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 humanitarian dystopia, a “transit zone” whose inhabitants never reach any destination. Agier provides illustrations from Kenya’s Dadaab camps, established in 1992 and still housing more than 160,000 people, most of them Somalis. True to his intent, he does not show its residents simply as victims of their stifling environment, but movingly describes the ways they challenge its limitations. Over time, they turn their featureless camps into “attempted towns” with a degree of social, economic, and even political vibrancy. In a world designed to be provisional, however, few of their attempts have the space to develop, and inactivity is the stultifying norm.

That ugly situation, Agier suggests, results not from the initial humanitarian emergency (to which camps may be the only logistically possible response), but from subsequent lack of political will to integrate the refugees into society. He calls on his readers to “resist by all means possible the establishment on a global scale of a regime of...interminable delay, as well as other forms of quarantine in which so many millions of undesirables are confined.”

Disappointingly, Agier does not himself propose specific methods of resistance (other than “intellectual deconstruction” and various expressions of solidarity with the displaced). But he does sketch out some ways in which refugees can and do challenge their quarantine: storytelling; the creation of new ethnic and religious identities; political action; evasion of or confrontation with the law. It is ultimately a saddening list, highlighting the difference of power between displaced people and the implacable structures that push them to the margins. The book’s examples generally culminate in refugees finding a voice or some restoration of identity—“an arrival in the field of politics”—but the refugees rarely achieve much once they’ve arrived. Agier touches only briefly on examples such as the Taliban, one of the more politically potent movements to emerge from a refugee camp. He thus evades the uncomfortable task of analyzing the role of violence in restoring influence and power to a thoroughly marginalized population.

Finally, though, one questions whether refugee camps are really symptomatic of what Agier calls “planetary segregation”: on one side the poor and powerless, on the other the prosperous, paranoid gated community. Every society has its pariahs, and the “extreme modernity” Agier criticizes is no exception. But the fact that we moderns require such an enormous humanitarian machinery to relieve the weight on our consciences caused by refugees from the obscurest bits of five continents suggests that “the common space that constitutes the world” may not be disappearing quite as fast as Agier fears. The globalization of conscience is outpacing the countervailing forces that disengage people from each other. It is harder than ever to ignore the marginalized, despite the current contradictions in our humanitarian response to them. It is easier than ever to hear their stories and to close the gap of comprehension between our world and theirs.

Published in the 2009-05-22 issue: 

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

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