Spaces of Legal Ambiguity: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Power


Scholars have long grappled with defining and conceptualizing refugee camps from a number of disciplines—political science, anthropology, human geography; few, however, have approached the issue from the perspective of international law.1 Because the refugee camp “label” may confer an array of legal, political, and bureaucratic implications for refugee protection, this lack of attention to refugee camps by international lawyers is rather peculiar. Traditionally, international human rights lawyers have focused on spaces often very similar to the idea of the refugee camp: places of confinement or detention. In stark contrast to refugee camps, however, detention is closely defined in international law and its existence is accounted for in numerous international legal instruments.2 As for refugee camps, there is no definition in international law of the term—the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (1951 Refugee Convention), the very centerpiece of international refugee protection, does not make any reference whatsoever to these spaces. The same is true for the regional OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (1969), and also the more recent African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, which merely refers to “places where internally displaced persons are sheltered.”3 How, then, should international lawyers approach these ambiguous spaces?

In order to better understand and conceptualize refugee camps from a legal perspective, I focuse here on the legality and the legitimacy of these spaces. I borrow the functional definition of a refugee camp as outlined in the 2014 policy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on “Alternatives to Camps”—in which “a camp is any purpose-built, planned and managed location or spontaneous settlement where refugees are accommodated and receive assistance and services from government and humanitarian agencies”4—but I attempt to explore these spaces through three vignettes, each of which synthesizes an important critical perception about such camps from the perspective of international law. In so doing, I will examine different legal registers that might be used to evaluate the legality or legitimacy of refugee camps and thus come closer to a legal understanding of these spaces. More precisely, I engage with previous work by Guglielmo Verdirame arguing that the refugee camp is “generally illegal” because it entails an unlawful restriction of freedom of movement, as well as with Alice Edwards’s argument that refugee camps might be spaces of detention and should be monitored by UN human rights institutions. First, however, I approach refugees and camps from a critical legal perspective that questions the notion of the refugee “victim” and the “humanitarian” refugee camp.

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