Prayer for the Refugee

Our reading for today described the nature and structure of refugee camps. It gave insight into what daily life is like for a refugee living at these locations. I thought it made great points about how we view these camps as ethnographic museums, as well as how we separate our “privileged” world from their “bruised” world. This holds plenty of implications for our approach when we advocate for refugees and other genocide victims.

Refugee camps are designed to ensure the protection and survival of displaced persons during a time of war, persecution, or natural disaster in the refugee’s homeland. Most of the camps are created by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and vary in size and location. In some rare instances, the camps house refugees within their own country through the direction of government or different non-government organizations (NGOs). The point of these “humanitarian spaces” is to shelter and shield refugees from the political and military pressures of warring groups or countries.

In theory, refugee camps are beneficial and provide a common good for the people they service. But at the same time, they can endure problems and make life worse for refugees. The responsibility of refugee camps are unstable and dependent on resolving the conflicts that force refugees to flee their home country. The camps can suffer internal problems by exiled ethnic or religious powers as refugees become targets of violence instead of seekers of peace. Under these circumstances, the camps become “humanitarian sanctuaries” and innocent victims become targets of violence and destruction.

The UNHCR has sought out different ways to ensure the protection of the civilian population during war by creating three specific zones for refugees in the camps. First, the “zones of safety” aim to protect the most fragile participants, most notably children, elderly, pregnant women and sick people. “Neutralized zones” are broader spaces that are defined within the region where the entire population, to the extent that it is not involved in any conflict, is to be protected. Finally, “undefended localities” are voluntarily disarmed and supposedly immune from any attacks. All of these zones of humanitarian emergency are only legitimized if they can keep their inhabitants at a distance from war, politics, and violence.

Refugee camps are an arrangement for policing, feeding and giving health care to populations that are offered refuge in order to shelter them from violent death that arises from war or hunger. The camps represent the best emergency response to a troublesome situation, making it possible to group people effectively, ensure protection and a minimal level of care for exiles that arrive in poor condition. Officials at Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya claim that they give refugees “security, food and health” or a minimal life under transfusion.

This “life under transfusion” provides refugees with just enough rations to survive on a daily basis. They are supplied by the UN’s World Food Programme and are distributed every two weeks by Care, a Canadian NGO. In Dadaab, Women line up one at a time in front of the distribution centers with UNHCR ration cards that indicate the number of portions they are entitled to receive. They maintain a diet of 1,900 calories per day. Each camp has three medical posts, a field hospital, and a mobile care team to treat any patients that are sick or injured. Security is provided by the country’s police, under the supervision of UNHCR.

One can imagine the struggle and daily grind for the people living in these camps. Diseases like Malaria and Tuberculosis are prevalent and can spread throughout the population. Although malnutrition is monitored and only 9-10% of the population has this issue, the rate can rise very rapidly when the supply of food aid is interrupted because of bad weather or other complications. Local problems such as rape, theft, and even murder can occur within the camp. These difficulties lead to the conviction that the population is artificially kept alive by this international “transfusion,” and that any small dysfunction could immediately compromise its success or reduce it to failure. It creates a certain culture of aid, consumed of dependence and begging, that rapidly permeates through the camp life. It leaves one to wonder what happens to the population after their home conflicts are resolved and they return back to their previous lives.

If the conflicts are not resolved, social and economic conditions worsen in the country of origin and exiles remain in refuge. When the precise duration of time spent in the camps is unknown, refugees begin to shift from lives of emergency to lives of permanence. Members of the UN and relief organizations assert that they cannot view things from a long-term perspective, though they witness and realize that many of situations become perpetual. The continuation of war prevents the refugees from returning home, and they begin to “settle” in the camps and become dependent on the aid they receive.

Humanitarian intervention often has a tendency to become frozen at the sites of implantation. We often hear about the events before and after the refuge, but the present duration is unthinkable and often unspoken. According to the reading, “To speak of time spent in the camps is a disturbing subject: durable life is not supposed to exist in a space outside of place, a moment outside of time, and identity without community, and in this respect it is upsetting and unnameable.” During this time, refugees are alive in a biological sense, but they no longer “exist” in a social or political manner. An individual’s nationality, ethnicity, religion, and social identity is put into brackets for as long as they are confined to living a “bare life.”

This “bare life” is one that is indefinite and separated from its context and has become incompatible with the human world. The camp makes the empty space around these lives that are placed under the dependence of global humanitarianism because of violence, war and exodus. It ensures the power of international organizations over the lives of the individuals that are grouped in the camps. In emergency situations all that matters is the victims, and victims have no social or political affiliation according to a humanitarian way of thinking. The reality becomes ambiguous and unfulfilled, for the camps are neither completely closed or open, and refugees and neither completely dead or alive.

In a sense, refugee camps get lost in time and become ethnographic museums to the outside world. Refugees are grouped according to their place of departure, ethnic group, or original clan. They begin to construct replicas of their old homes and revert back to their old ways of living. Gradually, they form an image of an ethnographic museum that exhibits different features that are grouped together outside of their original context. They create a world of improvisation, developing a new context for this ethnographic exhibit that appears to be frozen in time. Attempted towns transform the space on which the camps are built and gradually become places where a social and economic life is reinvented.

Those who have observed the refugee camps notice the formation of a sort of town, not just by size, but also by the forms of life that seek new expression. There is plenty of potential but nothing ever develops and no promises of life are really fulfilled. The camps remain “bare towns” like the indigenous quarters of colonial towns that history has frozen in time. The displaced people and refugees experience a new type of reality: one that is lasting and separate non-development. In other words, a situation of temporary emergency and relief transforms into one of perpetual dependence and suffering.

It’s almost as if the refugee camps are concealed from the outside world and only exist to those that are confined within them. The camps are “gated identities” that contain ethnic, racial, and national identities that have been bruised by war, massacre and flight. This “bruised world” is completely shut off and separate from a “privileged world,” one where inhabitants are similar in ethnicity and social status while protecting themselves from the outside. Both worlds are nearly identical in their composition and in the sense that they are compatible to only thinking about themselves, to the point of self-obsession and fear of physical contact.

Refugee camps are outside the place and time of the ordinary and predictable world. They survive in the margins where they are kept apart from society and just kept alive so that it does not require elaborate thought and consideration. In the privileged world, private cities, protected condominiums and gated communities are examples of refugee camps in the sense that they are shut off from society and rarely thought of or spoken about.

As we proceed to advocate for refugees, we must familiarize ourselves with their daily struggle and the habitats in which they live. It is important for us to understand that although humanitarian aid can be beneficial for refugees, it should not be the end solution to the initial problems that cause displaced persons. We can provide refugees with the temporary relief from war and violence, giving them better living conditions than if they stayed in their home country. But this cannot be a permanent destination for them, because life is still tough in the camps and the struggle is still real. If we view this circumstance from a privileged-Western perspective, we would conclude that this not a life of promise or one that should endure for long. No one living in a privileged world would accept the conditions of a “bare life.” It seems as if our society turns a blind eye to refugee camps, believing in an illusion of a peaceful village where everyone is happy and gets along. We would rather remain in our “privileged world” oblivious to the atrocities occurring in the refugee’s “bruised world.” We view their world as a ethnographic museum while failing to recognize that their tumultuous condition still persists. As advocates, we must educate the public and our fellow neighbors about the issue, enlightening them and opening their eyes to the real problem. The way we can help refugees reclaim the life they lost is to aid in resolving the conflicts of war, politics, or persecution in their home country that caused them to leave.

-Ben

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