On the Margins of the World
The Refugee Experience Today
Michel Agier
Polity, $49.95,152 pp.

Michel Agier, director of research at the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), recognizes that for most readers, “alarm calls” about the needs of the marginalized result only in mental and emotional paralysis. In this slender anthropological study, he seeks to reduce the distance between his readers and the world of refugees, making that world comprehensible, not simply pitiable or repellent.

Agier writes thoughtfully and passionately about the plight of his subjects, though fairly dense academic language pervades even his most accessible passages. The book is strongest in its mid-section, “The Desert, The Camp, The City,” where it analyzes the peculiar modern limbo of the refugee camp. The aid agencies who manage refugee camps try to operate by universal humanitarian principles that transcend politics. Agier shows how in practice these universal principles can become a lowest common denominator, creating a space whose inhabitants are stripped of political significance and seen solely in terms of their needs—a world of victims, not of citizens, “in which conversation and freedom are disturbing and troublesome.” This quarantined, disempowering environment is justified by a fiction of provisionality. In reality, many camps are provisional only for the expatriate workers who are stationed there for six months or a year; the residents remain for decades.

The result can be a...

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About the Author

Joel Hafvenstein is a development worker in Afghanistan and author of Opium Season: A Year on the Afghan Frontier (The Lyons Press).