Tag Archives: Joshua Paul St. Clair

IDHA 45 Lecture Brief: “‘Holes in Time and Space’: The Psychosocial Implications of the Refugee Camp”

In 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians fled from their homes in the wake of Jewish military advances and the fear of repeated attacks following the Deir Yassin massacre. Some had left the region voluntarily when faced with the prospect of life under Israeli tutelage; others had faced explicit expulsion demands by Israeli authorities and simply had no choice. The diaspora is now referred to by Palestinians as the “Nakba” (“disaster” or “catastrophe” ). It has also been given the biblically ironic—and almost sardonic—label of the “Palestinian Exodus.” And much like the flight from Egypt, the prospect of return appears at first glance null—here, both in the figurative and legal sense. The Palestinian people thus exist in a kind of political abeyance: indefinite refugees awaiting unlikely repatriation.

For many outside observers, the story ends here. It ends with the deadlock of political negotiations and the mutual assurance of mortar exchange. But the narrative is much more complex. The shockwaves of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict extend far beyond the initial quake of exodus and encroach on a space far beyond the physical landscape of the Middle East. The conflict is as much ideological as it is political.

Professor Diana Martin, Ph.D. of the University of Portsmouth maintains the Palestinian spatial reconstitution as encompassing not only geopolitical disputes between Palestinian and Israeli authorities, but also deep psychosocial violence—violence indicative of a very different kind of political subordination: the physical and ontological exclusion of a people from their society’s social and moral landscapes. And this exclusion is not some kind of historical anomaly. Tracing the footsteps of those initial Palestinian refugees takes the retrospective observer to a deeply complex—and unfortunately archetypal—moment of historical governance.

“My talk will not provide ready-made or one-size-fits-all solutions,” Martin prefaced. “I’m here to challenge the ways we think about refugees, refugee spaces, [and] citizens and people who are marginalized.”

Martin’s research into spatial exclusion lead her to the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, one of the many physical reconstitutions of the Nakba’s displaced people. At first, the refugees found an accommodating ally in the Lebanese government—such hospitality reflected the government’s belief that the stay would be only temporary. But when it became clear that the spillover from its southern neighbor would not soon recede, the Lebanese government resolved to have it dammed. The camps were thus established. “The government and the people feared refugee naturalization and resettlement in Lebanon,” explained Martin, “and this is because of the particular sectarian character of the country, which holds several religious [denominations] and where political power is based on a power-sharing formula between the different sects.” The presence of the Palestinian refugees didn’t just represent a “threat to the delicate balance of religious communities”; it represented a threat to political stability.

Refusing to naturalize the Palestinians, the Lebanese government established fifteen refugee camps and imposed stern restrictions on the inhabitants—denying them the right to work, or access to basic services such as healthcare and education, as well as limiting the right of movement—all in an attempt “to prevent the integration and guarantee the separation from the Lebanese citizens.” The camps have changed since then (the number has been slightly reduced to twelve, Martin reminded the audience), but the initial alienating intentions remain quite apparent.

This forced seclusion begs a fundamental question: What kind of space is the refugee camp? “In the case of refugee camps it is often argued that they are established as temporary structures and homes to refugees until a solution is found,” iterated Martin. The durable solutions take the form of an often entangled triad: repatriation, settlement in the country of refuge, and resettlement in a third country. “Lebanon and other Arab states, including the refugees themselves, reject these last two options,” Martin explained. The refusal of neighboring states to accommodate the refugees compounded by the hardline stance of Palestinians themselves unfortunately leaves the most improbable option on the table: Israel’s granting of the “right to return”—“which to be honest, does not seem likely to happen in the near future,” conceded the professor.

The result of such inaction is that temporary refugee camps become lifelong settlements. As Martin noted, the camps “are becoming permanent features of [the] Lebanese—but also the middle eastern—rural, and more often urban, landscape.” What kind of space is the refugee camp? The ambivalence of nations and absence of political solutions seems to challenge the initial answer of temporary relocation.

The phenomena of permanency and exclusion, believes Martin, is significant and highly revelatory. “Every camp and every situation of displacement is historically, socially, and geographically situated.” But each is not an island. And it is here—in the historical thread such camps share—where the answer to camp space may lie. Population seclusion is paradigmatic, and one that inevitably forces us to reflect on a world of another time—on a camp of another kind.

