Recent decades have seen a proliferation of refugee camps; today there are more than one thousand “camps” in operation, catering for more than twelve million displaced people. The circumstances and features of these spaces vary widely—what we commonly describe as refugee camps may be as diverse as the semi-permanent Palestinian camps in the Middle East, temporary shelters set up by migrants in Calais, labeled “illegal” by the French authorities, or evacuation centers for victims of Hurricane Katrina in the United States.1 On other occasions one does not speak of “refugee camps” at all—in Afghanistan during the 1980s, the term “refugee village” was carefully selected by authorities to avoid the militarized connotations of the term “camp.”2 In Sri Lanka and Uganda, the terms “welfare villages” and “protected villages” were similarly employed when referring to sites hosting, or perhaps rather, holding, internally displaced persons.3 The concept of the refugee camp is thus often politically charged and may even be seen as fluid, culturally, temporally, and spatially. But what do these confined spaces have in common? In this dossier we set forth to recapture the commonalties of camps, arguing there is a need to acknowledge their legal, spatial, and governmental hybridity.
The refugee camp is one of the most poignant manifestations of humanitarian space. As several essays previously published in this journal demonstrate, such camps are part and parcel of the complex humanitarian infrastructure prevalent in many of today’s crises.4 They are typically associated with temporary emergency relief operations but often develop in relation to long-term “care and maintenance” programs used to enforce bureaucratic and administrative power over all types of unwanted, itinerant, and irregular populations. Today, camps, centers and shelters have a worldwide reach, as demonstrated in the seminal anthology Un Monde de camps.5 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates more than 300 camps in 115 countries; the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) manages about 60 camps catering for 1.4 million Palestinian refugees; an estimated 600 informal Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps are in operation too.6 The Syrian refugee crisis has added another 40 camps to the Middle East region; in addition there is a much higher number of temporary encampments and sites of various kinds for asylum seekers, irregular migrants, and trafficked individuals.7 What ultimately connects many of today’s refugee camps is that emergency measures are perpetuated despite the fact that many of today’s refugee crises are protracted. Despite the occasional resettlement scheme, refugees often remain permanently “emplaced” in camps, colloquially known as being “warehoused.” The de facto duration of refugee camps is often indeterminate, causing the camps to take on the appearance of towns or cities. As such, they exist between the temporary and the permanent; as Michel Agier puts it, “A camp is an emergency intervention that has been on `stand–by’ for months or years.”8