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Refugee Cities: Under the sheltering sky

What happens when temporary structures become inadvertantly permanent? Manuel Herz’s new book addresses this situation occuring in North African refugee camps

Manuel Herz’s magnificent From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara is the result of an extensive study of the six refugee camps of the Western Sahara in south-west Algeria. The Western Sahara is one of the few occupied, non-self-governing countries in the world. Traditionally, it was an area populated by Sahrawi, a nomadic people related to Berber culture. It was colonised by Spain in the 19th century and, after deposits of phosphates were discovered in the mid 20th century, exploitation and urbanisation began.

In 1975, Spain started to withdraw from the colony, only to be replaced by force by Morocco, which still occupies the territory. The Sahrawi were forced to flee into south-west Algeria and settled by UNHCR in camps near the town of Tindouf. The central thesis of the book is that these refugee camps, if viewed from the lives of their inhabitants, are proto-cities. ‘One aim of this research is to shift the vocabulary used in the framework of refugee camps from one which revolves around technicalities towards one that understands these settlements as environments having some, or many, urban qualities.’

Herz pushes against the three predominant conceptions of refugee camps: that they are humanitarian spaces in which lives are saved, or spaces of control where refugees’ lives can be administered and supervised by other institutions, or places of destitution and misery (usually at the same time). While these might be true, they are formed from an outside, mostly Western, perspective. They are not about how refugees understand their own environment or live in it. Using the tools and vocabulary of an urbanist, Herz moves beyond these paradigms of humanitarianism, control and misery to understand the camps as proto-urban spaces of responsibility and freedom.

During the winter and spring of 2011, he and his team of staff and students from the ETH Studio Basel set out to understand and document how the refugee camps of the Western Sahara were used and shaped by refugees themselves. The research was driven by urban questions: how do people live in the camps? What kind of work do they do? What kind of recreational activities do they pursue? How do they move about? How are the camps produced by the agency of those who live in them? They found neighbourhoods, markets, local styles, culture and the materialisation of difference.

The camps served as ‘urban transformers’ for their residents, enabling them to make the shift from nomadic, tribal traditions to quasi-urban ones. They were motors of urbanisation, preparing the refugees for urban lives after the camps. In them, the Sahrawi developed institutions that could be transferred to their own country once the conflict was over. From the lens of their inhabitants, the camps were quasi cities, expressions of urbanity, ready to be taken elsewhere at any moment.

Camp El Aaiún

A barber shop in Camp El Aaiún – does the establishment of familiar businesses, housed in solid structures, transform the camp into a permanent city?

The book is filled with extraordinary crisp, clear maps and photographs that convey this urban condition. They are divided into topics: planning and living, commerce, work, health, education, moving, recreation, leisure and administration. A very real sense of a sparse, fragile, urbanity, inserted between the vastness of the desert sand and the vastness of the desert sky, emerges. This is preceded by a photographic and narrative history of refugees and refugee camps more generally, and the governance of refugees by the League of Nations’ Commission for Refugees from 1921 and the United Nations UNHCR from 1950.

Herz is careful to point out that his study, instead of going from the general to the specific, works from the specific to the general. By paying careful attention to the particular, an alternative reading emerged within the dominant discourse on camps. This goes a long way, I think, to moving us from seeing refugee camps through the lens of Giorgio Agamben’s ‘camp’ to seeing them through the lens of Foucault’s ‘heterotopia’, as taken up by Kevin Hetherington in The Badlands of Modernity: Heterotopia and Social Ordering (1997): ‘Heterotopia [are] spaces of alternate ordering. Heterotopia organise a bit of the social world in a way different to that that surrounds them. That alternate ordering marks them out as other and allows them to be seen as an example of an alternate way of doing things.’

Heterotopia are not outside society, but sites of social experimentation and transformation. Hetherington locates them within a broader Modernist project wherein alternative modes of control and modes of freedom are imagined and implemented. Instead of functioning as states of exception, they are cutting edge arenas where ‘modernity’s control-freedom dialectic is played out’ (to quote Philip Steinberg’s The Social Construction of the Ocean of 2001).

In refugee camps, this dialectic lies in the tension between the spaces of control designed, laid out and administered by international aid agencies (‘other’ spaces) and the practices of everyday life of their residents (‘regular’ spaces). Through this, a distinct heterotopia, an alternative ordering of space emerges. It is unstable and can be abandoned at any moment should conditions change. Part of this construction is a utopian ideal that may be seized upon by actors wishing to make it a site of social emancipation. In the Western Saharan camps, this heterotopic project has been put to use by residents to transform their tribal-based traditions into a quasi-urban, emancipated society. Herz describes them as ‘proto-cities’ in which the Sahrawi state is ‘prefigured’.

From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara, Manuel Herz, Lars Müller, ETH Studio Basel, £45

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