Derese Kassa is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Iona College. He is also an urban sociologist, and until 2009, he served as a Lecturer of Sociology at Addis Ababa University, where he was involved in various research projects around issues of wellbeing, urban development, urban public places, urban commons and state-society relations in East Africa. His doctoral dissertation, “Stranded Strangers: Ethiopian Refugees and the Quest for Urban Citizenship in Nairobi, Kenya,” won the Best Dissertation Award of the Department of Urban and Public Affairs at the University of Louisville in May 2013.
It is now commonplace to talk about the emigration of hundreds and thousands of young people outside Ethiopia to neighboring countries, the Middle East and Western countries in search of better economic opportunities. Even more tragic are the news of refugees and undocumented immigrants trafficked through the Sahara desert and the Mediterranean to reach the shores of Europe. Many others perish on the Red Sea trying to make it to the Middle East by makeshift boats. Kenya has been a third major outlet through which thousands of Ethiopians flee seeking ‘greener pastures’ and fleeing from political persecution.
The impact of conflicts on cities is seldom explored in the African context. Part of the reason why the case of urban refugees is not studied in great detail is the assumption that the ‘refugee problem’ is located in border zone camps set up by UNHCR or other international NGOs. The reality is, however, more than half of the world’s refugee population resides in cities. Our case in point, Nairobi, is hosting a large number of urban refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, the DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda over the last four decades.
Deres Kassa’s upcoming book entitled, Africa’s Sanctuary City: Refugee spaces and urban citizenship in Nairobi, Kenya (Lexington Books, Oct/Nov 2018), aims to shed light on these urban African refugee spaces. Its basic premise (thread of argument) is that primate cities like Nairobi have now become “cities of refuge” i.e. urban spaces profoundly impacted by the spillover of both inter-state and intra-state conflicts that bedevil the Horn of Africa. It then provides a thick ethnographic description and analysis of state-urban refugee relations in Nairobi using Henry Lefebvre’s work on “right to the city” as a theoretical framework. Part of Program on Refugees, Forced Displacement, and Humanitarian Responses Speaker Series Fall 2018.