The Invention of Refugee Camps. History of a Humanitarian Technology (1961-2015)


Globalization is often associated with places like Wall Street, the City of London or Frankfurt airport. It is thought to happen first in Western metropolises before expanding elsewhere. This project marks a clear break with that line of thought. It analyses a still underexplored region, Central Africa, which has served as the laboratory for a global technique of humanitarian operations, the refugee camp. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), one fourth of the worldwide 51.2 million forcibly displaced persons live in camps. In countries as far apart as Azerbaijan, Jordan, Thailand, or Zimbabwe, aid beneficiaries are administered through similar techniques of refugee screening, emergency triage and relief distribution. In those otherwise vastly different settings, similar NGOs and UN-agencies deliver standardized food rations, tents, jerry-cans, plastic sheets and blankets.

This project explores the genesis of this technique of aid in Central Africa, from the creation of UNHCR (1951) to the current operations following the Central African crisis (2014/2015). Africa holds a specific place in the global history of humanitarianism. It is, in fact, “the continent of refugee camps” (Agier 2008). Since independence, virtually all countries of mainland Africa have experienced refugee camps: The first African intervention of UNHCR was in the Central African region, in Kivu, ten years after the creation of this UN-institution. One of the current major locations for refugee camps is the border region of the Central African Republic. Between these two dates, there has not been a single year that has not seen the construction, maintenance or closure of refugee camps in the Central African region.

Applying methodological tools from history and anthropology, the study draws on the recently opened archives of UNHCR (Geneva) as well as on field observations in refugee camps of eastern Cameroon. The invention of refugee camps explores the work of UNHCR-experts (engineers, physicians, logisticians, urban planners and architects) as well as the reactions of aid beneficiaries. This project thus sheds new light on the genesis of the global refugee regime.

Research Area

- Geneva (UNHCR Headquarter)

- Cameroon, Region East (boder region Cameroon/ Central African Republic)