He who wishes to know the truth about life in its immediacy must scrutinize its estranged form . . .
—THEODOR W. ADORNO, Minima Moralia: Reflections from a Damaged Life
When . . . an international body arrogated itself a nongovernmental authority, its failure was apparent even before its measures were realized.
—HANNAH ARENDT, The Origins of Totalitarianism
IN LATE APRIL 2019 an official of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) traveled to north-central Burkina Faso in order to report on the status of people forcibly displaced by an ongoing conflict between the state and Islamist forces. Visiting a site for internally displaced persons in Barsologho, the official also photographed his own agency’s efforts to assist some of the 150,000 people forced to flee their homes by the spring of that year. (Within twelve months the number would reach one million). As he documented the resettlement of 1400 people displaced by attacks on the village of Yirgou, in particular, the official took a snapshot of an impromptu dwelling made from the same cardboard boxes in which a new, standard, UNHCR refugee housing unit (RHU) deployed to the region had been packed.1 More specifically, someone had cribbed together a shelter of last resort out of the flat-pack containers that had held a “Better Shelter,” a new humanitarian concept dwelling sponsored by the UNHCR in partnership with the IKEA Foundation.
If the photograph records the insufficiency of global humanitarianism’s best efforts, the image simultaneously exhumes the workings of a broader social imaginary.2 On one hand, the image directs the viewer’s empathy toward a “lesser evil principle,” on the premise that any shelter is better than no shelter. On the other hand, the imaginary of which it is a part offers up those sentiments as artifacts of a species of humanitarian governance that has successfully normalized “lesser evil” rationalizations to begin with. According to this latter view, sedimented in the photograph’s pixels are traces of a political process whereby the protection of refugees and the displaced has been abandoned in favor of a generalized preoccupation with relief logistics.
To understand how the humanitarian order could betray a mandate in the appearance of its fulfillment one would have to know the conditions under which refugee protection has come to be understood instead as a “mere problem of residence.”3 Three international agreements punctuate the contemporary history of global refugee management: the UN General Assembly’s 2016 “New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants,” a subsequent “Global Compact on Refugees” in 2018, and then the first Global Refugee Forum in 2019. Viewed as an ensemble, these agreements are an effort not only to manage what stakeholders describe as a “global migration crisis” but, more consequentially, to shift the referent of this crisis from the refugee to the refuge.4 With this transposition, longstanding apprehensions about the erosion of the world’s juridical asylum architecture give way to questions about “burden sharing” and “third country solutions” as a way to “ease pressures on host countries.”5 In such a context, by dint of the sheer numbers of humans seeking asylum, the protections guaranteed to refugees under international conventions are assumed to be guaranteed by the notional inalienability of those rights to begin with. As a result, an established language of “protection” gives way to new pronouncements regarding refugee “dignity” and “self-reliance.”6
Astute observers of the international refugee order have not failed to notice that there is a progressive abandonment and effacement of the dispossessed precisely as this order advances a new and nominally progressive jargon of care.7 Here, as Didier Fassin explains, the “deployment of moral sentiments” constitutes a new species of “humanitarian government”: “inequality is replaced by exclusion, domination is transformed into misfortune, injustice is articulated by suffering, violence is expressed in terms of trauma.”8
Also referred to as “sentimental humanitarianism,” the new humanitarian government inaugurates a “moral economy” that “mobilizes compassion rather than justice.”9 Tweeting the word counts of the UNHCR reports on each of the refugee compacts, for example, critics/scholars document how a key terminology of rights—words like “asylum” and “non-refoulement”—is giving way to repeated mentions of “detention” and “assistance.”10 Even more to the point, students of humanitarianism understand that this new “ethic of compassion” is actually directed toward a “privatized public,” as the humanitarian order transforms itself into a “neo-humanitarianism” largely premised on the privatization of public policy models and market-driven models of success.11
At the same time, however, this re-imagination of humanitarianism has also presupposed the elaboration of new legitimation horizons that have remained largely transparent to themselves. Believing that stakeholders in refugee management in turn believe that migration has triggered a self-evident state of emergency for the community of nations, observers of the current transformations in humanitarian governance have been less attentive to the emergence of a vision of assistance, not only ubiquitous but also normative, best described as a global shelter imaginary.
The term “global shelter imaginary” refers to a number of related concepts. First, it describes a generalized subordination of the refugee to the given image of refuge. That subordination of empirical refugees to representations of their plight may also be understood as a political morphology, in the sense that the representation of what is posed as the migration “crisis” already presupposes the shape of a response. In this instance, the “social construction of public problems” recruits/involves architecture–broadly conceived—as an answer to displacement: the global shelter imaginary retroactively presents the political problem of involuntary migration as if were part of a “housing question” instead.12 Stated more directly, the global shelter imaginary is the way that the current humanitarian order treats architecture/shelter as a plenipotentiary for the political protections it is actually abandoning, and then frames the abandonment of the dispossessed as if it constituted a moral triumph—an act of rescue. The global shelter imaginary attains its social function by repeatedly transposing irreducible political quandaries into technocratic challenges.
