20.4.2020 | Von:
Bram J. Jansen

Cities in the Making: Contours of the Urbanizing Refugee Camp

Refugee camps are designed as temporary shelters, yet, in practice, they exist for long periods of time in the course of which urbanization processes set in that may present an opportunity for their inhabitants and environments.

Urbanization processes in Refugee Camps

Refugee camps are designed as temporary spaces for refugee reception and protection. In practice, however, they exist for increasingly long durations – particularly in the Global South – and come to accommodate diverse populations and undergo the expansion of the humanitarian administration and infrastructure in the camps. Therefore, they have been compared to cities or cities in the making, with its administration as a form of government rather than humanitarian aid.[1] This analogy with urbanity denotes processes of settlement and organization in contexts that are intended as temporary mechanisms for separation from host societies (as integration is not the aim of camp policies), yet where life does not come to a standstill. The notion of urbanization is a metaphor for the longevity and normalization of exceptional conditions. On a more practical level, however, it denotes processes of social organization; the development of camp economies as well as infrastructure and public services lead to a sense of normalcy, or adaptation, albeit in a particular humanitarian context.[2] Applying the lens of urbanity to camps embraces the transition of initially temporary sites into something much more vivid, social, aesthetic and permanent. In this article the contours of refugee camp urbanization are laid out based on various camp studies that emerged in the past few years.

Urbanity – Attempt at a Definition

The designation of the camp as a city is ambiguous because the idea of urbanity is ambiguous in itself. Urbanization, or rather the urban, is notoriously difficult to define, yet points at particular processes that characterize diversity and concentration as key elements in understanding the socio-spatial contours of the city.[3] Urbanization can be seen as the increasing diversification and concentration of people, practices and facilities in a dense spatial setting.[4] The city is a point of concentration, where people develop diverse and multiple social roles, engage in different livelihoods, and where they are exposed to a variety of public services and resources, in a non-agricultural context. It is characterized by processes of (ex)change as a result of this coming together of people, resources, and facilities. Education, healthcare, economic life, the meeting of different classes, cultures, languages and practices makes that people come into contact and are influenced by each other.

Traces of Urbanity in Refugee Camps

The camp as a temporary emergency measure over time becomes a site where the above mentioned notions of urbanity materialize as the outcome of evolving humanitarian care and as a more organic and bottom up process of refugees living their everyday lives. As a result camps transcend from emergency measures into much more ambiguous spaces, in terms of economic life, norms and control. This development can be referred to as humanitarian urbanism. Humanitarian urbanism denotes how people make sense of and navigate their lives in a humanitarian setting that has become routine, and that presents both constraints and opportunities.[5] The urbanizing refugee camp presents a novel perspective that necessitates a critical understanding of the particular conditions shaped by an elaborate humanitarian governance and the space, or spaces, it produces.[6]

Camps as accidental cities

Camps exist between the temporary and the permanent,[7] but as they become protracted, they become sites of everyday existence and part of routines in humanitarian landscapes. This is characterized by constant mobility, as refugees and aid workers move in and out of camps, back home or forward to capital cities of other continents. This makes these places hinge between mobility and settlement. They are shaped by uncertainty, fluidity and precariousness as a condition, but in which new social forms and practices emerge and impact on people in different ways. For some, the camp is a jumping board for onward travel, for others it becomes a long-term residence in which education, healthcare and (informal) employment are available, albeit in general shantytown-like conditions. Uncertainty, fluidity and precariousness is not unfamiliar in the shanties, rather, it is what characterizes these, yet it is also where people make and live life. The image of the camp refugee as an urban dweller rather than (merely) a dependent humanitarian subject makes for another type of possible intervention, for instance by planning for durable infrastructure and more development-oriented public services, that move away from the immediate emergency response.

Below the main characteristics of refugee camp urbanization are highlighted.

The camp as a cluster of facilities and services

Many refugee camps are located in marginal, remote locations, intentionally or by circumstance, i.e., near border crossings where refugees enter countries of asylum, or away from the main inhabited areas as a function of separation. Yet, once becoming subject to humanitarian care or human creativity, different services, facilities, and infrastructure, and the activities and processes that are generated by these, are concentrated in camps. For example, healthcare and hospitals, schools and vocational training centers, communication and transport facilities, sports and entertainment, food and markets, social protection and empowerment programs and so on, can be understood as public services which may even exceed the local equivalent in their host regions. In addition, people that come to inhabit this space bring with them skills, ideas and activities that render the technical camp into a social space. This makes that opportunities arise, especially for those areas that are underdeveloped or for people that come from underdeveloped regions. [8] This coming together of lifestyles, resources and knowledge stimulates new forms of entrepreneurship and (informal) employment, education, healthcare, but also religious influence and cultural exchange.

