just stay put and keep quiet

Originally written as a response to Joseph Heathcott’s article Dustbowl Designs, in Onsite 26: Dirt. Just like On Hunting, it was first published here at The Wastebooks, before being republished in Onsite 27: Rural Urbanism [5 May 2012].


In hindsight, the permanent state of the camps had always been impermanence; they were momentary and ephemeral, much like the dust that drove people westwards in the first place.

-- Joseph Heathcott.           


From Roman military encampments to contemporary refugee settlements in South Sudan, all camps share the same passion for order. Notice I don’t mention the inhabitants; it’s the camps that want the clean lines and right angles that push us – strangers huddled together – into community.

I remember going to camp as a child. We would set up our tent (well, my parents would set it up), glance with suspicion at our neighbors (the same brand of tent, yes, but where were they from?), and wonder at a world that brings together hundreds of strangers, assembled in a field, in identical tents.

My suspicion soon faded amidst the camp activities – making banners, sing-alongs around the campfire, treasure hunts in the forest – and the intense forms of belonging that invariably accompany the founding of a new community, no matter how temporary. I felt the same sentiment that infuses every bad film about American summer camp: time at camp was a suspension of the everyday world, a magic moment to be held up, bright against a dreary existence. The stronger and more coercive the rules and activities governing the camp, the closer I felt to the people around me. Community here was not based on a shared sense of life – lived histories entangled together – but on a contingent coming together in a field, a contingency that was occluded by the intensity of our need to belong together, and mark this strange place as our own. People held up by banners.

If anyone expressed doubt about the magical time we were sharing (rain, cold, tents, mud), they would only have to remember that we were in it together, and that those unlucky souls not fated to go to camp were irrevocably sundered from us. All camps are based on exclusion.

Impossible to imagine then that I would spend so much of my life in camps, around camps, thinking about camps. Even more impossible: to realize – at seven years old, in 1989 – that in twenty-years time there would be six million people in UNHCR camps; that considered globally, there would be twelve million people in a thousand refugee camps, and that the temporary arrangements of the camp have become a permanent fate for millions.


Camps exist in the space between things; they are the orderly spaces that hold together the chaos caused by people passing through worlds. During initiation, the youth of the Nuer, a Nilotic people resident in what is now Southern Sudan, used to be secluded away from society – the passage from boy to man was a dangerous time of uncertainty, to be spent in camps, away from parents and family. In Purity and Exile, Liisa Malkki’s study of Burundian refugees at a Tanzanian camp, she sketches out a world in which the Hutu who fled Burundi were treated like children without history by the UNHCR; neither Tanzanian nor Burundian, the refugees remained outside of national categories, and in so being, threatened them. The UNHCR attempted to create an ideology of the camp, replete with UNHCR banners and parade-ground marches. 


I can remember the day I went back to camp. 2 March 2011. Militias were attacking army positions just ten kilometers north of where I was staying, and the bodies were piling up in a tent outside my door. That night, I needed a drink, and the only place one could get alcohol was in the United Nations camp. On my way there, I passed thousands of people fleeing south. Once inside, surrounded by containers arranged in a grid system, I sat, incredulous, as five UN employees – seemingly oblivious as to what was occurring just outside – exchanged jokes about “Polish sausage” and planned nights out at the “Brazilian Bar.” During the earlier attacks in January, one particularly flippant nurse told me that she had not known anything until she received a call from her mother in New Zealand, who was concerned by what was happening, “and so”, she said, “I turned on the television, and watched with my mum.”

The UN camp in Abyei – a contested area between Sudan and South Sudan – was heavily walled, with watchtowers manned by Zambian peacekeepers every two hundred meters or so. Inside, rigid lines of containers were aligned along concrete paths. UN employees would jog along the camp’s perimeter in the early evening, when the dry-season heat became bearable. There was volleyball and barbeques; I don’t think I would have been surprised if the UN announced they were to have treasure hunts in the forest, if it were not for the fact that their staff almost never left the base.

