Camps of Containment: A Genealogy of the Refugee Camp


As forced migration becomes an increasingly prominent global challenge, political responses to it demand closer scrutiny. This essay considers one of the most widely used responses to refugee flows, the refugee camp. For the past seventy years camps have been a primary response to forced migration. In 2016, several hundred camps and settlements existed worldwide, housing more than twelve million refugees and internally displaced.1 From the Algerian desert to the Thai forest, these camps vary in almost every dimension. Some are the size of cities, while others are more like towns. Some are fenced and guarded, while others allow free movement. Some have existed for generations, while others are newly created. Amid such diversity, what do these spaces have in common? What is a refugee camp? This is a deceptively simple question, and one that has never been satisfactorily answered. Some authors have divided the universe of camps into categories, distinguishing (for example) self-settlements, assisted self-settlements, and organized settlements.2 Others have focused on camps’ institutional governance, and particularly on the role of international agencies in providing assistance as a (non-transparent, largely unaccountable) “surrogate state.”3 Many more have sidestepped the problem entirely, recognizing refugee camps as spaces of contradiction—of “care and control,” “compassion and repression”—that defy more specific definition.4

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About Kirsten McConnachie

Kirsten McConnachie is assistant professor of law at the University of Warwick. She is a socio-legal researcher whose work studies governance, justice, and security in refugee situations. Her book Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism (Routledge, 2014) examined camp management and the administration of justice among Karen refugees on the Thai-Burma border and was awarded the 2015 Socio-Legal Studies Association early career book prize. She is currently working on a second book, examining the experiences of Chin urban refugees in India and Malaysia.