The border region between Chad and Sudan is formed by an inhospitable climate and breathtakingly beautiful nature. It is an area marked by a colonial boundary where the French colonial outreach in Africa once met its rival British counterpart, an extremely sparsely populated part of the African continent that has nevertheless become one of the most contested places on earth. Hundreds of thousands of people are on the move between both countries, escaping oppression and murder, only to meet persecution and devastation. Conditions of flight and displacement also result in the construction of new settlements: refugee camps. Camps like Kalma, near Nyala in Sudan with its well over 100,000 inhabitants, or Farchana and Breidjing, both with a population of approximately 20.000, are larger than most Chadian or Darfurian cities. How are these camps planned and what is the role of architecture/urban planning in the context of this conflict? We will see that the camps in this region expose many of the contradictions and dilemmas of architecture in the field of ‘humanitarian action’.
Right: plan of Amboko Camp, southern Chad.
Even though approximately 67 million people worldwide are currently considered refugees or internally displaced people(1) , and even though there are currently almost a thousand refugee camps in more than forty countries, there is only one single chapter in a single book that describes planning strategies for refugee camps. And even though the setting within which these camps develop could not be more political or conflictual, the engagement with the theme is almost exclusively on a technical level. It largely ignores the social and political consequences that planning decisions have in this critical context.
Right: showing Hadjer Hadid and the way that the local population in the village has adopted a ‘camp’ style construction method. Photo: Manuel Herz.
Refugee camps are usually planned by architects and planners of UNHCR. The standard model for a refugee camp is described in the “UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies.” Based on the belief that human rights and human needs are universal and identical all over the world, the fundamental planning approach for camps is characterized by (perceived) neutrality. After discussing criteria for site selection that take issues such as accessibility, climate and health risks into consideration, the handbook introduces the planning of the physical organization of the refugee camp through the tool of the ‘masterplan.’(2) The standardized plan for such a refugee camp starts with the tent and the refugee family as the smallest basic unit. It then goes on to describe a ‘modular planning’ approach with the ‘camp community’ consisting of 16 tents, camp blocks (16 communities), camp sectors (4 blocks) and finally the complete camp (4 sectors), which in its “ideal” case houses 20.000 refugees.(3) These different parts of the camp are organized hierarchically, and are equipped with specific services, that are indicative of a planning approach based on hygiene and order: latrines, feeding centers, distribution points, health centers and referral hospital. Every camp cluster has a specific number of latrines and refuse drums, every camp block a central place with water taps and every camp sector has a school. The units of the camp are most often designed as orthogonal areas, creating a hierarchical matrix of spaces from the smallest unit of the tent, to the camp as a whole. Smaller paths and non-motorized lanes separate communities and blocks, while roads for motorized traffic access the larger camp sectors.
Left: Plan of one zone of Amboko Camp, southern Chad.
Overall, an image emerges from this agglomeration that, in its belief in structured organization, low density, and clear separation of functions and uses, suggests an idealized city reminiscent of early modernist urban planning of the 1920s. It is marked by a notion of modernist optimism and trust in order and hygiene. The concept of hygiene shapes the refugee camp on a direct level, as much attention is given in the planning and management of the camp in terms of health conditions, sanitation, transmittable diseases, and vector control. But hygiene also marks the design of a camp on an indirect or symbolic level. Different ethnic groups are often housed in separate camp blocks. Block and sector representatives of the refugees are divided along religious and tribal lines. More importantly maybe, refugees are kept at a spatial distance from humanitarian workers and their bases of operation, often located at the perimeter of the camp. Even though humanitarian workers aim at providing protection and support for the refugees, the distinction between expatriate humanitarian workers, ‘inpatriate’ humanitarian workers, locals and finally refugees, runs deep through every organizational aspect and the daily lives in the refugee camps. This differentiation also structures the physical space and the location of habitation between these groups. As much as humanitarian action aims at providing aid to the refugees, they are also perceived as a potential source of danger. Therefore the actual physical spaces where humanitarian aid is provided in the camps, such as medical centers, are located at a distance from the refugees, to make for an easy escape, in case the refugees should start an unrest. (4) The organization of the refugee camp strives towards reducing the mixing of different refugee groups and towards homogeneity of the different camp units. The refugee camp moves towards a place of segregation.
This modernistic planning approach, inscribed in ideas of hygiene, order, and hierarchy finds its application all over the world. Whether the humanitarian disaster is taking place in the dry landscape between Chad and Sudan, within the tropical jungle of Eastern Congo or the highlands between Iran and Afghanistan, the same eighteen pages of the “Handbook for Emergencies” describing an idealized city are projected. Once applied to the specificities of local situations, the disjunctions and incompatibilities of the neutral planning approach become apparent. In the context of violence and catastrophes it is exactly its neutrality that makes this planning approach susceptible to exploitation and politicization.
Refugee camps are planned and conceived as being disconnected from, and outside of, spaces of exchange or interaction. They are envisaged as perfect enclaves, representing a sort of utopian island within a context of dystopian conditions par excellence. In Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben develops the concept of the camp as a pure spatial rendering of the state of exception.(5) While pointing out the multiplication of these spaces that, according to him, have come to represent the norm, he insists on their legal and spatial isolation. Refugee camps are presented as spaces where old rules no longer apply: “The camp is a piece of land placed outside the normal juridical order, […]”(6) They are places that seem to have no outside with which to interact.
