
C.’s story sheds light on how violently these adjustments can play out. She left her country of origin with her son after having been victim of persecution –including gang-rape– because of her political engagement. She was transferred from her first country of asylum to Dakar by the UNHCR in order to be treated after her cancer was discovered. Now that the UNHCR entered an exit strategy in Dakar and cut direct aid for refugees and asylum seekers, her treatment has been interrupted. To provide for her son and herself, she occasionally practices paid sex. Nationals from her country of origin are quite rare in Dakar, as it is relatively distant geographically and culturally. She struggles learning French and the most spoken local language Wolof. As a single woman head of household with limited chances of local integration in Senegal and a serious medical condition, she qualifies for the international Women at risk resettlement programme (UNHCR 2013b). After having successfully passed UNHCR’s successive steps to qualify for a resettlement to the USA (including interviews by several UNHCR agents), a US official came to Dakar and interviewed her, a couple of months before I met her. C. told her story as she had told it to the other agents before. The US American interviewer closed the case after C. mentioned that she had received money in exchange for sex to sustain her needs. Prostitution is considered a crime under US law, C. is thus considered a criminal and disqualified for the resettlement program:

         “When I don’t know what else to do, sometimes if someone says: If you don’t mind lie down with me, I will give you money for you and your son. Once in a while I do that. I told her and she said I was doing prostitution and it is not allowed in the US. I told if you came to know why and how I did that, you would understand. I made an appeal and they said that my case was denied saying that (reading the letter): ‘There is no appeal for a denial of an application of refugee status.’ The reason that they are blaming me for is (reading): ‘you felt to establish that you are admissible to the US.’ That is what I explained to them: I did it not because I wanted to do it. It is not in my religion, it is not in my lifestyle, it is not something I ever dreamt of doing. I did it because I am having a child in my hands whose father has turned his back to.” (C., refugee woman)
I find C.’s case to be a quite striking illustration of constant adjustment that is made to contradictory incentives. For over two years during which she has resided in Dakar without direct aid from the UNHCR[17], she adjusted to interveners’ incentive to become financially autonomous–she clearly describes her recourse to prostitution as a means to pay for her and her son’s daily needs. At the beginning of the interview she had explained that she had come to Dakar for the resettlement programme because “I am a woman at risk” (ibid).[18] Her resettlement case was first opened in November 2013 and for a year and a half she has been in contact with the UNHCR and its partners on several occasions, trying to prove that she qualifies to the category of women at risk [19]. Prostitution being, as detailed previously, presented by interveners and community relays as an illustration of refugee women’s weakness, it is therefore not surprising that C. shared this information with interviewers, to prove her vulnerability. It goes without saying that I did not witness the interview led by the US American official. I can only imagine that C., just as she did with me, the French interviewer, listed all the aspects of her hardship: fleeing from persecution and gang-rape; suffering from cancer; providing for her son on her own; having recourse to prostitution. Used to adjusting the presentation of her case to criteria of vulnerability, C. did not know that the codes would change as she spoke to the US interviewer. It cost her the resettlement she had been hoping for, for two years.
Because of their habit to address issues touching refugee women as women’s issues rather than considering those issues in their social complexity, interveners do not consider prostitution as an economical decision but rather align it with a refugee women’s weakness. Without saying that interveners should encourage prostitution for financial autonomy, I am questioning the benefit of handling paid sex indiscriminately as forced prostitution, and yet another sexual violence that refugee women suffer. In many cases it represents the only source of relatively regular income they can count on. A regular income that they generate without UNHCR and its partners’ aid nor their assistance. Shaming them for this activity and undermining their decision to resort to paid sex by aligning it with the trauma of sexual assault they have experienced or witnessed in their flight, traps them in a state of emergency in which they are eternal victims. One of my interviewees said: “We cannot flee war, and come into war, it’s a war against our own body, our own health.” (L., refugee women’s committee)

