Academic journal article Refuge

A Refugee Camp Conundrum: Geopolitics, Liberal Democracy, and Protracted Refugee Situations

Academic journal article Refuge

A Refugee Camp Conundrum: Geopolitics, Liberal Democracy, and Protracted Refugee Situations

Article excerpt


Liberal democratic norms are embodied in refugee camps and the states that host them in a multitude of ways: through refugee law and the 'good offices' of the United Nations; in relation to international aid and the prerequisites recipient governments must meet to receive it; and in refugee education to name but a few. In the Dadaab camps of Northeast Kenya, democracy and law meet intense geopolitical pressures. The camps are situated in what was once contested territory during the period of colonial rule. In the early 1990s and again in 2011, as Somalia faced armed conflict and related famine, thousands of refugees fled to the Dadaab camps. The presence of Somali refugees in Kenya is not politically neutral or merely humanitarian. The contradictions between liberal democratic norms and the prevailing geopolitical sentiments that favour keeping refugees in camps them are explored in the context of Dadaab.


Des normes democratiques liberales sont appliquees dans les camps de refugies et les Etats qui accueillent ces camps le font de plusieurs facons: par des lois sur les refugies et les bons offices des Nations Unies, par l'aide internationale donnee aux Etats sous certaines conditions, et a travers l'education aupres des refugies, pour n'en nommer que quelques unes. Dans les camps de Dadaab, dans le nordest du Kenya, la democratie et la loi subissent des pressions geopolitiques intenses. Ces camps sont situes dans un territoire autrefois conteste pendant la periode coloniale. Au debut des annees 1990 et de nouveau en 2011, des milliers de refugies ont fui vers les camps de Dadaab, suite au conflit arme en Somalie et a la famine qui en a decoule. La presence de refugies somaliens au Kenya nest pas une situation politiquement neutre ou simplement humanitaire. Les contradictions apparaissant entre les normes democratiques liberales et les sentiments geopolitiques predominants en faveur de garder ces refugies dans les camps, font l'objet de cet article, dans le contexte des camps de Dadaab.


As a field of inquiry, 'refugee studies' is remarkably apolitical given the dramatic human displacement across borders that geopolitics generates. Conflict in and displacement from Somalia today, for example, are imbued with legacies of the Cold War, as weapons left behind by allies from the USSR and later from the US can still be found in use. The Dadaab camps of Northeast Kenya are located in what was once contested territory between Somalia and Kenya during the period of colonial rule. The refugees' presence in the region today is not politically neutral or merely humanitarian.

Herein lies the conundrum; others might call it a contradiction, or more simply geopolitics. Most of the world's states have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol that extends its temporal and geographical mandate, yet the wealthiest of these have found ways to duck many of the legal obligations outlined therein. This same Convention also outlines certain rights to education that refugees shall have. In short, liberal democratic norms and human rights might appear to ensure the provision of protection and education to refugees, but the actual aid, policies and strategies of these liberal democratic governments do not always correspond to these legal obligations and democratic norms. Instead, refugees are managed in situ, stuck in legal limbo without most of the basic human rights to mobility, work, and residence. While non-refoulement, or protection from forced return to a dangerous country of origin, remains intact, refugees in Kenyan camps live with long term uncertainty, with their mobility, employment prospects, and legal status restricted.

This short paper makes three related points that advance this argument. First, I outline how refugee camps themselves are geopolitical formations and are in no way immune or irrelevant to geopolitics, whether regional or international. …

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