Citizens without a country

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By Professor John Harbeson

At a time when European countries as well as the United States are deeply concerned about the sanctity of their borders from those seeking refugee from other war-torn or natural disaster-afflicted countries, it is timely also to consider the scale of internal displacement of citizens in their own countries.

The Norway based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has done important and difficult work for many years in tracking the extent of internal displacement, country by country, particularly since many of those internally displacement come seeking refuge and resettlement in wealthier, stronger countries to the north. Internal displacement of citizens in their own countries is an important measure of state fragility, prevalent throughout much of Africa and other world regions, as recognised and measured annually by the Washington-based Fund for Peace.

From a cursory review of IDMC’s online database, at least 60% of the world’s countries were afflicted by citizen displacement in 2017, as a result of conflict and/or disasters of one kind or another, totalling some nearly 45 million citizens. For at least thirty-three countries, internal displacement totalled at least 1% of their citizens, including, unsurprisingly, many in eastern Africa and the Horn, including Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia.

Kenya might have made this list in the years following the 2007-2008 election meltdown. While the country has made substantial progress in reducing internal displacement, in 2017 displaced citizens still totalled 159,000 according to IDMC’s data, representing approximately 0.3 percent of its nearly 50 million citizens.

New internal displacement in Kenya in 2017 totalled just under 60,000 citizens, roughly evenly divided between conflict situations and the consequences of natural disasters.  Elsewhere in the region, Ethiopia made the 1% list in 2017 at least in part because of dam building in its southwestern region, which still has potential adverse consequences for Kenya’s Lake Turkana economy.

As deeply concerning as are these published internal displacement data, they may substantially underestimate the true scale of the problem, as Kenya’s own history illustrates. Over and above those explicitly displaced in any given year, roughly twenty-four million in 2017 according to IDMC data, are the untold numbers whose place of residence is insecure because of past conflict, multifaceted historically layered land tenure insecurity, ethnic and/or religious tension, and/or political persecution and/or corruption. 

Though but one indicator of the twelve categories of indicators of state fragility, internal displacement is among the most important and perhaps the least systematically recognised and attended to. And where it is addressed by governments, it is inadequately addressed, including from the perspective of those ostensibly resettled.

The larger, and arguably most consequential, dimension of internal displacement is that those affected are, in most instances, citizens of their countries and entitled to respect and something at least approaching fair treatment from their governments.

A century after a German philosopher argued that the essence of the modern state is the presence of a monopoly of legitimate coercive power presiding over a compulsory community, a reductionist version of his theory as such a monopoly in the possession of a government remains pervasive. Nowhere in Weberian theory of the state are the members of such communities conceived as more than passive, compliant subjects of such coercive power.

Permeable borders  attest that political communities are far less compulsory that Weber envisioned. Moreover, the influential conclusion of the late Charles Tilly that European states came into being as a result of war and war preparation seems to have little bearing on the formation of post-colonial states in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, as Tilly himself explicitly recognised might be the case. 

— Writer is professor of Political Science Emeritus, and a professorial lecturer for the African Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University

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