Refugee Camps. History of a Humanitarian Technology


Emergency relief in refugee camps is no longer a temporary exception in Africa. For the past 50 years or so, refugee camps have been marking the history of the continent. From the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR 1951) to the current influx of refugees from the Central African Republic into Cameroon (2014), refugee camps have emerged as the dominant standardized tool for the implementation of international humanitarian aid. Anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and geographers have already put considerable effort into analyzing this topic. However, so far, no historical studies are available. This project considers refugee camps as a technical dispositive of globalized humanitarian aid. It analyzes how, since the creation of UNHCR in 1951, a particular articulation of physical artifacts (tents, kits, tools), scientific components (manuals, procedures, statistics), norms (rules, legal categories, standards), and experts (engineers, physicians, urban planners, architects, etc.) has emerged. The project inquires firstly the controversies linked to the planning of refugee camps, secondly the standardization and materialization and solutions, and thirdly the creative adaptation of camp technologies by aid recipients. On the empirical level, the project analyzes three dimensions of camp technologies: a) technologies of refugee screening and triage, the emergence of which is traced through the exploration of technical mission reports stored in the UNHCR archives in Geneva; b) design and planning of model camps, analyzed through UNHCR grey literature and handbooks; and c) the question of aid allocation, studied through a field observation and expert interviews in the refugee camps around Meiganga (North Eastern Cameroon). This project will contribute to the Priority Program by an indepth analysis of refugee camps as a technology of social and spatial ordering. Refugee camps combine different spheres of activities (health, social distinctions, juridical classification, security issues) and link different actors and interests (humanitarian workers, refugees, local population leaders, etc.). They are therefore a case in point to articulate a vision of global order with a vision of local ordering and adaptability.


Principal Investigators
Glasman, Joël Dr. (Details) (African History)

Duration of Project
Start date: 08/2015
End date: 07/2017

Last updated on 2020-19-10 at 06:07