“As a geographer, I’ve always been interested in issues of space —how space is created, managed, shaped, why it is the way it is,” Martin explained. “My interest in refugee spaces inevitably lead me to reflect on refugee camps: What kind of space is the refugee camp? What is it’s purpose? Why is it established? Who is responsible for it? And how does space affect the lives of its inhabitants?”

The answer that camps embody some kind of proverbial way station in the plight of the refugee proves quite unsatisfactory—and, in the case of Palestinian camps in Lebanon, quite misleading. Camps no longer seem to stand as spaces of impermanence or states of deliberation; they are something else altogether, something perhaps quite alarming. “Like other academics focussing on displacement—refugees and migration flows and state responses,” Martin told the audience, “I began looking at refugee camps through the lens of the so-called ‘space of exception.’”

The term originates in the work of Carl Schmitt but has been given contemporary life by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. “With this idea of the ‘exception’ [Agamben] basically explains how exclusion operates in society, and especially in the context of a nation-state system,” informed the professor. Agamben’s object of focus, however, is not the refugee camp; his focus is the concentration camp.

Martin explained Agamben’s thinking: “By reflecting on the political-juridical structure of the Nazi concentration camps and the practices of the Third Reich, Agamben shows how the notion of the camp is the key to understanding modern techniques of government. To Agamben, the camp is the space in which the normal juridical order is suspended, and, along with it, the rights of its inhabitants. But who are these inhabitants and why are such spaces created? He explains that the inhabitants of the camps are those who are considered a threat to the nation-state. So in Nazi Germany, for instance, the threat to the nation-state and society was mainly represented by the Jews, and also homosexuals, gypsies, and disabled people—all those who were considered a threat to the German race. [. . .] All those considered to be a threat needed to be separated from society and for this reason they were enclosed, controlled, or even eliminated. And this is precisely by virtue of the suspension of the law: there’s another kind of administration going on in the concentration camp. The camp becomes a space where everything becomes [permissible]. There are no rights; there’s just management of life. It is not law that applies there.”

In the context of the concentration camp, such analysis does not seem altogether that novel. Of course, in concentration camps particular members of a society were excluded, imprisoned, and exterminated; of course, in concentration camps a perverted sense of law reigned; of course, in concentration camps prisoners were stripped of human dignity and reduced to something less than ‘human’. Again, such analysis is found in almost every Holocaust account and fails to appear novel. But Agamben is not simply referring to concentration camps—he is referring to a “technique” of governance. The “space” created by the architects of the Holocaust represents more than an act of orchestrated violence. Outside of its context, the creation of such space indicates a method of control for the undesired, a method far from antiquated. As Martin explained, Agamben is not merely attempting to illustrate historical tendencies, but instead to force the reflection of their circumstances into the foyer of contemporary political analysis; “he urges us to recognize the return of the camp in our [own] society.”

This analysis is, of course, not without controversy. “He never explicitly said that to understand refugee camps we need to look at concentration camps,” conceded the professor. “Obviously such parallels are dangers.” But this was never Agamben’s intention. “What Agamben explains is that the political-juridical structure” of such camps has remained embedded in governing methodology. This is what’s meant by the ‘return of the camp’: the construction of a “space of exception.”

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman who has spent much of his career studying the Holocaust also found such practices paradigmatic. He “defined the camps as ‘holes in time and space,’ because time is frozen along with its inhabitants’ lives, rights, and juridical status,” Martin explained. “They are suspended [. . .] but there are also holes in space because they are regulated under a different system, and they are [isolated] from society.” Much like Agamben, Bauman did not see the camp dynamic as some kind of isolated phenomena.

“The logic of the camp is part of our society,” submitted Martin. “Refugee camps and detention centers are administered separately from the rest of the territory; it is basically about creating a space where the normal rule of law does not apply. [. . .] spaces that are regulated according to the logic of emergency.” It is a phenomena particularly observable in refugee camps, detention centers where asylum seekers are kept, and even in the former “zones d’attente” in French airports. (It is also not a reach to extend this list to encompass prisons, rendition sites—notably Guantanamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib—and even police facilities). “Very often, these are spaces where human rights abuses occur,” noted the professor. The abuses occur in the camps’ spatial-temporal “holes.”

