The camp beyond the city: Kakuma and the development of a camp ecology

by Bram J. Jansen

Kakuma refugee camp in Northern Kenya is emblematic for the debate about the ambiguous phenomenon of the protracted refugee camp. This can be depicted as both an emergency measure with its perils and plight on the one hand, and its longevity, development and normalisation on the other. With its origin in 1992, located in the arid lands of northern Kenya, the camp is a quintessential example of the protracted refugee camp that becomes a solution in itself.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

The small genre of research and media attention that has emerged on Kakuma indicates that the nature and future of these camp-cities, rather than temporary and exceptional, have become a norm as lived experience under humanitarian camp governance, as an assemblage of state, UN, NGO and refugee management and influence, for a period of time that may be stretched indefinitely. I have written a book, which will be published in June 2018, in which I approach this lived experience as a form of humanitarian urbanism. The camp has taken on an urban-like form, as a result of what Massey in her book For Space (2005) refers to as a ‘throwntogetherness’, in a dense, non-agricultural, informal settlement, that is characterized by the meeting of both curtailing and enabling forces, and human agency.

Transformations of Kakuma Camp: from hardship to ‘normalcy’ and opportunity?

Kakuma is emblematic in a variety of ways. It illustrates a chronology of camp development, and ideas of refugee care and its contestations, and experiments with new forms of camp governance. But it also allowed us to reflect more conceptually on what these places come to represent and what they develop into as time passes. Reading up on Kakuma, one moves from accounts centred around violence, hardship, and marginalisation, to a more ambiguous state of newness and alternative inclusion and sociability. The camp is iconic for the history and images of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Somali Bantu resettlements, and the tragedy of the resurgence of war in what became South Sudan in 2011, and the enduring fragility and insecurity in Somalia and DR Congo.

Simultaneously it moved from a quintessentially violent and abusive place, to an emergent social form as something much more in between and ambiguous, now almost permanent but with an enduring sense of uncertainty, as I have elaborated in a recent article. The camp, at the time of this writing, is larger than ever with a population of over 170,000 in 2017, and arguably growing.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

A variety of studies over the years indicate how people make sense of life in and around Kakuma camp and how for instance economic life and education create a sense of ‘normalcy’ in the everyday experience of camp inhabitants. This indicates the ambiguous position of the camp as a temporary humanitarian measure, yet also a site that has developed over time into something more resembling a shantytown, or indeed an urban centre in the desert with a distinct shape of education and healthcare service, aesthetics, and politics.

In addition, over time the camp has become a stepping-stone for many to end up in the US, or other western countries, either via resettlement or onward migration by other means. The camp then also represents a site where refugees meet migration opportunities, creating the possibility for so-called ‘mixed migration’. This also indicates that it is not so much people’s displacement that becomes protracted, but rather the camp itself.

The humanitarian urbanism of camps

The camp, more than a protective measure, represents an assemblage of ideas, practices and opportunities, of people that may be indicated as poor, dispossessed and warehoused, but who nonetheless live their lives in this particular landscape or manage to find their way onwards. Humanitarian urbanism denotes this assemblage. The camp is viable, and its normalisation is simultaneously a terrifying and a salving thought. It represents a form of global governance for populations on the move, but caught in the middle until a way out presents itself.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

It is also emblematic for a humanitarian governance in which international humanitarian concern produces and maintains a particular space for life, that may prove to be legitimate not by intention but rather by practice. This is because a camp that was never intended to remain this long, somehow turned out to be a reasonable yet highly particular settlement, in which forms of self-regulation and subsistence co-exist and interrelate with routine humanitarian governance. Whether this form of humanitarian governance is durable is an entirely different matter, with the most pressing question being from whose perspective we approach this – humanitarians, refugees, and Kenyans all have different expectations, interpretations, and experiences with the camp as a social environment.