The camp as a site of social change

People that become subject to a variety of public services, care, education, and so on, especially when from particular isolated or conservative backgrounds, may become exposed to new and different aspects and ideas of life. Active empowerment programming by humanitarian agencies, coupled with education and rights and entitlements that are advocated and mainstreamed into the organization of the camp, allows for a variation and confrontation of/with cultural norms and regulations. For instance, child rights, women rights and minority rights, among broader human rights programming, make that people are exposed to alternative worldviews and practices. More generally, people of different backgrounds, ages, ethnicities and classes come into contact with each other, aid staff and visitors. New generations are born in protracted camp settings that experience the camp as their home ground, and come to relate to this multiplicity of social forms, norms, and practices, and inhabit these. From various urbanized camps in the world come examples how youth that opted for repatriation would not settle for their home villages, but instead opt for cities, as they were urbanized in exile.

The camp as economy

Almost immediately after camps open, people will start to engage in trade, barter and entrepreneurship. Depending on people’s backgrounds, innovative and creative ways of dealing with camp life are found to supplement official aid handouts and other services. Built on this, processes of social stratification set in and redefine relations in the camp, and between refugees and the camp governors, local authorities or NGOs and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Constitutive of this economic process is aid as a basic resource. Housing, food, and jobs provided as part of the humanitarian program are all used in various ways to sustain livelihoods and for barter. For example, food vouchers or rations are sold and the money is used to purchase goods that are not provided by humanitarian organizations, such as meat, fresh vegetables and cigarettes; shelters are rented out as hired houses or used for business space; bicycles donated for work with one of the agencies can be rented out for use as taxis, and more generally, all kinds of materials are re-used and sold. The informal ways in which people engage in supply, banking, travel, and communication render the economic side of refugee camps more important. Even though in most instances formal employment or trade is illegal, the informal character of the camp economy allows for just this, and is simultaneously dependent on it.

Recent quantitative analyses show how camp economies in presumably isolated areas become regionally embedded over time, to such an extent that they, rather than a burden – as often taken for granted – are beneficial for more regional economies. They can contribute to development of the non-refugee population and region, and are projected as having this potential, as urban centers generally do in terms of the above characteristics.[9] For instance, camp economies and infrastructure provide opportunities for trade and employment beyond the camp’s boundaries, and processes of social change as a result of education and social interaction spill-over to affect host populations. More recently, camps are posited as sites for investment, or literally, as a marketplace. [10] This is exemplary for the embracing of the erstwhile deemed temporary emergency site as something more permanent and normalized. An indicator for this development are private actors that enter the stage to engage in co-regulating the energy and water provision in camps, and infrastructure such as waste management, street lighting and transport.[11]

The camp as hybrid governed place

The camp as a humanitarian governed setting retains a particular humanitarian character for the time being – until a political decision to uncamp is made –, but this becomes more hybrid over time as organically developed processes become routine or even legal. This is the urbanization of the camp in a more political sense. The camp inhabitants' resistance and disobedience with regard to norms and standards established by the entities running the camp lead to the adaptation of camp policies and routines. These negotiation processes alternate between both restraint and initiative, enabling and limiting factors, control and self-reliance.

The material make-up of camps is subject to its mobility. Tents or containers are the ultimate symbol of this as they indicate that – by political decree – the camp can be disbanded in no-time. This make-up, however, is subject to human agency: many camps in the world show how people arrange ways to circumnavigate or resist official camp policies. In camps such as Zaatari in Jordan, Kakuma and Dadaab in Kenya, BidiBidi in Uganda and Domiz in Iraq, among others, people transform their allocated shelters into lived spaces: they plant trees, beautify, make sites more agreeable to their own liking, usability, norms or desires. [12] With this habitation, which encompasses the camp economy, new social norms or revitalized older ones, niches of authority emerge that co-shape and co-govern the camp in a practical everyday sense. How these processes interrelate, evolve and effect the social and spatial environment gives shape to the idea of the camp as an urban environment. Rather than perceiving of camp dwellers as passive recipients of aid, or people undermining well-intended humanitarian care and control, refugee camp urbanization shows that refugees are involved in the governing of the camp in many ways, and can be addressed as such.

The camp as a nodal point

Lastly, as camps are sites of mobility (although they are meant to immobilize human movements), people move in and out of them as part of more elaborate migration trajectories that link camps to other cities, homelands or destinations, in networks of relatives, clans and ethnic affiliation. Camps become nodal points in these trajectories and part of social webs that impact livelihoods, socio-political dynamics and power processes, and how these evolve over time. Remittances from kin that went for third country resettlement elsewhere in the world, or that moved on to somewhere in the region, impact on the livelihoods of those remaining in the camp and may foster more durable trans-local relations which are enabled and facilitated by the internet and mobile phones. This may position camps as sites of transit or opportunity more strongly, and lead to alternative sources of livelihoods, investments and coping strategies for people that find camps as temporary stopping points on their way to other destinations or until a durable solution (repatriation, resettlement, local integration) is found. More symbolically, the longer people live in camps that they inhabit, alter and shape, the more these come to carry the personal histories and experiences of people that grew up, or indeed, died and were buried there. For these reasons, people that moved out of the camp, or relatives of camp inhabitants, visit, relate and aid these sites from abroad.

Refugee camp urbanization and humanitarian urbanism as the new normal?

