Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government

Book Review

Reviewer: Wendy Booth

Publisher: Polity Press ISBN: 9780745649023
Available at: Amazon
Author's page: Michel Agier (author), David Fernbach (translator)

Managing the Undesirables: Refugee Camps and Humanitarian Government

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According to a 2012 report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), ‘an average of 3000 people per day became refugees in 2012, five times more than in 2010.’ The number of refugees, worldwide, now stands at approximately 15.4 million. These figures are startling. Discovering effective ways to assist refugees, whatever the humanitarian crisis, is a matter of urgency. As the author of Managing the Undesirables, Agier’s aim is to describe and create an understanding of humanitarian governance.   

Agier is an anthropologist, and his work is essentially an ethnographic account of his visits to refugee camps, mainly in central and western Africa, during the period 2000 until 2007. It provides an account of people’s lives in the camps, including a number of interviews, and the difficulties faced by the stateless, particularly in regard to the power exerted over their lives by the UNHCR and the NGOs which provide humanitarian assistance. Agier states that his main aim is to open up further paths for ethnographic inquiry ‘in one of these new imagined spaces which a few decades ago no one would have imagined could figure among the legitimate terrains of anthropology’ (p.134). His affiliation with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) enabled Agiers to access to the camps and closely examine the situation of the refugees located within their territory.

The work tackles the complexities associated with displaced persons and provides a raw account of the issues faced on the ground. It is particularly useful, from an anthropological perspective, including with regard to human rights. Problems that arise from the absence of recognition and lack of citizenship also make the book useful to those interested in the politics of identity and recognition. The book provides a straightforward account that brings the central problems to the fore in an easily understandable manner, with a focus on the day to day problems faced, such as the apathy that results from being dependent on humanitarian aid, with Agiers describing refugee camps as ‘waiting rooms’ (p. 72); a state that the majority of refugees find themselves in sometimes for months but more often for years.

The power that humanitarian organisations wield over displaced persons is clearly described, from the labelling that occurs on entering the camps, ‘a hierarchy of misfortune’ (p. 213), to decisions about who exactly should receive plastic sheeting, and the distribution of food packages. This information meets the objectives that Algiers set out to achieve at the start and provides interesting reading and a thorough insight. However, it does, at times, seem overly descriptive, as well as short on solutions and more in-depth theoretical arguments.

It is inevitable that the provision of aid and what form this should take will be contested and face criticism. One of the most poignant points that Agiers makes is regarding the politics within the camps, and perhaps more importantly outside the camps, by the UNHCR and NGOs, with the camps described as places of ‘extra territoriality’ (p. 71) and ‘(z)ones of exceptional rights and power, where everything seems possible for those in control’ (p. 82). There is a striking contrast between the public perception of humanitarian aid and the impunity which organisations have, for example with regard to the forced return of displaced persons now urbanised after war and sometimes decades away from their homeland, yet expected to go back to their original lives as farmers (p. 120). 

The book is essential in the context of the current debate on refugees. Perhaps the most worrying factor flagged up is ‘the impunity of those in charge’ (p. 155), and the way that privatisation is entering the field of humanitarism. Moreover, the post 9/11 era ‘strangely resembles science fiction, but permits the effective global application of an imperial police force, with humanitarianism as its left hand’ (p. 206). These issues are mentioned in the latter half of the book, and result in a desire for further elaboration. While Algiers describes instances where refugees themselves have carried out protests or elected leaders from among themselves as representatives within the camp, it is ultimately these powerful exterior forces which will determine the future of refugee camps and the status of displaced persons; as Agiers coins it ‘managing the undesirable’ and controlling the fate of those who ‘are viewed, simultaneously or alternatively, as vulnerable and undesirable, victims and dangerous’ (p. 201). Managing the Undesirables provides a good starting point for these issues, which is the main objective of Agiers, yet the issues at play need to be delved into more deeply, for example the idea of integrating displaced persons into existing towns and cities, which is usually more cost effective; or indeed, deciding what to do when long term refugee camps evolve into townships—a point made in the book. In addition, further ethnographic research is required, as his research terminated in 2007 and is largely centered on Africa. In sum, the book is a highly commendable ethnographic account that is easy to follow and provides a significant contribution to the current crises of the humanitarian movement.  

 

2019 - Volume 13 Issue 3