Posted by: hobbesonafob | November 7, 2009

Another Paradigm Shattered – The Politics of Refugee Camps

Another week of grad school completed and another outlook has been changed. For those whose knowledge on refugee camps exceed mine, this post will be banal. For those who never really thought about refugee camps, this posting may spur further interest.

I finished reading Sarah Kenyon Lischer‘s 2003 article in International Security “Collateral Damage: Humanitarian Assistance as a Cause of Conflict,” and came to the conclusion that my conceptualization of refugee camps was incredibly inaccurate. Apparently, I have always ascribed refugee camps with the following characteristics: static and powerless. Instead, I should have attributed the following attributes to refugee camps: dynamic and powerful.

Dr. Lischer’s article reveals to the reader how refugee camps can become political arenas. The the nature of these dynamics are attributed to what kind of refugees are in the camp and how the host state (the state the refugees went/fled to) interacts with the refugees. Lischer divided refugees into 3 categories:

  1. Situational Refugees: Their reasons for leaving their home state are apolitical (i.e. they were not targeted for political reasons). Reason include war, chaos, deprivation, and natural disasters. These refugees usually have very loose initial political organization, which, in turn, means that they have a low propensity to use humanitarian aid for war.
  2. Persecuted Refugees: This type of refugee has left their home state because of persecution by another group. Their initial political organization is weak, although it may grow. Their propensity to use humanitarian aid for war is higher than the situational refugees.
  3. State-in-exile Refugees: These refugees usually experience defeat in civil war, will only return to their home state if they become the new government or win a military victory, and their initial political organization is usually strong. Their propensity to use humanitarian aid for war is likely.

After reading Lischer’s article, my perception of refugee camps changed and I now see refugee camps as potential political arenas. The more politically organized groups may use refugee camps to provide for its supporters, as a pool to recruit members from, or even as a venue for conducting organized crime.

An example of political groups utilizing refugee camps occurred during the Rwanda crisis in 1994. Lischer writes of aid workers that were unaware of the genocide and saw some of the Hutus who engaged in genocidal actions as the victims because the Hutus were able to wage a successful propaganda campaign. According to one American engineer who was in Goma, Zaire:

“I went to Goma and worked there for three solid months. But it was only later, when I finally went to Rwanda on a break, that I found out about the genocide, and realized, ‘Hey, I’ve been busting my butt for a bunch of ax murderers!”

I think, for me, that politics can occur in any situation that requires the organization and utilization of resources. Those who can best acquire these resources, whether it be humanitarian aid or weapons, have the ability to become politically relevant. It seems that refugee camps now fit this description.




Aid in refugee camps can be used to support organizations engaged in political violence


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