By India-Mae Osborne

India-Mae Osborne looks at the harrowing and dehumanising experiences of migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers in the displaced persons camp system.

When war erupted between Russia and Georgia in 2008, an estimated 150,000 refugees fled, many finding themselves stranded in tents with little to no prospects of returning home.

In Karaleti, a space created for donor funded humanitarian projects to provide services to and govern Georgian refugees and internally displaced persons (IDP’s), people were treated as “a population to be managed.” In her work No Path Home: Humanitarian Camps and the Grief of Displacement, Elizabeth Cullen Dunn describes her harrowing experience following a small group of displaced peoples in Karaleti over the span of 8 years. She describes Karaleti as a “recycling centre: a place to transform the inert matter of a victim population, make it useful again, and send it back to the “normal” population.” Refugees and IDP’s are therefore presented as nothing other than helpless victims.

Referencing what Joel Robbins identifies as the “suffering slot,” Dunn understands humanitarianism as stripping away the complex histories and politics that cause displaced peoples to flee, instead constituting them as what Liisa H. Malkki describes as “ahistorical, universal subjects.” We therefore fail to see refugees through their own biographies and values but rather as pathetic victims; as innocent, helpless and suffering.

Similarly, Giorgio Agamben terms this the “bare life” paradigm, in which camp residents are essentially destroyed by the camp environment, losing the ability to exist in anything more than a pure animal life. Malkki adds that this paradigm means that “refugees stop being specific persons and become pure victims in general: universal man, universal woman, universal child, and taken together, universal family.” Even worse; they often fail to be treated as people at all, but rather, in the words of Dunn, “as a mass, an incoming threat of natural disaster proportions.”

Such descriptions of refugees are, unfortunately, not difficult to find. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, referred to migrants and refugees as an incoming “swarm.”

This perceived loss of personhood and a sense of identity amongst refugees and IDP’s is not simply a result of the fog of war and displacement. Rather, according to Dunn, the practice of humanitarianism itself prevents refugees from attempting to create a “normal situation”, as they are “constantly thwarted by the geopolitics, state building goals, and bureaucratic practises of humanitarian aid.”

The crossroads appear to be that between adequately supporting refugees and IDP’s, whilst simultaneously creating an environment that facilitates the flourishing of their personhood, identities and biographies. Failure to do so may prevent society from understanding the complex realities that force refugees and IDP’s to flee their homes in the first place, and from creating policy that adequately caters to the needs of displaced peoples.

India-May Osborne is a postgraduate student in politics and international relations at the University of Auckland. 

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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