Conceptualizing the "Camp"

In order to grasp the present situation of the refugee populations living in “formal” and “informal” camp settings across Europe and to properly analyze the conditions in which these camps function, the concept of what a “camp” is across different contexts of migration must be addressed. The 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, offers a definition of refugee camp at it’s most basic level, as a temporary settlement for those individuals forced to leave their country in order to escape persecution. This over-simplified explanation captures none of the contextual complexities that truly describe how a camp is constructed and ultimately functions. A refugee camp should therefore be characterized by the following factors that are instrumental to it’s creation and functionality: the economic, geographic, political, social context in which the camp exists, as well as it’s size, density, dependence on external aid, and the level of control exercised over inhabitants by national or international authorities. Regardless of where the camp is located it exists as a landscape of competing interests. Such imperative entities as UNHCR, host countries, local communities, humanitarian actors, and refugees respond in different ways to displacement. Therefore, the camp space reflects “uneven geographies of power and status”. Consequentially, these uneven geographies transform the duration, nature, size and scope of the camp space. In the case of the refugee camps observed in Greece and Serbia, I would add that the actors present in the initial establishment of the camp, whether state officials or refugees themselves, are an instrumental factor in the conceptual framework of what constitutes a “camp” within the context of European refugee crisis.  

The refugee camp is a significant and compound material and human operation, one that is situated within a larger geopolitical context. According to the UNHCR statistical database at the end of 2015 there were 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of this population 21.3 million are recognized refugees. By the end of 2015, of the 16.1 million refugees that fell under UNHCR’s mandate, the type of accommodation in which they live was known for 13.4 million people. This data discloses that at the end of 2015, about 56% of the total refugee population in rural locations resided in a planned/managed camp, compared with 2% who resided in individual accommodation. In urban locations, the overwhelming majority (99%) of refugees lived in individual accommodation, compared with less than 1% who lived in a planned/managed camp. Based on this data it is understood the prevalence and magnitude of the camps existence amidst the present global context of displacement.

In his piece “Civitas, polis, and urbs: Reimaging the Refugee Camp as a City”, Peter Grbac introduces the notion that the refugee camp is a space of paradox. That it exists as a place situated between formality and informality, mobility and immobility, permanence and impermanence. On the one hand, the camp can be understood as a phenomenon, situated on the margins of society that serves to confine, control, and filter. Conversely, the camp can be regarded as a space in which identity is actively formed, empowerment is encouraged, and resistance is practiced. I find this paradoxical description of power dynamics to be inconsistent in the context of what is happening in Greece, taking into account the determining factor to be what initial interests and coalition of forces are present at any given camps inception.

For example, the official refugee “Hotspot” located on the Greek island of Leros was physically and socially constructed by the Greek government and is further operated by the military. Once the site was constructed set far away from the local community and with multiple layers of barbed wire surrounding it, and opened a month before the EU-Turkey took affect, then refugees were brought in from various reception sites on the island. Upon observation, this camp seems to function just as much as a restricting and confining penitentiary as it looks. With seemingly more military and police personnel present than refugees themselves and with the mandate to detain, it is unfathomable how there is room for agency in a such a single interest landscape.  Yet in a setting like the informal settlement at the EKO gas station, located 25km from the FYROM border in Northern Greece which at it’s height housed over 2,000 people, there were multiple interests acting simultaneously due to the spontaneous nature of the camp’s creation. This allowed for a more equitable human-centered approach to camp formation, ultimately resulting in the formation of a community rather than a detention center.  Originally established by local police as a transit site for Idomeni, a much larger camp established as an entry point into FYROM, once the border officially closed the EKO station organically became it’s own village. Because the option of border crossing and further movement for refugees was cut off so suddenly, all initial actors (local police, refugees and the gas station proprietor) had to adjust and align for their interests to be recognized within this new reality. These ad-hoc camps that are forced to form as policies are rapidly changing and refugees get stuck in once transit locations, are more aligned with the idea of the camp as a space in which identity is actively formed, empowerment is encouraged, and resistance is practiced, as it is built from the bottom up by nature of it’s spontaneity. While the argument for the refugee camp as a paradoxical space is sensible in a more predictive context where the construction and interests present within the camp setting are more uniform. Yet due to the fluidly and unprecedented nature of how this particular humanitarian crisis is manifesting in formal and informal sites in Greece, it cannot be steadily applied.

