Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.
—HANNAH ARENDT, Origins of Totalitarianism
The global shelter imaginary provides a symbolic—and symbolically effective—resolution to the political paradox presented to sovereign states by the presence of people who cannot be naturalized as citizens of those states, repatriated to the states they have left, or permitted to move on. These are dispossessed people whose dispossession is at once marked and obscured by their categorization as “refugees” or victims of forced migration—which is to say as people taking refuge and assigned “notional” rights as such.1 To categorize the dispossessed as refugees, that is, is to gesture toward forms of refuge indistinguishable from indefinite interment and to do so while there are increasingly fewer instances when states provide the dispossessed any refuge at all.
Deployed to ostensibly “protect” refugees, camps have thereby come to function as displacements of political questions about the sovereignty of the state presented by refugees seeking asylum into architectural questions about shelter. In so doing, the mandate to “protect” refugees manifests as enhancements of refugee assistance and little more. Humanitarianism’s exchange of rights—the human rights only available to citizens of states—for rightless relief is thereby rendered as a provision of homes to the supposedly homeless.
This exchange is a part of a history of projects to resolve the paradox that the dispossessed present to sovereign states in a biopolitics—a politics of managing life without rights. This history was already becoming visible to Hannah Arendt in the years after World War II. Writing in 1951, in “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” Arendt pointed to the status of the camp as the “practical substitute” for the refugee’s “nonexistent homeland”:
All discussions about the refugee problems revolved around this one question: How can the refugee be made deportable again? The second World War and the DP camps were not necessary to show that the only practical substitute for a nonexistent homeland was an internment camp. Indeed, as early as the thirties this was the only “country” the world had to offer the stateless.2
Arendt wrote the preceding in the form of a critique. Six decades later, the same country of encampment she referred to does not solicit critique as much as promotional literature, professional carpetbagging, philanthro-capitalism, and churnalism: within the global archipelago of spaces where the dispossessed are contained and managed, a global shelter imaginary idealizes the country and condition of encampment, and the bare life that takes place there, as a moral territory in which capital and professional expertise are redistributed to the supposed benefit of the new wretched of the earth. This global shelter imaginary has thereby transformed encampment from what Arendt, in the years just after World War II, called “practical”—an ad hoc attempt to manage the human remainder resulting from the state’s paradoxical relationship to the stateless—into a regulative ideal, a normative and potentially perfectible condition. In so doing, the “right to shelter” that underscores this imaginary has become compensation for, rather than complementary to, rights accorded to humans and citizens alike: the rightless people that Arendt termed “the scum of the earth” are precisely those people whose right to shelter is asserted, defended, and advanced in the contemporary global shelter imaginary as a plenipotentiary for the legal/political rights actually denied them.3
Since the turn of the twentieth century, stateless people and people displaced by war and other crises from states to which they cannot return have each been categorized as “refugees.” Arendt, however, insisted on a distinction between these two categories of people, arguing that the condition of statelessness, exacerbated by the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires after World War I, was “the newest mass phenomenon in contemporary history” and stateless people (the “apatrides”) were “the most symptomatic group in contemporary politics.”4
The global shelter imaginary is structured by the particular relationship that obtains between statelessness, on the one hand, and encampment, on the other: the “shelter” provided by encampment absorbs the stateless in a form that is valorized as moral rather than analyzed as biopolitical. This valorization poses moralized encampment as an improvement or even solution to biopolitical encampment. The history of the camp, however, is a history in which moralized encampment has always functioned as a displacement and tacit legitimization of encampment’s biopolitical status. This history was inaugurated with refugee camps at the end of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century; while camps in European colonies took form as a species of militarized internment, camps in wartime Europe took form in a wide variety of ways, including in some cases camps posed as spaces of moralized domesticity. As the camp continued to develop through the twentieth century, the colonial laboratory of internment was conjoined to—and perhaps superseded by—a metropolitan laboratory of legitimizing internment, the latter yielding an imaginary of rightless relief in which shelter is always better shelter. This imaginary, whose latest manifestation is the Better Shelter, divides the history of the camp as a particular kind of space from a history of the camp’s legitimization, normalization, and valorization as a vehicle of rightless relief.5