The public career of the global shelter imaginary has been hiding in plain sight. This imaginary is vividly on display, for example, in the press releases, churnalism, and social media concerning the unprecedented partnership between the United Nations Refugee Agency [UNHCR] and the IKEA Foundation on the design and mass production of the same “better” refugee shelter encountered by the UN official in Burkina Faso. Indeed, a careful assessment of the public arguments for what would eventually be named and trademarked as Better Shelter lays bare the legitimation horizons of the current humanitarian order itself. Seemingly epiphenomenal to the scale of the misery it is designed to address, the Better Shelter is actually an essential cipher/artifact of the order that defines itself as the administrator of this same misery. A phenomenology of its place in the administered world of refugee governance points to the way that lesser-of-two-evils arguments—“since there are no other solutions we must make the dispossessed as comfortable as we can”—introduce and give way to valorizations of biopolitical governance tout court. Stated differently: a review of the attention economy surrounding commonplace proposals to resolve the so-called refugee conundrum by providing “refuge in displacement,” discloses an underexamined regulative ideal concerning the proper “place” of the refugee within that economy.13 This ideal is the global shelter imaginary—a place where the compromise of cosmopolitan right appears as the fulfillment of this right in the form of one or another “better shelter.”
The key reflection advanced here is that the shift in priority toward technocratic responses to humanitarian problems constitutes an evasion of the political or, more specifically, an institutionally sanctioned politics of evasion whose own path toward the rationalization of rightless relief is outlined in pronouncements and speech acts on the status of architecture in humanitarian action. In the following, then, we trace how the concept of protection has been superseded by a language of assistance that takes form in unreflexive talk about the self-evident worth of better refugee shelters. The Global Shelter Imaginary outlines the normalization of this process in four discrete episodes.
Chapter 1, “Better Shelter / Better Refugee,” interprets the decision of the UNHCR and IKEA to promote the development of a universal emergency shelter as a sociological event. Here, the humanitarian reputation of the UNHCR and the “smart” status of IKEA are effectively exchanged in the mutual adoption of the Better Shelter as a template of refugee relief. As they advance a new and shared image of the social good, the UNHCR and IKEA together promote a new sociodicy of relief in which shelter stands in for protection. Better Shelter talk paradoxically normalizes this substitution via the replacement of any mention of rights with repeated references to dignity. In the process, shelter talk valorizes rightless relief and the biopolitics this relief advances. The refugee thus becomes the adjunct of the given notion of refuge; a better shelter demands a better refugee, who must, paradoxically, be domesticated as a functionary of the global shelter imaginary in order to be recognized at all.
The transformations just described cast a new light on the history of the refugee camp, which is the subject of chapter 2, “There Has Always Been a Better Shelter.” Whereas received studies of camp humanitarianism typically foreground the origins of the camp in colonial strategies of internment—and so, in a context of perpetual political exception—a history of the legitimation of such practices presents a different trajectory. Notions of a “better shelter” actually emerged in the metropolitan West during World War I, in a context where members of a national community who carried with them some expectation of rights—like citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—were presented with the prospect of model emergency housing at the cost of internment. The subsequent history of the model camp is one in which the substitution of shelter for rights protection was rendered so irreducible, necessary, and well-nigh “normal” that it ceased to be questioned as anything but an advance in humanitarian reason. Pointing toward the history of this substitution, we also point toward a distinction between the currently proliferating empirical histories of the camp, on the one hand, and the history of the camp’s legitimization in a global shelter imaginary, on the other.
As the subordination of the refugee to given notions of refuge, the global shelter imaginary has attained normative status at exactly the same moment in history when the premises of detention—the promise of return or resettlement promised in international conventions—have given way to a condition of indefinite temporariness among camp dwellers. And with that crisis in the paradigm, the majority of the world’s dispossessed elect to live under the conditions of “pirate urbanism” that have yielded what Mike Davis has termed a “planet of slums.”14 Chapter 3, “‘Protection Space,’” traces how the existence of what are termed “urban refugees” has simultaneously challenged and advanced the global shelter imaginary by prompting institutions of humanitarian governance to advance new euphemisms for protection that only serve to extend notions of shelter to wherever the displaced might find themselves. “Protection Space” is the most common of these euphemisms.
If the global shelter imaginary describes a condition under which IKEA’s branding of domesticity became the unacknowledged paradigm of rightless relief, the conclusion of this work, “Airbnb Refugee,” reviews how euphemisms like “protection space” have permitted the new dwelling models of the global sharing economy to offer themselves as alternatives without real distinctions. Airbnb’s actual proposals to promote its platform as a way to host refugees is examined here against the same concept of cosmopolitan right for which it mistakes itself. The right of the stranger to protection is finally incorporated within a rescue fantasy of shelter provision that simply reaffirms the prerogatives of “superhosts” to reject hospitality to whomever they wish whenever they wish.