Methods and reflection on ethics.
It has to be noted that the majority of refugee women I interviewed for this paper were privileged in the sense that they were working as relays for interveners or were presiding the refugee women’s committee. They might not be representative of all refugee women living in Dakar, as I believe no sample can represent a group of people as heterogeneous and complex as the refugee population in Dakar. It was also a choice driven by my intention to limit the scope of my intrusion in people’s lives, especially because I was only in Dakar for a short term.[20] For this reason I decided not to interview the highest possible number of people but rather to conduct participative observation in places where refugees would meet with street-level humanitarians. It explains how I came in contact with relays and committee presidents, who are more present at such places of gathering. These first contacts permitted me to get to know other, less connected persons though a snow ball effect. This being said, I am of course conscious of the influence that my presence might have had on the behaviours of my interviewees. As a white European woman, UNHCR agents and NGO agents treated me like the interns they regularly welcome in their offices. It of course poses ethical questions on conducting fieldwork with refugees in such a relatively dominant position. Do no harm guidelines guided my decisions in that regard.[21] This being said, as I informed refugee women about my academic project and the unlikelihood of a direct influence on their situation, many of my interviewees responded that they were familiar with research methods and outcomes as they had themselves submitted academic writings or thesis in the past or knew someone who had. I believe that overall my presence did not induce more harm than would the presence of a white European girl interning with the UNHCR or a partner NGO. The extent to which my western understanding of gender has influenced my analysis could of course be discussed. I chose to present several topics in this paper but my analysis is not exhaustive and might have ignored other aspects of equal importance to refugee women.

Literature on refugee relief has often denounced a system encouraging refugees’ material dependency on aid, especially with regards to camps settings (Harrell-Bond 1986; Malkki 1995; Freedman 2007). In the case of long-term refuge in an urban setting such as Dakar, direct aid has ceased but a relation of dependency remains between street-level humanitarians and refugees. Focusing on relief organisations’ gender sensitive practices (which turned out to be solely targeting refugee women), this paper has shown that a withdrawal from direct aid rather implied the emergence of contradictory expectations directed at refugees, and not their disappearance. In response, refugee women have developed the capacity to adjust to the criteria upon which aid or assistance is awarded (at times it is vulnerability, at other times entrepreneurial motivation). Refugee women have built their everyday life according to the UNHCR’s criteria, hoping to correspond to one category or the other (material aid for single mothers, professional training for motivated educated women, resettlement for victims of rape). Their lives in the host country have developed over the years in conjunction with interveners’ incentives (e.g. become financially autonomous) and expectations (e.g. dress less provocatively to avoid sexual assaults). Once tired of waiting for uncertain and scarce aid, some refugee women take the initiative to find a source of income on their own, through prostitution for instance. They are then called to order, required to fit back into the categories provided by the UNHCR and its partners, sometimes violently, as C.’s case of aborted resettlement has shown. These categories do not seem to evolve in response to refugee women’s situations over time, refugee women are rather those who adjust to the evolution of the UNHCR (budget cutting in this case). Years, sometimes decades after their arrival in Dakar, the women I met still identify themselves essentially as refugee women.[22] They can hardly project themselves outside of an eternal emergency state as they continue to be constrained by their assigned categories. A.B. & L, presidents of the refugee women’s committee, expressed it as follows: “One cannot speak of a goal, we tell ourselves that we are living a temporary time. It cannot be forever.”