The implicit comparison with the Holocaust and spaces of engineered violence seems to offend common perceptions of refugee settlements. After all, these spaces are supposed to provide temporary relief. The thought originating with Agamben is rooted rather in the “logic” of such spatial construction. “Refugee camps are spaces that provide assistance, that help refugees survive until a solution is found,” Martin noted, “but they are also spaces to keep the refugee and the undesired far from society. [. . .] It is as if refugee camps and detention centers, in a way, work as purifying filters that keep the ‘foreigner’ far away.” These ‘spaces of exclusion’ become “bio-political’ tools to govern society,” and “spatial tools that make such differentiation [between citizen and refugee] visible.”

In Lebanon, the threat to the “logic of emergency” is that this distinction is becoming less and less clear. In Shatila, a Palestinian camp initially established ‘outside’ Beirut, roughly one-third of inhabitants are actually non-Palestinian. This includes arab and non-arab immigrants, as well as even some Lebanese people themselves. The reason accounting for such “inclusivity” is the unforeseen urban growth of the surrounding areas. Camps expanded vertically, from makeshift tents to pueblo-like structures—stacked one on top of the other. But they also expanded horizontally. “So while Shatila at the time of its establishment was quite isolated from the center of Beirut,” noted Martin, “it gradually began touching the city. The camp expanded and the periphery of Beirut began growing exponentially. [. . .] It seems that the boundaries are blurring.”

For those powers seeking to separate the Palestinian peoples from local citizens, the blurring of boundaries seems to represent an undoing of the internal structure of camp rationale. But there is another way of reading such expansion. Ironically, the Palestinians are not the only ones being forcibly coiled by such twisted emergency logic. The camps have also become home to Lebanese citizens coming from the countryside and other “neglected” parts of the state. So while it may appear as though the camp is expanding, its new-found reach has only managed to extend the space of exception. “In a way, Lebanon’s political and economic system created other kinds of outcasts, other kinds of people who were marginalized, even among its own citizens,” explained the professor.

“This kind of system produced what [Agamben] called “bare life,” which is a life that can be abandoned.” Martin continued: “Lebanon would then assist [not only] in the production of Palestinian bare life—those discriminated against and kept apart from society—but also the abandonment of certain citizens [of their own country] who lack protection and are socioeconomically marginalized—namely the poor.” The expansion of the camp space and the influx of inhabitants does more than blur the line between refugee and citizen; it constructs a new one, one whose contour merely extends the original boundary. The camp is no longer a reflection of race or nationality, but now also one of class. Far from representing a kind of inclusivity, the camps’ expansion signifies a new way of marginalizing an additional undesired population. The Lebanese “other” has grown.

The idea of “campscape,” Martin explained, “is an idea of fluidity.” The campscape is malleable, but only so long as its inhabitants remain the outcasts. Interestingly enough, even within the excluded, population divisions have arisen. “The fact that they are sharing the same conditions does not mean there are always good relations in the camp,” clarified the professor. “What I’m trying to highlight is the complexity of these spaces and experiences.” For the Palestinian refugees, the presence of foreigners can be quite threatening. The fear of outside intrusion has lead “the camp itself [to] create its own marginalized within the marginalized.”

Why has this secondary ring of seclusion arisen? Martin believes the main concern of the camp’s original inhabitants remains the fear of “losing the Palestinian traditions or identity.” The camp has, in a way, become a Palestine away from Palestine. The professor recounted a conversation with a Palestinian who had been living outside Shatila: “‘Maybe before entering this camp I did not know what Palestine is […] only when I entered this camp I knew what Palestine meant exactly […] the happiest thing in my life was to move to the camp. Here life is very hard […] but it’s very beautiful because it’s like one family.’” The camp is a desirable space, for it stitches together an ethnic identity whose very fabric could never be whole otherwise.

The importance of maintaining such wholeness also serves a starkly political purpose. Refugee camps are “highly contested,” Martin explained. “Israel would like these refugee camps to be dismantled,” because the camps, in many ways, “become symbolic of that [original] displacement—of the rights that have never been implemented, the right to return.” The camps are more than embodiments of identity; they are the vestiges of the exile act, a kind of Alamo where the refugees make their political last stand. If the camps are dismantled or no longer recognized as “camps,” than the refugees lose international attention and the right of return may be suspended indefinitely. This may help to explain the camp inhabitants’ aversion to allowing non-Palestinians to reside alongside them: admittance means the camp ceases to be both “Palestinian” and also a “camp.” And no “camp” means no displacement; no displacement means no return.