In this argument, Agamben only reifies the logic of UNHCR, the organization that he is so critical of, and their neutral planning approach. Neither Agamben’s critique nor UNHCR’s practices address existing local specificities and local resistances. In seeing the camp as an island of refuge, a dystopian and multiplying space for the one, and a quasi-utopian space where salvation comes through technicalities for the other, neither acknowledge that camps are fully embedded in a level of exchange on both a local and regional scale. To disregard this fact carries grievous consequences.
Passing the entrance guarded by the military police unit of CNAR (Commission Nationale d’Accueil et de Reinsertion des Refugies), the Chadian national commission for hosting refugees, one approaches the first cluster of NGO compounds, on the western edge of the camp. The camp is organized by a main road, a wide and dusty thoroughfare, connecting the western cluster of NGO compounds to its counterpart sitting on the eastern edge of the camp. The refugees are housed in camp clusters, blocks and sectors that develop on either side of the main thoroughfare. 20,000 refugees live there in tents located within small compounds.
Right: Overview of Camp Gaga. Photo: Manuel Herz.
This refugee camp, as one amongst many other possible examples, establishes an infrastructure in an area marked by a very low level of development and public services, and a general desolation of the local population. Schools are constructed, medical centers are set up, filtered and purified water is provided from faucets, food provisions are handed out and community workers educate the refugee population in various crafts. Outside of the camps, none of these services are provided. Chad has to a large extent withdrawn from providing services like a certain degree of medical facilities. On a statistical level, live expectancies are higher in the refugee camp than in the rural areas wherein camp Gaga is located. Provisions of food are generally stable and have an acceptable quality, and the level of physical safety is often higher, due to the presence of security forces, humanitarian agents, and the international media. This difference in level of service creates dynamics such as artificial refugees, i.e. a local Chadian population aiming to enter the camps, trying to find security and support, which they are not able to procure in their own villages or rural communities. The presence of humanitarian actors, arriving with their, by now infamous, white Toyota Landcruisers and annual budgets equivalent to the local GDPs of whole regions, are fundamentally transforming the towns where they are operating from. Hadjer Hadid, a little town with a population of previously approximately 1000 inhabitants, located close to the camps Farchana and Breidjing in eastern Chad, witnessed the arrival of UNHCR, MSF, Oxfam, PU, GTZ, CORD and IFRC amongst other organizations in the wake of the Darfur conflict. In the last four years these organizations, each with a team of sometimes up to twenty people, have set up their own compounds with sleeping quarters, logistics spaces and storage facilities in the village. They are offering jobs to the local population, impacting on local markets and its food culture, and are attracting people to move to Hadjer Hadid from further a field, in the hope of participating in the ‘humanitarian bubble.’ The local population adopts a humanitarian ‘building style’ by adding leftover UNHCR tents to their typical clay huts or adopting plastic sheeting as cover material instead of their traditional thatched roofs, and are able to participate, at least to a limited extent, in some of the services offered by the humanitarian organizations. Thus, on the level of space, economy and culture, the boundary between the camp and its context becomes blurred through a complex system of exchange and reciprocal mimicry.
While the refugee camps are maybe turning into ‘development engines’ for a local region, the state can further withdraw from essential tasks because of the presence of humanitarian actors. Due to their large impact on local culture and economy, and the diminishing necessity of providing public services, the location where those refugee camps are sited obtains a strategic quality: They often fit perfectly within the agendas and interests of local Chadian governors or politicians, who negotiate with UNHCR upon their precise location and size. When looking at the network of relationships that camps find themselves in, it becomes apparent that, maybe contrary to a common notion, everyone benefits from their existence. Apart from the obvious beneficiary of the refugees, to whom they might represent a life saving sanctuary of last resort, the local Chadian population just as the local politicians, UNHCR, the NGOs and other humanitarian organizations, often even the armies and rebel groups, and last but not least, the international media and the western world, all take their share of profit from the camps, and thereby working towards perpetuating the camp. It becomes the permanentization of a space of temporality.
(1) UNHCR: Global Trends 2007: Refugees, Asylum-seeker, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons; 2008, Geneva, p 2; The statistics list 16 Mio refugees, 26 Mio conflict generated IDPs and 25 Mio natural disaster generated IDPs.
(2) UNHCR: Handbook for Emergencies, Third Edition, 2007, Geneva, p 215
(3) UNHCR, p 216
(4) Based on interviews and observations made by the author during several field trips as well as on maps and planning documents of refugee camps. On a similar issue refer to: Jennifer Hyndman “Managing Displacement – Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism”, Minneapolis, 2000
(5) Agamben, Giorgio: Homo Sacer, Stanford, 1998, see here especially part 3 – the camp as a biopolitical paradigm of the modern.
(6) Agamben: p 169
Manuel Herz is an architect based in Basel. He is engaged in a research project on planning strategies of refugee camps