As the name for one who flees (fugere) from danger to a space of protection, the term refugee names a specific position in space and time: a past emergency leads to a dislocated present under the threat of harm, propelling one’s flight to find refuge toward a future elsewhere. Its shadow is not only the term migrant but also fugitive, one who flees from the law, a reminder that persons move and are moved between regimes of legality and illegality.1 Under the names of asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, refugees registered or under United Nations mandate, and “persons in refugee-like situations,” more than sixty-five million live forcibly displaced around a globe criss-crossed by trip wire, check point, border wall, plastic tent, paper, vessel, plane, footpath, cell phone signal, truck, and treaty.2
These names for displacement have their own complex histories and trajectories as they develop and change among state, international, and nongovernmental actors. They are categories for managing migration that prompt, enable, hamper, and criminalize it. These categories are made meaningful through spatial practices of border and immigration control that shape the temporality of refugee displacement. Refugee movement may be timely and untimely; urgent and belated; compressed and extended into long moments of movement and stasis, of continuity and discontinuity. Refugee seekers might haunt the places they seek; waiting, processed, interdicted, resettled, “voluntarily returned,” or eventually deported, they might be haunted by the futures of the places they do not come to inhabit. If refuge is granted through resettlement as “the gift of freedom,” the time of gratitude must be endured indefinitely, always falling short of repayment to the state.3 If the refuge shows itself to be a site of violence, that violence is endured or resisted with yet another search. Even if refuge is granted and the experience of seeking refuge is relocated to the remembered past, refugee time often persists under the cover of, or erasure under, other names (“immigrant,” “economic migrant,” “illegal alien,” “success story,” “naturalized citizen”). A seeker of refuge might find a future in a host country or in his or her originating country; might change legal status while staying in place; might easily abandon the affective status of abjection or gratitude or exceptionality; might hold onto the temporal disruption of trauma indefinitely; and so on. Refugees, whether authorized or unauthorized, are made to improvise forms of life within systems that respond to them as disordered, unruly, devalued subjects.4
At sea, multiple temporalities get embodied, compressed, and organized into the space of a ship or a raft. Each vessel may hold a multitude of wartimes, memories, histories that overlap and elongate into an indefinite serial catastrophe. The vessels may be navigated but at any moment find themselves adrift, a vulnerable form of [End Page 511] movement for refugees and migrants but a powerful option for the political borders of states and international entities. On land, the temporalities of border control, interdiction, and deportation organize the penal architecture of prisons and detention centers—even if the United States would seek to legally call some of those detention centers “daycares” for Central American minors, or sites for holding economic migrants rather than refugees, or enemy combatants rather than tortured captives.
In the humanitarian architecture of formal refugee camps, UN guidelines on how to build an emergency temporary camp can organize the space that multiple generations of a family may inhabit. Built into the architecture of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya was the expectation that they would be used by a small number of Somali refugees for a few months: time has since expanded into a quarter century, by three generations born, and the space has compressed those generations ever more densely until a new section of camp is established. The Kenyan state has pointed to this mismatch of time and space to say the camp has outlived its intended temporariness; the camp’s inhabitants point to the most recent threats of imminent closure to ask where will Dadaab refugees find refuge from Dadaab. Meanwhile, people have improvised an informal borderlands, animating a zone of formal and informal economic practices.
And so, what promises in...