After the 2015 refugee crisis, as a result of renewed interest in, and urgency for regional solutions to refugee crises, attention has shifted to protracted urbanizing refugee camps as solutions in itself, hereby shaping alternative ways of existence in countries bordering crisis areas.[13] As a result, the urban characteristic of camps has been embraced by donors and aid agencies as a way to frame and plan regional reception.

These outlooks come with new ideas about developing these sites, and making them viable for self-reliance and regional integration by embracing the aim of improving relations between refugees and hosts, i.e. by sharing resources, services, facilities, and land. Thus camps would shift from temporary humanitarian sites to increasingly durable settings that benefit the local economy and population. Certain forms of development in terms of for-profit enterprise, permanent and durable building and design, legal entitlements, external interference by non- humanitarian actors such as the private sector or municipalities are the result of the more organic and accidental urbanization of long-term refugee camps. It shows the inevitability of the camp as a site where humans settle, some for long, some for a little while before they move on, their place to be filled by others, and in which an increasingly elaborate humanitarian governance adapts accordingly.


See for instance: Herz, Manuel (2012), From Camp to City: Refugee Camps of the Western Sahara (Basel: Lars Muller Publishers); Rawlence, Ben (2016), City of Thorns. Nine Lives in the World's Largest Refugee Camp (London: Portobello Books); Montclos, Marc-Antoine Perouse de and Kagwanja, Peter (2000), ‘Refugee Camps or Cities? The Socio-Economic Dynamics of the Dadaab and Kakuma Camps in Northern Kenya’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 13 (2), 205-22.
Holzer, Elizabeth (2014), ‘Humanitarian Crisis as Everyday Life’, Sociological Forum, 29 (4), 851-72; Oka, Rahul (2011), ‘Unlikely Cities in the Desert: the Informal Economy as Causal Agent for Permanent “Urban” Sustainability in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya’, Urban Anthropology, 40 (3-4), 223-62.
See for instance: Massey, Doreen (2005), For Space (London: Sage Publications Ltd.); Mbembe, Achille and Nuttall, Sarah (2004), ‘Writing the World From an African Metropolis’, Public Culture, 16 (3), 347-72.
Hannerz, Ulf (1980), Exploring the City: Inquiries Toward an Urban Anthropology (New York: Columbia University Press); Massey, Doreen (2005), For Space (London: Sage Publications Ltd.).
Jansen, Bram J. (2018), Kakuma refugee camp. Humanitarian urbanism in Kenya’s accidental city (London, Zed Books).
See for a broad collection of examples, Un Monde de Camps, edited by Michel Agier (2014).
Hailey, Charlie (2009), Camps. A Guide to 21st-Century Space (Cambridge: The MIT Press).
See for instance, Dalal, Ayham (2015), ‘A Socio-Economic Perspective on the Urbanisation of Zaatari Camp in Jordan’, Migration Letters, 12 (3), 263-78; Fresia, Marion and Von Känel, Andreas (2015), ‘Beyond Space of Exception? Reflections in the Camp Through the Prism of Refugee Schools’, Journal of refugee studies, 29 (2), 250-72; Newhouse, Léonie S. (2015), ‘More Than Mere Survival: Violence, Humanitarian Governance, and Practical Material Politics in a Kenyan Refugee Camp’, Environment and Planning A , 47 (11), 292-307.
See for instance, Vemeru, Varalakshmi et al. (2016), ‘Refugee Impacts on Turkana Hosts’ (Washington: World Bank i.a.). http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/359161482490953624/pdf/111309-REVISED-PUBLIC-Turkana-Social-Impact-Analysis-December-2016.pdf (accessed: 6-4-2020).
See for instance: The World Bank (2018): In Kenya, Refugees are Opening up Frontiers: The Pull of Investing in Underserved Areas. 27 September. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2018/09/27/in-kenya-refugees-are-opening-up-frontiers-the-pull-of-investing-in-underserved-areas (accessed: 10-12-2019).
See for instance, Rouse, Jonathan (2019), Private-Sector Energy Provision in Displacement Settings, Moving Energy Initiative, Learning Brief, March: https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/default/files/2019-03-29-PrivateSectorEnergy.pdf (accessed: 6-4-2020) and EDP Project in Kakuma: https://www.edp.com/en/stories/edp-project-kakuma (accessed: 6-4-2020).
See for instance, Strochlic, Nina and Lorek, Nora (2019), In Uganda, a unique urban experiment is under way. National Geographic, April. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2019/04/how-bidibidi-uganda-refugee-camp-became-city/ (accessed: 10-12-2019); Jansen, Bram J. (2016), The Protracted Refugee Camp and the Consolidation of a 'Humanitarian Urbanism', International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. https://www.ijurr.org/spotlight-on/the-urban-refugee-crisis-reflections-on-cities-citizenship-and-the-displaced/the-protracted-refugee-camp-and-the-consolidation-of-a-humanitarian-urbanism/(accessed: 10-12-2019); Refugee Republic: https://refugeerepublic.submarinechannel.com/ (accessed: 10-12-2019).
See for instance, Betts, Alexander and Collier, Paul (2017), Refuge. Transforming a broken refugee system (London, Allen Lane); or more broadly, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) initiatives in a variety of countries such as Uganda, Kenya, Jordan and other places.
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