The 2012 crisis in Mali has generated large population movements in neighbouring countries. Burkina Faso, which is not traditionally a host country, saw some 100,000 Malians arrive on its land, immediately parked in large temporary refugee camps. Sadio Soukouna, a post-doctoral student at the University of Paris 1 – Panthéon Sorbonne, decided to trace and analyse the journey of those who chose to escape the confinement and sense of dependence inherent in the camps.

Your study addresses the life trajectory of Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. From what angle did you approach this issue?

Sadio Soukouna – Faced with the massive influx of refugees in Burkina Faso, the method of reception recommended was the creation of camps. As one of the people I met said, you cannot live in camps, you can only survive. This research is driven by the conviction that survival is not enough and that alternatives must be found to encamping, experienced by some refugees as imprisonment. My study therefore focuses on the strategies of refugees who have chosen to escape the camps and find refuge in urban areas. While the UNHCR first reflects on the conditions of their return, organizing their survival in a temporary logic, some refugees do not resign themselves to putting their lives on hold, waiting for a hypothetical end to the crisis. For these people, the solution lies in the city.

What support do displaced populations receive to integrate into urban areas?

SS – My study aimed to analyse the role of the different actors likely to accompany refugees in their life trajectory in urban areas: the State, NGOs, communities, associations or ordinary citizens… After investigation, it appears that informal community mutual aid networks are the most effective in ensuring refugees’ access to the city. This is particularly true for the Tamasheq-speaking (Tuareg) populations, who benefit from long-established contacts in the city, and from a culture that values hospitality and mutual aid. Much less so for the Fulani and Dogon people, whose family or community networks are less developed and who live in the city in very precarious conditions.

When I conducted an interview with a Tuareg who has lived in Bobo Dioulasso since 2012, no less than seven refugees, all Tuareg, were drinking tea and chatting. With a local contact, the refugees have temporary shelter, material help and valuable advice to go unnoticed. Most of the refugees talk about the mistrust and rejection of the local population. There is a strong fear of infiltrated terrorists and a stigmatization of the Fulani and Touareg populations. Faced with this, refugees develop strategies of trivialisation. It is a question of giving up the turban, adopting local dress codes, being clean, being calm, not giving the impression of being afraid.

Moreover, the integration of refugees in cities seems to be reserved for those with special individual resources. What about this?

SS – Many of the refugees encountered in urban areas have the particularity of having a great habit of travelling, due to their professional activity or family network. The issue of mobility plays a crucial role in urban integration. Choosing the city means fleeing the immobility of the camps. Some people continue to travel back and forth to Mali, Mauritania, Niger… In this respect, refugee status offers valuable legal protection as it facilitates border crossings.

For a refugee living in the city, sometimes also implies returning to the camps to benefit from the distributions. These constitute an important part of their resources, especially since they have to pay rent to find accommodation. Compared to the camps, the city offers a certain freedom and opportunities, but also leads to greater precariousness. This is the limit of the refugees’ integration in the city. Only those who have a certain social and economic capital are able to take advantage of it. For example, the craftsmen have benefited from UNHCR training and a sales space in the city so that they can take responsibility for their livelihood.

Actors such as NGOs or the State do not appear to contribute at all to reflections on urban integration of refugees. How do you explain this?

SS – The Burkinabe state delegates the management of refugees to UNHCR. Its role is limited to keeping them apart by pushing for maximum centralization of the camps around the sites of Mentao and Goudoubo. Its objective is to avoid social tensions and make the refugees invisible. And this works because I have met Burkinabe people who were not aware of the presence of refugees on their soil.

NGOs and UNHCR also face tensions with local populations. Villagers living near the camps also want to benefit from the distributions. The Sagniogo camp on the outskirts of Ouagadougou has been dismantled amidst tensions with the local population. Until 2015, the refugees in the cities benefited from the distributions. But these distributions were interrupted for the same reasons. Intervening with refugees in the city therefore seems to be a very difficult issue.

In this context, what solutions could encourage the urban integration of refugees?

SS – The main challenge is to find alternatives to the confinement of refugees, to promote their autonomy and to help them settle and build something. Urban integration is only one solution, and one that presents many difficulties. To make things easier, NGOs must avoid hindering refugees’ journeys to and from the city, and avoid severing ties with those who have chosen to settle in urban areas. But UNHCR is also developing an interesting strategy of “villagisation” of the camps. This involves building sustainable facilities, opening the camp to people from neighbouring villages, providing them with aid, creating exchanges and activity in the camp. All initiatives that avoid locking refugees in or putting them in a situation of dependence must be supported.