Camp, Ghetto, Zinco, Slum: Lebanon’s Transitional Zones of Emplacement

Worldwide there are more than one thousand camps in operation today, catering for an estimated fifteen million displaced people, mainly refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The sheer number of formal camps and encampments is staggering and makes it important to examine their humanitarian management.1 The importance of understanding camps, their growth, proliferation, and functions, is one reason why researchers have turned to the seminal works of Giorgio Agamben.2 However, recently there has been a growing critique of Agamben’s totalitarian camp studies, especially when applied to present-day refugee camps.3 Agamben’s work presupposes that refugee camps are subject to a permanent state of exception where the refugees’ existence is reduced to “bare life” and can be eliminated or sacrificed without consequence. Agamben argues that camps, while clearly exceptional spaces, are not total institutions monopolized by a sovereign power. While refugees are often deprived of civil rights, they are not without agency, individually or collectively.4 Camps come in many shapes and forms and are transformed by humanitarian actors, state agencies, and residents. They are therefore not fixed or static topographic terroirs (topoi) but transitional sites transformed by sociospatial processes.5

Lebanon is the quintessential example of long-term encampment of refugees living, lounging, and laboring in the country’s transient refuges. The country is home to several forms of refuge, ranging from the formal (camps) to the informal (gatherings) and irregular (squatters). The camps are controlled spaces and are more often than not spatially segregated, both in their location (rural or peri-urban), layout (fenced, enclosed, encircled), and management (policed, army controlled). Due to their longevity, the forms of refuge have changed, amalgamated, and proliferated over several decades to become what I provisionally term “transitional zones of emplacement.” In order to theorize this transformation, this essay employs the critical sociology of Loïc Wacquant and Michel Agier to analyze the urbanization and subsequent dissolution of the country’s transient refuges in the final instance to deterritorialized noncamps. Not just camps but also ghettos, slums, and zincos—a generic term for metal-roofed (or metal-walled) houses and colloquial for run-down, slum-like settlements—demand attention. In particular, the essay takes up individualized care and control of new arrivals, notably Syrian refugees. To analyze the twin processes of emplacement and encampment, I use ethnographic examples from intermittent fieldwork and field visits in Lebanon (2003–present).

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