And yet, it is precisely the distinction between these histories and the colonial and metropolitan forms of internment that subtend them that has been blurred in received histories of the camp.6 In particular, animated by attempts to “globalize” the history of the camp, received histories obscure crucial distinctions between refugee camps emerging from the juridico-political conditions of colonialism and humanitarianism. Blurring these two conditions, globalizations of the camp’s history have pointed to morphological contiguities between colonial-era camps in Cuba, India, South Africa, and Latin America and subsequent refugee, internment, concentration, and extermination camps in Europe—relationships premised on carceral enclosure, the barrack as a building type, castramented plans, and other formal features.7
Running across two distinctively different juridico-political conditions, these morphological relationships turn away from the crisis of statelessness as the crisis of state sovereignty posited by Arendt and subsequently Giorgio Agamben toward an acceptance and valorization of that crisis in biopolitical form.8 The predominant morphological understanding of the camp, then, can itself be historicized—a historicization that poses the “globalization” and “commonality” of the camp’s history as itself a product, rather than critique, of the morphological turn.9
Encampment and the Housing Question
As it emerged in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century colonial contexts, the refugee camp was described and designed in military terms as a species of campsite or bivouac for armed forces.10 As such, the camp mediated the status of the territory it emerged in as governed by the laws of war rather than the state’s rule of law. The first camps posed for people explicitly categorized as “refugees,” for example, began to be constructed in 1899 by the British military in South Africa for Boers and indigenous Africans. These were people who were displaced from their homes by the scorched-earth counterinsurgency policy carried out by British forces in response to Boer insurgency campaigns; they were placed in camps that, according to the British, conformed to the stipulated policy of “internment” in the recently framed Hague Conventions.11
Originally termed “concentration camps” with reference to the concentración of Cuban civilians in fortified or fenced-in towns and villages by Spanish forces during the Cuban War of Independence (1895–98) and Filipino civilians in camps by U.S. forces during their brutal counterinsurgency campaign against Filipino guerrillas (1900–1902), these South African camps were renamed “burgher camps” and “refugee camps” when they began to pass on to civilian administration in 1901. But the castramentation of the camp plan, use of bell or private’s tents for shelter, and management of Boer refugees as civilian prisoners of war persisted through the demilitarization of Boer refugee camp administration, each testifying to the militarization of the camp itself.12
Received histories of the camp also tend to move from these South African examples to camps in Europe built during the First World War. And yet, as it emerged in European contexts during the First World War, the refugee camp was at times described and designed in domestic terms, transfiguring a space of internment into a response to what was widely known in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as “the housing question.”13 While these camps are outliers in received camp histories, they initiate the genealogy that leads to the Better Shelter and its proliferating equivalents. In this genealogy, the Better Shelter does not merely represent an attempt to improve refugee shelter, as its authors pose it. Rather, as architectural signifiers of domesticity came to function as substitutes for and displacements of lost or expected rights, this genealogy tracks a sequence of “better” refugee shelters and “better” refugee camps for the making of “better refugees”: a sequence that, wholly absent in colonial contexts, includes the Better Shelter as one of its most recent instances.
And so, even as almost all World War I–era camps were castramented, as most of them utilized barracks, and as some of them even occupied unused military facilities, some European refugee camps were rationalized as a species of housing. In and after the First World War, this rationalization prompted European states to approach the refugee camp as a figurative or actual contribution to municipal or national housing stocks: components, that is, of existing domestic infrastructures that framed the permanent temporariness of people impossible to assimilate or resettle in architectural terms of permanence. Here, “housing” represented the form in which the idealization of internment took place—an idealization fully lacking in internment’s colonial antecedents. In those colonial antecedents, states were contending with people displaced from their homelands. In Europe during and after the First World War, by contrast, states began to contend with people from what Arendt so aptly termed “nonexistent homelands”; as “housing,” the camp emerged as an architectural technology to manage this task and, most profoundly, to manage this task’s impossibility.
