Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism

Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism

Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism

Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism


Media images of people whose lives are destroyed by international and civil conflicts have long engaged our imaginations and emotions. But what happens to these refugees after displacement, and who takes on the responsibility of reconstructing shattered lives? Since the end of the Cold War, patterns of refugee management have changed dramatically, as states look to avoid the legal obligations and costs of asylum. Working for humanitarian agencies in Kenya and Somalia, Jennifer Hyndman determined that in spite of their best efforts, too often the camps in which these agencies operate can offer only a short-term palliative. In Managing Displacement, Hyndman uses unique insider knowledge both to challenge the political and cultural assumptions of current humanitarian practices and to expose the distancing strategies that characterize present operations.

Managing Displacement looks specifically at the powerful organizations that serve refugees -- particularly the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Hyndman provides a close reading of humanitarianism on the ground as she examines the policies and practices of the organization at various levels. She offers constructive criticism of organizations like UNHCR, discerning patterns of "ordering disorder" and "disciplining displacement" in their responses to emergencies.


Forced to move from their homes to another country, refugees embody a visceral human geography of dislocation. The involuntary migration of bodies across space, however, is neither passive nor apolitical. In the 1990s, humanitarian discourse positions migrants in particular ways, while cultural politics are negotiated by a range of subjects unequally linked within the vast network of the international humanitarian regime. Humanitarianism is the site at which the projects of development and relief are being contested and recast in light of new geopolitical landscapes and neoliberal economies that transgress the boundaries of states.

This book was spawned by three forays into humanitarianism. In Kenya, I worked for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Walda refugee camp during a period when its population was growing exponentially because of fighting in the Sidamo region of Ethiopia. In Somalia, I was employed by a UN agency as a field officer in Bardera, a town in the southern part of the country not far from the Kenyan-Somalian border. Finally, I returned to Kenya as a researcher based primarily at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suboffice for three refugee camps on the other side of this same border. I began mapping the organization of humanitarian aid, interviewing its recipients and providers, and interrogating its practices.

Each of these experiences moved me to query the practices of . . .

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