The resistance to dismantlement is simultaneously a resistance to a kind of permanency. Dismantlement spells the end of the potential for the Palestinian return, but so too does the resultant assimilation—assuming such assimilation allows the refugee to enter and remain a part of Lebanon’s social order (it may well be that permanency anywhere is a conceptual stretch). “In the very beginning [of the camps] [the refugees] just wanted to stay in tents themselves,” noted Martin, “because if they started building—building with solid material—it would have given them an idea of permanence: we’re going to stay here forever.” The haphazardly-constructed verticalization of the camps are signs of this resistance to residential permanency.

The twin threats of permanence and dismantlement, however, seem to endow the Palestinian refugee with a set of paradoxical motivations. On one hand the refugee very much desires recognition—and naturalization into the Lebanese social and political order would release him from this “space of exception”; it would grant him professional and economic opportunities he currently lacks. But on the other hand, such assimilation would indicate a kind of permanency—the return to Palestine as no longer a possibility. The “holes in time and space” in which the refugees find themselves may be exclusionary, but they are also for some—in a fundamentally complex and paradoxical way—desirable (or, at least, more so than the alternative). Some would rather inhabit these spaces; some would rather occupy the “exception.”

“Why do we still have refugee camps?” asked Martin. “[One reason is that] refugees themselves want to be in refugee camps. Not all of them, obviously—many Palestinians live outside the camps. But refugee camps are still highly symbolic of the displacement of 1948. The fact that they’re still there means that there’s still the hope of return to their lands.” The camps’ symbolic value of return thus maintains their physical existence.

But the paradigm of refugee camps is not as prevalent as media imagery may lead one believe. “Interestingly, according to UNHCR—and contrary to common belief . . . refugee populations [are] more dispersed,” informed the professor. Roughly one in three refugees worldwide lives in a camp. Most have been—or are desperately trying—to assimilate into urban landscapes. “It means that life in the camp is really not the norm,” Martin concluded.

The shifting model of refugee spaces forces a challenging question onto the humanitarian and the international community: “Where are refugee spaces and what are the implications if they’re not inside the refugee camp?” Despite their alienating form, the refugee camp allows for accessibility. It isolates the refugee, but it does so with the intention—at least from the humanitarian point of view—of coordinating relief efforts by facilitating the identification, targeting, and access of vulnerable individuals. But “with the absence of refugee camps,” asked Martin, “is there any distinction that we can draw between the refugee, the homeless, and the urban poor?”

With naturalization, the refugee becomes both more integrated into local spaces and more isolated from international relief efforts; the distinction between the refugee and the locally marginalized seems to evaporate. Who do you then assist? It seems “paradoxical,” Martin noted, to see the refugee position as a “privileged” one in the context of the surrounding urban area, but this is pricelessly the outcome. If the refugee is no different from the locally marginalized, why should one receive aid and the other not? The absence of any distinguishable refugee space seems to radically undermine the ethics of humanitarian action; it has the potential to levy the critique of partiality on the aid worker who prioritizes the refugee over the urban poor.

But leaving relief efforts in the hands of local governments is also problematic. The “space of exception” receives this label for a reason; it seems tautological to say its inhabitants are ignored. “When Agamben explained ‘exception,’ Martin noted “he talks about ‘inclusive exclusion,’ which means that people are excluded, but included in the system by virtue of [this] exclusion.” The camp’s inhabitants are not of course “ignored” absolutely. Their presence is recognized; the marginalized receive a “place” in society. But this place is equivalent to a kind of caste, and this caste is one that allows its members to be overlooked and treated as “bare life”—their existence recognized, but their humanity ignored. Exclusion continues, even after life in the camp concludes.

The complexity of refugee space indicates an unfortunate damned-if-you-do,-damned-if-you- don’t dilemma when it comes to the question of naturalization. Without the “right to return,” the refugee remains cast between two equally-problematic courses of action. It would seem as though from the very moment the “exodus” began, the Palestinians were condemned to this permanent state of “otherness”—on his their footsteps from the Holy Land, exclusion followed with them.


Lecture given by Professor Diana Martin, Ph.D. of the University of Portsmouth, to the IDHA 45 class at Fordham University, New York, June 2015

Brief written by Joshua Paul St. Clair, IIHA Summer 2015 Intern

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