With its mixture of nationalities, I sometimes think it is a miracle that the UN functions at all (to the extremely limited extent that it does, indeed, function). Part of its ability to create an identity for itself, like all camp civilizations, relies on its separation from the world outside. Unlike at summer camp, however, the outside world is precisely where the UN is attempting to intervene.

The UN in Abyei felt very much like a summer camp, and had a correlative lack of success in the outside world: people had flings, drank expensive wine, and never sat with the local people. Divorced from the world outside, as if on a reality-TV show, the intrepid contestants of UN-World found themselves united: all the talk there was not of Sudanese politics, but of who had slept with whom.

Camps create particular types of ties. Their freneticism anticipates and acknowledges their temporary nature. You can recreate yourself at camp, because you know it is virtually cost-free: summer comes to an end (or your lucrative UN contract finishes), and you are back home, amidst the solid weight of lived identities.

Camp is wonderful only in comparison to home; a life lived forever at camp is a life of forced infantilism.


[Photograph by Arthur Rothstein. January 1942. Families of migratory workers in front of their row shelters, FSA ... labor camp, Robstown, Tex. Color Slide. See a larger version of this image here.]

Accompanying Heathcott’s article, there is a photograph of children at a Farm Security Administration (FSA) camp in Robstown, Texas. They look suspicious – chastened – and the photograph leaves ambiguous whether they are shrinking from the bright light that pins them to the front wall of the bungalow, or the photographer. The photograph itself is suspicious. Identical houses run in rigid rows alongside perfectly mowed lawns. Whilst the refugee camps I have visited do not have the same levels of material comfort evinced by the photograph of Robstown, they share a family resemblance. The architects of all such camps try and ensure that they are composed of neat lines and right angles. They are so orderly that, just as when one wanders around American suburbia, the mind always turns to the chaos that must haunt the minds of the architects, justifying such stultifying order, and that – without such order – would spill out, and turn it all to dust.

UN workers talking to the civilians they are supposed to protect. Chaos. Children wandering off into the woods at summer camp. Chaos. Refugees heading for the city, and the prospect of employment. Chaos.


The passion for order in the camp is not simply intended to forge a new identity among its inhabitants; it is to make sure you do not go outside the camp. From summer camps to UN camps, those who go outside are treated with suspicion. Heathcott relates that part of the reason the FSA built camps for those displaced by drought was that they viewed self-built squatter camps with alarm, as an “ungovernable landscape full of moral and physical danger.”

This is the story of every refugee camps and internally displaced peoples’ (IDP) camp since 1947. The refugee is to remain in camp: don’t work, don’t move – just accept the help we are going to give you.

Just stay put and keep quiet.

Barbara Harrell-Bond, amongst others, has tirelessly shown how disabling it is to simply receive in this fashion. Dadaab, in north-east Kenya, is the largest refugee camp in the world (though it is actually three camps). It shot into the news recently, as its population almost doubled in a year, rising to 510,000 by October 2011. The UNHCR said there is no more room in the camps, and the media filed endless stories about impoverishment and famine. What was less reported is that refugees are not eligible for humanitarian assistance is they elect to stay outside of the camps. The camps make refugees visible – something that sends donor money to the UNHCR via the aforementioned media reports – and means they can be controlled. Dadaab has now existed for twenty years. In return for food handouts, refugees are prevented from building their own lives. Camps, which, in UNHCR-speak, should be an option of “last resort”, have created a permanent state of impermanence for millions around the world.


Before arriving in an unknown country, I ensure there is a hotel room waiting for me. In the confusion of a new place, white walls and clean sheets calm me. Later, I tell myself, there will be strange tents and street markets. For now, I will safely sink into anonymous oblivion. Camps, for both refugees and the internally displaced, are existentially akin to never leaving the hotel room.


The permanent state of the FSA camps, Heathcott writes, was impermanence – “they were momentary and ephemeral, much like the dust that drove people westward in the first place.”  Today, this impermanence has gathered around it institutions, funding, and millions of people, who want to begin lives outside of the order of the camp.

The camp is not a place of politics. You are not able to work, to form communities. Life is given to you. And you wait. Wait for ration cards. Wait for food. Wait for the camp to end, and life to begin again. You wait.