- On Humanitarian Architecture: A Story of a Border
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Many contemporary refugee camps are located in undeveloped border areas of host countries. States providing asylum are often unwilling to integrate refugees into the economy or social structure and maintain these outposts as parallel systems, often relying upon international aid to maintain them. The grounds that they inhabit often represent edge conditions, between competing entities and interests. The well-trod idea that they represent forms of extraterritoriality, while perhaps useful in theory, can be misleading in reality. While certain refugee contexts must be understood precisely as fracturing the integrity of the nation-state, either as sites that pose forms of refusal or that exist in a permanent state of emergency, others present quite different conditions, producing precarity in enclosed settings where multiple nations and multilateral agencies may convene and assert a muscular, asymmetrical power.
In such landscapes, architecture and territory perform work beyond the iconographic. Let us think with the example of Dadaab, Kenya, a transitional settlement complex frequently cited in the popular press as well as in humanitarian gray literature as “the world’s largest refugee camp.”1 The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established this operation near the Somali border in 1991 to host thirty [End Page 519] thousand refugees; in 2017, approximately one half million reside in settlements around Dadaab, representing a population density in Kenya succeeding only Nairobi and Mombasa. Though anchored in space through hard infrastructures and substantial architectures, the site was absent from ordinary maps for much of its existence: most often seen by outsiders through representations of the pastoral, in the mobile architectures of temporary dwellings such as those depicted in the frontispiece image for this essay.
These mobile architectures labor differently than expected. To illustrate: imagine, with difficulty, that this is an image of a city, and that these are its architectures. I took this photograph at the periphery of Ifo camp, the first settlement established in the Dadaab refugee complex, where financial flows have been so robust and the marketplace so complex that it has been studied as an emergent market town. In 2010, refugee-related operations reached $100 million (USD), with trade volume in all kinds of goods and services at $25 million (USD).2 In my experience, actual U.S. dollars could be exchanged in the refugee camps but not in the Kenyan town of Dadaab. While the political-spatial context of the camp obviates any claim to the urban, its formal and informal economies conflate the terms of the urban.
It is not difficult to absorb that the foreign objects in this photograph are memes of an international system. Note the corrugated aluminum-walled structure behind the people: a latrine erected as part of a Norwegian Refugee Council aid program, distributed as part of an aid package accompanied by gender-mainstreamed educational programs in the hygienic use of squat toilets. See also the lightweight family tent to the right: designed as part of a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees initiative, procured from Chinese manufacturers who fabricate recreational tents, stockpiled in Dubai, and traveling through an international supply chain to the Dadaab camp complex. For many (refugees, aid workers, officials, and journalists) who experience movement from camp to camp across a transregion, these architectures perform a synecdoche. They constitute a visual and architectural framework that recalls the diplomatic, bureaucratic, and capitalistic work of governments, institutions, and entities elsewhere: all from the edges of Ifo camp.
But herein lies the trouble: this is not an image of Ifo camp. The formal, politically bounded territory administered by the United Nations stood several meters behind me as I took this photograph. The foreign architectures pictured here were purchased or traded by asylum seekers or unregistered migrants who settled outside the camp boundary. These mobile architectures represent informal trade. Yet these are not the only mobile architectures in the photograph. The tuqul, an East African traditional dwelling, dots the perimeter and interior of the settlements. This nomadic structure, once crafted to be lifted on to the...