Camps in Europe that appear as outliers, if they appear at all, in received camp histories are therefore central in the development of this architectural technology. In the First World War, several of these seemingly exceptional camps were constructed by the Austro-Hungarian state for “refugees”—a name that primarily referred to members of minority communities that Austro-Hungarian forces forcibly evacuated from the empire’s war-threatened eastern provinces.14 For example, the “garden city” camp in Oberhollabrunn, where barracks were arrayed picturesquely along the topographical lines of a steep hillside, was built for Ruthenian, Romanian, and Polish refugees evacuated from war zones, and the model camp at Gmünd, which included masonry “villa barracks,” each with its own garden, was built for Ruthenian, Croatian, and Slovene refugees.15 These, along with other examples of refugee camps designed according to contemporaneous housing models, testify emphatically to the imaginary of the camp as a form of housing.16 It is crucial to note that the audience for the camp-as-housing paradigm was not those who inhabited the camps; in these camps, “the average refugee was treated more like a prisoner than a citizen of the monarchy.”17 Rather, the audience was the society that established camps as legitimate spaces to intern the refugee qua prisoner; modeled as housing, the camp could be assimilated as a non-exceptional space of exception.
In “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” Arendt described the context within which the camp’s legitimizing function developed: the years leading up to World War II when European states realized, with shock, “that it was impossible to get rid of [the refugees (repatriation)] or transform them into nationals of the country of refuge [naturalization].”18 In World War II, she contended, the problem of statelessness was discursively eliminated, and thereby actually consolidated, by inventing the term “displaced persons” to categorize both stateless people and people displaced from states.19
The imaginary of camp-as-housing continued to develop in World War II, at least in those places where the legitimization of internment remained salient. In Vichy France, for example, camps were built to intern Roma and other “nomads,” following a precedent established in Nazi-occupied France; these camps included Camp de Saliers, which was designed to look like a French village so as to supposedly facilitate the assimilation of Roma—many of them citizens of France—into sedentary French society.20 That this assimilation never took place—the Roma were deported from Saliers, just as they were from other internment camps—does not represent the deception or contradiction of Saliers’s design but rather its function: to legitimize internment, whether it was terminal or concluded by deportation.
The global shelter imaginary that unfolded after World War II in the context of institutionalized humanitarianism consolidated the exchange of rightless relief for rights. This consolidation was animated by and accompanied the reorientation of humanitarianism away from temporary emergency responses toward long-term development processes—a reorientation that yielded what Michael Barnett has called “the age of neo-humanitarianism.”21 As Barnett and others have described, this reorientation normalized an evacuation of refugee rights; in the form of an emerging global shelter imaginary, it also normalized the domestication of the refugee camp.
Perhaps most prominent in the framing of this domestication was the work of architect Ian Davis and humanitarian Fred Cuny, within which the camp’s relation to housing became crucial to the designation of “successful” camp design.22 For Davis, the camp’s received morphology should be avoided in favor of those drawn from local housing configurations; for Cuny, the camp “should be considered with the same detail as a master plan for a town.”23 Both ambitions yielded an equivocation between camp and housing and new circuits of knowledge exchange between the study of vernacular housing and self-housing in the Global South, on the one hand, and the proposition of shelter for refugees and other dispossessed people, on the other.24 The political problem faced by stateless people—the problem of having no space within which they were endowed with rights, either to stay or to go—was thereby assimilated into the architectural problems faced by inadequately housed and unhoused people of all kinds, from the homeless, through slum dwellers, to survivors of disasters and communities displaced from their homes by violence.