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——— (2007): Handbook for Emergencies. 3rd Edition., accessed 8.4.2016.
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[1] A month long ethnography of UNHCR practices of assistance to long-term refugees residing in Dakar was conducted in June-July 2015. All interviews quoted in this paper are thus dated as such.
[2] Indeed while states or group of states (such as the European Union) in the Global North have developed their own asylum systems and institutions, many of the states of the Global South work with or delegate asylum governance to the UNHCR.
[3] Today the UNHCR counts about 16 000 refugees and asylum seekers in Senegal (‘OFADEC Page D’accueil’ 2016 ; UNHCR 2016). According to UNHCR and partnering NGO agents’ assessment, between 2000 and 3000 urban refugees live in Dakar. Approximately half of them being refugee women.
[4] I understand street-level humanitarians to be workers in charge of programme implementation (in this case agents working for local NGOs partnering with the UNHCR. This expression is based on Lipsky’s street-level bureaucrats (1977). Relief organisations function thanks to the daily field work of a variety of local actors that are often forgotten in refugee studies.
[5] An example of national constraint would be an asylum administration lacking female interviewers for female asylum claimants. By cultural beliefs, I refer to the UNHCR’s principle of non-intervention, which, for certain staff members, means putting down gender-related persecution to cultural difference (Baines 2004, 63). This lack of structural approach is visible in administrators’ or judges’ refusals to grant asylum to claimants fleeing violence such as rape or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on the ground that those are traditional uses and limited to the private sphere (for more details on this matter see Macklin 1995; Freedman 2007).
[6] Most notably, Policy on refugee women, Guidelines on the protection of refugee women and Sexual violence against refugees: guidelines on prevention and response (UNHCR 1990, 1991, 1995).
[7] For example provocative clothing is considered a risky behavior (interview with NGO worker).
[8] I borrow the term interveners from Harrell-Bond, a term which encompasses both the UNHCR and local actors as well as cooperating NGOs or INGOs engaged in refugee assistance (1986, xii).
[9] “*” indicates the existence of a variety of gender identities between those commonly referred to as male or female.
[10] As drawn from my interviews with street-level humanitarians, although I did not meet a single beneficiary of a micro-loan –even of a reduced amount- among refugee women I came in contact with.
[11] This idea is quite common in the development world, it corresponds to the WID (Women In Development) approach that emerged in the early 1970s and advocates for investing in women based on the assumption that they are untapped resources for development (Ochola 2010).
[12] Thinking of Goffman’s interactionism, the use of this vocabulary is quite telling of a “front-stage” presentation due to the situation of the interview (1959). But the very fact that my interviewees use this vocabulary shows how conscious they are of the organisations’ incentives.
[13] While the UNHCR denounces forced prostitution and trafficking, prostitution is not illegalised nor is it a reason for withdrawal of status nor aid (Martin & Tirman 2009).
[14] One refugee woman I met expressed that she had already recourse to prostitution on her journey from her country of origin to Senegal, but most of the refugee women I met said that they started this activity in Senegal.
[15] Unlike the situation that my interviewees acknowledged as a threat especially for young girls who can be forced into domestic prostitution. See Martin/ Tirman for definitions of forced prostitution in situations of migration (2009).
[16] Their community is understood by interveners as embracing refugee women in general. See Harrell-Bond for critiques of assumptions that a group of refugees constitute a community (2004, 27).
[17] An operation to treat her cancer was paid by the UNHCR but she had to pay herself for the biopsy and medication.
[18] Showing her knowledge of the organisation’s vocabulary.
[19] The criteria being at “extreme risk of harassment, physical or sexual violence or refoulement” (Freedman 2007, 119).
[20] The financial means I am grateful to have been granted for my master’s thesis by a DAAD funded PROMO scholarship sufficed for one month of field presence.
[21] See Krause for a detailed reflection on ethical field work in situations of forced migration (2016).
[22] This presentation might be linked to a front-stage presentation in reaction to my presence, a European researcher. But as this paper has shown, they live in a continuous front-stage presentation, in front of street-level humanitarians.

This article builds on the master’s thesis I submitted in spring 2016 at
the department of Diversity and Social Conflict of the Humboldt
Universität zu Berlin. It is important for me to study forced migration
with a focus on countries often solely portrayed as sending countries, a
Eurocentric view which tends to minimise the importance of South-South
(forced) migration. I am therefore glad to continue my research project
with long-term urban refugees in Dakar as a doctoral student of the Max
Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle.

Bitte diesen Beitrag wie folgt zitieren:
 Agathe Menetrier (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. In: Gökce Yurdakul, Regina Römhild, Anja Schwanhäußer, Birgit zur Nieden, Aleksandra Lakic (Hg.): E-Book Project of Humboldt-University Students: Witnessing the Transition: Refugees, Asylum-Seekers and Migrants in Transnational Perspective. Preview (Weblog),;postID=3697950972162993466;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=0;src=link

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