While the normalisation of the camp may be shocking, it appears that such camps have become common features of global politics, not least because of the effects of the youth bulge in Sub-Sahara Africa, and an anticipated sharp rise in climate-induced migration in the years to come.

The camp as experiment slowly comes to terms with the existence of a category of people whose lives are shaped by mobility and uncertainty that has become routine and permanent

The camp is also an experiment, with new forms of humanitarian action, refugee management and technology, and private sector involvement. The camp as experiment slowly comes to terms with the existence of a category of people whose lives are shaped by mobility and uncertainty that has become routine and permanent, in what Agier refers to as ‘banal cosmopolitanism’. Reluctantly, the informal economy and the way this sustains the camp, also as an effects of the communication revolution with its remittances and global social networks, shows the inevitability of the place.

Camp ecology beyond the camp: blurring boundaries with the host community

Already in the late 1990s reports suggested that refugees were better protected and serviced, or included in some semblance of governance, than the ‘local’ Turkana populations. Fifteen years later, an increasingly convincing empirical body of evidence supports the idea that the camp is beneficial for local lives and for the economy of Kenyans beyond the camp. These benefits have led to the recognition of the camp developing its surroundings, and, in combination with its long duration, inspired a new hybrid settlement approach next to the small Kalobeyei settlement some 30 km to the north. The term ‘hybrid’ indicates that the camp seeks to uplift the lives of both local and refugee populations in terms of infrastructure, care and, arguably, governmental control.

Photo by Bram J. Jansen

This then indicates a new area of interest in discussing the idea of how humanitarianism as a governmentality spills over into the official outside of the camp, or rather, how the camp ecology expands and spills over into non-camp space. Much research has focussed on the social and legal contours of the camp phenomenon, a bit less on the socio-spatial, or material dynamics. Camps such as Kakuma show how UNHCR, NGOs and emerging social entities from the camp ecology come to co-govern people outside of its initial mandate by expanding the camp both in a symbolic and physical sense, and both in intended and unintended ways.

This view on the camp beyond the city may show us something about the future of camps and humanitarian governance

The limits, shape, and resistance to this expansion/intrusion is unclear, and spatial approaches to understanding refugee camps are just emerging. Martin studied the blurring of the camp with its outer environs in Lebanon, and argues that the spatial organisation of the camp should be seen more as a ‘campscape’ rather than a demarcated camp in isolation. The socio-economic landscape of camps such as Kakuma flow over and blend with the regions in which they are located. Its routine humanitarian presence and the forms of governance this produces come to impact on space and people beyond the strict boundaries of the camp, and will presumably increasingly diversify its areas of attention from human centred needs such as education, social change and healthcare, towards broader ecological concerns such as the environment and cultural and nature conservation. This view on the camp beyond the city may show us something about the future of camps and humanitarian governance.

About the author

Bram J. Jansen is a lecturer of Disaster Studies at the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he teaches and writes on humanitarian and forced migration issues. He conducted ethnographic fieldwork in East and the Horn of Africa, mostly in Kenya and South Sudan. His thematic interests include aidnography, protracted refugee camps, humanitarian governance.

Links to recent publications

The humanitarian protectorate of South Sudan? Understanding insecurity for humanitarians in a political economy of aid. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 55(3), 349-370, 2017.

The refugee camp as Warscape: violent cosmologies, “rebelization,” and humanitarian governance in Kakuma, Kenya. Humanity 7(3): 429-441, 2016.

Risky relations? Aid, security and access for recovery in South Sudan. In: Dorothea Hilhorst, Bart Weijs, Gemma van der Haar (Eds.) People, Aid and Institutions in Socio-economic Recovery. Facing Fragilities. London, Routledge: 173-190, 2016.

’Digging Aid’: the camp as an option in East and the Horn of Africa. Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2, 1 June 2016, Pages 149–165, 2016.

Short pieces

The protracted refugee camp and the consolidation of a ‘humanitarian urbanism, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 2017.

2 responses to “The camp beyond the city: Kakuma and the development of a camp ecology”

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