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Living in a Limbo. Eritrean Refugees in Kampala

Luca Jourdan



In Uganda, there are about 15.000 Eritrean refugees and most of them live in the capital Kampala. The majority are young people, both men and women, who fled Eritrea to avoid the national service imposed by a despotic regime. Indeed, the Eritrean government, led by Isaias Afewerki, imposes a period of conscription that can last for an unspecified period of time, annihilating the possibility for young people to plan their future: the only alternative is to flee to exile. Some Eritreans try to reach Europe passing through Sudan and then Libya; some others go to Israel. Quite a large number travels to Kampala passing through Sudan and Kenya. In Kampala, they apply for refugee status and try to move to Canada or USA. This process can take up to three years, but sometime even more. This paper focuses on the Eritrean refugees in Kampala and tries to shed light on the strategies they use to cope with life and reconstruct a quite closed and self-referential diasporic community. Moreover, it focuses on the ambivalent relationship between the Eritrean diaspora and the Eritrean state. The latter forces many young people to leave the country but, at the same time, exploits them as a source of income. On their part, most of refugees display an ambiguous and ambivalent attitude towards the Eritrean regime, a mix of disapproval and reverential nationalism. Nostalgia and dreams for the future shape the diasporic life in Kampala, a limbo characterized by paradoxes and ambiguities: even though Eritrean refugees live in a closed community, their internal relationships are pervaded with mistrust, divisions and paranoia. The Eritrean refugee community embodies all the contradictions of a despotic state, which is perceived as an autocratic enemy as well as a symbol of presumed superiority of the Eritrean nation.

Keywords: Eritrea, nationalism, refugees, Kampala, Uganda

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