Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

How Refuge Creates Informality: Shelter Politics in Refugee Camps in Beirut

Academic journal article Jerusalem Quarterly

How Refuge Creates Informality: Shelter Politics in Refugee Camps in Beirut

Article excerpt

This paper looks at how humanitarian policies of protection encourage the development of informality in refugee camps, particularly informal housing. I look at four urban camps in and around Beirut: Mar Elias, Burj al-Barajneh, Shatila, and Dbayeh. Through interviews with the early inhabitants of these places, I attempt to piece together a history of building shelter among the refugees. I argue for the application of the concept of "informality" to the study of refugee settlements by showing how political and economic conditions that humanitarian protection produces compel refugees to engage in informal practices much like the urban poor. These informal practices also become crucial to refugee identity and for surviving, as well as for negotiating forms of governmentality in ways that are both similar to and different from the urban poor.

It has been argued that urban informality is the generalized mode of metropolitan urbanization particularly in the developing world.1 The question of "informals" and informality has become a pressing issue for urban theorists and activists as "the current era of global restructuring has greatly increased the number of such people, and it has led to an explosion in the range of their activities."2 The term informality has many definitions and is therefore rather messy. Over the years a number of scholars have attempted to provide definitions for it. Informality is largely associated that which is outside of regulations.3 The informal sector, particularly as it relates to the economy was originally defined as comprising economic activities that escaped state regulation,4 and has historically been associated with petty commerce, low income, family-owned enterprises, and precarious employment in Third World cities. But informality extends beyond the economy to encompass a number of different issues including land and housing. Today, scholars argue that informality refers to forms of governance that create different spatial values especially in urban areas. Ananya Roy argues that informality, encompassing both the informal economy and informal housing, has been on the urban agenda for decades and arguably has made a comeback as an "'organizing logic,' a system of norms that governs the process of urban transformation itself."5 Rather than seeing it as the opposite of formality, it is argued that informality "is not a separate sector but rather a series of transactions that connect different economies and spaces to one another."6 Informality and formality are not opposites of each other, but are co-constitutive. The state has the capacity to suspend formal norms, and the power to determine when to enact the suspension, to determine what is informal and what is not and to determine what forms of informality will thrive and what will not.7 As we enter an urban century,8 urbanization affects not only citizens and economic migrants, but forced migrants as well. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has already discussed an increasing trend in urban refugees and such a process requires a robust discussion not just of humanitarian assistance but also of the shape of urbanization itself. I argue that informality does not just take place on the rural/urban interface of cities in the developing world, but also at the interface of the state and non-state, at the site of the camp itself, particularly in conditions of protracted refugee situations (as in the case of Palestinian refugees), where there is a complex and ongoing negotiation between the needs of refugees and the geopolitics of donors and nation states.

To discuss my argument in greater detail, I look at the early development of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon as a pattern of informal housing.

Squatting, Urbanization, and Palestinian Camps

Informal housing has been the main form of shelter for the urban poor in the Global South for many decades. Many researchers working on Latin America, Africa, and Asia have discussed and debated the causes, implications, values, and costs of informal housing. …

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