“Protracted Displacements”, by Leah Durst-Lee -April 2021

Around the world, migrations are resulting in longer and longer periods of displacement, some families being apart from their homes for decades or generations. These long, protracted displacements have become the new normal. The average length of displacement is growing longer, during which those displaced live in extreme levels of insecurity and marginalization, facing little to no access to basic services, employment, health care, quality housing, and education. Due to their surroundings and limited international involvement, those internally displaced frequently live below the poverty line and face great obstacles to improve their lives.

Worldwide, over 77% of refugees are displaced for longer than 5 years, lasting on average 20 years for refugees and more than 10 years for internally displaced persons. Numbers of people forcibly displaced are also increasing: Since 2010, global displacements have almost doubled from nearly 40 million peoples to 79.5 million in 2019.Protracted displacements are preventable. Each displacement is different, however the common causes of displacements include:

«prolonged conflict; lack of political will and inadequate frameworks at the country level to address such displacement; limited engagement by international actors to move beyond the provision of humanitarian assistance; and lack of dedicated financial resources aimed at addressing protracted displacement or preventing new displacement from becoming protracted (United Nations) »

In Mali, the UN estimates that 696,834 people are in situations of forced displacement, mainly due to the terrorist activities and conflicts in Northern and Central Mali. Yet, as this blogpost will demonstrate, in Western Mali these forced displacement can also be due to conflicts over anti- and post-slavery.

Western Mali, and more broadly the Sahel, has a long history of forced displacements. In the nineteenth century, Western Mali was a transit zone for the slave trade. Several ethnic groups continue to support and practice descent-based slavery, where an individual is “born into… because their ancestors were captured into slavery and their families have ‘belonged’ to the slave-owning families ever since”. Often considered as property, victims of descent-based slavery suffer numerous human rights violations and can be forced to work without pay and denied access to education and necessary identity documents, without which “it is impossible to gain access to civil, political, economic, social or cultural rights” (Anti-Slavery International). The 1905 slavery abolition led to the auto-emancipation of formerly enslaved populations who displaced themselves, by fleeing their owners to re-settle in free communities. Slavery-related displacements have not always been large, one-off movements, rather cyclical, long-term small-scale relocations of individuals or families.

Since 2018, more than 3,000 people with ascribed ‘slave status’ have fled their village of origin. In 2019 more than 2,000 families were displaced and denied access to farming and social services. Under threat of violence and death, those with ascribed ‘slave status’ and their allies have been forced to flee their home communities and relocate into communities which are ready to support them.

Unlike other examples of displacement where individuals can move from conflict towards safety, those victims of descent-based slavery in the Sahel region cannot leave behind the conflict that results from being at the bottom of the Malian social status hierarchy. Unless those displaced are able to hide their status or relocate into a community which resists the practice of descent-based slavery, they risk subjugation and exploitation anew. In this regard, descent-based slavery can be considered a travelling stigma that both forces and follows those seeking security. Individuals and families with ascribed ‘slave status’ may be displaced multiple times, spanning many years, in their search for safety without stigma.

Slavery-related displacements in West Africa have been overlooked in the development and humanitarian practices largely due to their invisibility. Those who are ascribed ‘slave status’ may choose to not disclose their status, thus not being represented in a possible count of those living with the stigma. In addition, many of those displaced due to slavery move individually or with their immediate families, thus potentially not receiving the same level of attention as would a larger displacement.

In February 2020 we began a 3-year action research project to analyse and map the under-reported history of slavery-related displacements in Western Mali to demonstrate the historical continuities and scale of slavery-related displacements over time in Mali. Our findings will be generalizable to similar displacements across the Sahel. Using our research, we propose concrete measures to redress this long-term displacement crisis linked with the history of internal African slavery, by training legal professionals and advocating for the passage of laws that criminalize descent-based slavery, as well as informing local and national government how to efficiently manage protracted displacements of people with ascribed ‘slave status’. Please join us at our website and on Facebook and Twitter.

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