The notion that the refugee camp and therefore the refugee, cannot be void of external political interests is not commonly agreed upon. Giorgio Agamben defines the crux of the camp as being, “the materialization of the state of exception”. Essentially, once an individual loses their civic rights, as Agamben argues refugees do, they become fit for the internment and are ultimately condemned to death. In defining this essence, the camp comes to represent the most potent expression of this state of exception. He goes on to content that as conditions of normality in the camps are consequentially suspended “ everything is possible and everything can and does happen”.

This assertion, that the refugee camp is a space of exception and functions outside of typical political and legal contexts, is more demonstrative of the disconnect between the theoretical conversations about what a camp is and the actual situation on the ground. The discussions, such as Agamben’s argument for the state of exception, seem to operate outside of any reality of what is occurring in the field. While it may be that the loss of certain constitutional rights of refugees occurs as a symptom of displacement, the refugee and refugee camp does not function completely outside of political structures. Within the context of the European refugee crisis, specifically looking at the situation in Greece and Serbia the camp setting across the board is messy and highly politicized from the individual, local, state and global level. State and non-state actors function as wardens and gatekeepers, while Non-Governmental Organizations receive funding from government entities and various foreign capital to operate within the camp setting. The refugees themselves are politicized in a myriad of ways, in this context specifically looking at the informal camp setting, refugees wield decision making powers as both community leaders and high level community liaisons to all other actors present. Ignoring the diversity of the camp experiences and the fact that not all camps are created equally, Agamben fails to convincingly demonstrate that the space of exception ought to be considered in an absolute sense. Also through his interpretation of the space of exception, the refugee is confined in a sphere of inaction. According to this description the refugee is stripped of autonomy and individuality, and ultimately becomes a victim unable to resist and respond to the complex situation engendered by the camp. This construction is limiting and unrealistic in the sense that the refugee cannot have working interests within the camp setting, as observed in various sites in Greece and Serbia the refugee are instrumental political forces in certain camp settings.

The concept of a refugee camp, while shaped by context, can only be explained on a spectrum.  On some level the “camp” can be effectively defined as a tented city supplied wholly from the outside, it can also described as both small, open settlements where refugee communities have been able to maintain a village atmosphere’ and as ‘larger, more crowded camps’ where they are ‘more dependent on assistance’. To discuss the concept of the refugee camp through a typological approach, drawing on the general character of camp spaces to highlight particular features of the space, including the politics, people, and practices that form everyday life, is a more applicable approach in the context of the European refugee crisis. Anna Schmidt, in Camp vs. Settlement, discusses the idea that there are set of parameters, present in all contexts, that ultimately inform all of the typologies recurrent in the literature and discussions of conceptualizing the “camp”. The first parameter is freedom of movement, arguing that the more movement is restricted the more a refugee settlement in generally seen to take on the character of a space of detention. The second parameter she puts forth is the mode of assistance and economics, this tenet serves to distinguish between camps based on international aid handouts and food distribution with limited opportunity for refugees to engage in independent subsistence, as opposed to situations where refugees can engage in economically empowering activities. The following parameter is the mode of government, this indicates the mechanisms of decision making within or above the refugee community. The fourth parameter is the camp’s standard designation as temporary shelter, this characteristic serves to shape perspectives and attitudes within, as well as external policy responses regarding economic and social freedoms for refugees.* Lastly, it is the indicator of population size and/or density that acts as a constant definitional component in matters of freedom of movement, planning and economics within the camp. Due to the ever-changing nature of the policies and refugee flows in Europe I would add the nature of construction as spontaneous or pre-planned as a final definitive parameter of the camp.  Based on observations in a diverse range of refugee camps on the ground in Greece and Serbia I find these indicators to be accurately representative of what shapes these spaces and hence what power dynamics thrive and are built within. Rather than serving to differentiate a camp from it’s more informal form as a “settlement”, it is these parameters which define the internal hierarchy of interests at play and allow for varied levels of politicking to preserve and promote these interests.

Written by: Alex Wynn