Refugee camps are increasingly managed through a liberal rationality of government similar to that of many industrialized societies, with security mechanisms being used to optimize the life of particular refugee populations. This governmentality has encompassed programmes introduced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to build and empower communities through the spatial technology of the camp. The present article argues that such attempts to ‘govern through community’ have been too easily dismissed or ignored. It therefore examines how such programmes work to produce, manage and conduct refugees through the use of a highly instrumentalized understanding of community in the spatial and statistical management of displaced people in camps. However, community is always both more and less than what is claimed of it, and therefore undermines attempts to use it as a governing tactic. By shifting to a more ontological understanding of community as unavoidable coexistence, inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy, we can see how the scripting of and government through community in camps is continually exceeded, redirected and resisted. Ethnographies of specific camps in Africa and the Middle East enable us both to see how the necessary sociality of being resists its own instrumentalization and to view the camp as a spatial security technology. Such resistance does not necessarily lead to greater security, but it redirects our attention to how community is used to conduct the behaviour of refugees, while also producing counter-conducts that offer greater agency, meaning and mobility to those displaced in camps.
- refugee camps