In 1980s and ’90s, the institutionalization of discourse on the shelter of displaced people formalized a global shelter imaginary; this imaginary was, in a sense, the first-order product of standards and practices established for the settlement of the displaced. Key moments in this institutionalization include the 1982 publication of the UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies, which included a section on shelter issues; the UNHCR’s 1993 First International Workshop on Improved Shelter Response and Environment for Refugees; the 1995 publication of “Shelter Provision and Settlement Policies for Refugees,” prepared by Roger Zetter for the 1993 workshop; and the 1996 initiation of the Sphere Project, which intended to “produce globally applicable minimum standards for humanitarian response services.”25 On their own terms, these actions were part of the necessary project to, in the words of the UNHCR, “answer people’s urgent need for protection and humanitarian assistance anywhere in the world . . . ensure that refugees at risk have received legal and physical protection . . . [and] develop the mechanisms to reinforce a quick, agile and flexible emergency response capacity”; by 2007, the UNHCR posed itself as able to manage unexpected refugee crises “involving up to 500,000 people,” across the globe.26 And yet, at the same time, these actions also began to normalize the political status of shelter as rightless relief.
Zetter’s comprehensive review of refugee shelter practices began with the seemingly indisputable claim that “durable shelter . . . constitutes one of the basic needs for refugees”; “no different from other communities,” he continued, “refugee housing represents a cultural commodity; it supports a diversity of functional requirements; it is an important economic multiplier.”27 And yet, elided in this equivocation between refugees and others, which would subsequently be appropriated by IKEA and a host of other humanitarian entrepreneurs, is the particular rightlessness of the stateless. In Zetter’s focus on refugee housing, that is, the political rightlessness of the stateless is displaced by a posited right to shelter that is “no different from other communities.” And it bears stating that all of this is happening during the “decade of repatriation,” when the UNHCR actively participated in the coerced return or resettlement of refugee populations.
Zetter wrote in full awareness of the ways in which “contradictions between the physical permanency of housing, shelter production processes and the presumed temporariness of refugees . . . penetrate to the heart of the dilemmas of refugee policy making and assistance.”28 For him, however, camps and other enduring forms of refugee shelter present “a direct physical challenge to the . . . presumed temporariness of refugees.”29 What may be a “physical challenge” to this temporariness, however, is also the physical form in which temporariness is made to indeterminately persist but also, and still more, in which this persistence is transformed from an exigency into a regulative ideal in the shape of Better Shelters and their analogues.
And so, in the two decades since the publication of Zetter’s review of refugee shelter practices, those practices have become the object of steadily increasing attention and investment, each facilitated by the corporatization of humanitarianism in the wake of the 1999 declaration by the United Nations and global business leaders of a “global compact” to “harness the energy and influence of multinational corporations to act as good corporate citizens.”30
The Better Shelter is but one particularly well-known and celebrated product of the many produced through this alliance between multinational corporations and humanitarian institutions; it is also a metonym of a camp humanitarianism that, repeatedly subjecting itself to “lessons learned” and continually orienting itself around “best practices,” substitutes attention to a purported refugee housing question for attention to the politics of displacement that yield refugees and other dispossessed people in the first place.
The Better Shelter meets the needs for the activities of basic living, for privacy, security and familiarity. It is a safe base offering a sense of peace, identity and dignity. And though it may be humble, it is somewhere even the most vulnerable people on earth can call a home away from home.31
This copy, from BetterShelter.org’s publicity material, takes the substitution of homelessness for dispossession to perhaps its most extreme point: the equivalence of rightless relief in the form of a Better Shelter in a refugee camp to the home, of whatever sort, inhabited by a citizen of a nation-state endowed with the expectation of rights as such. The conditions of domesticity that this copy points to—privacy, security, familiarity—along with domesticity’s supposed emotional consequences—peace, identity, dignity—are here reduced to products of a kit of parts: locking doors, operable windows, opaque (actually “non-transparent”) walls, and so on. Rendered as such, domesticity becomes not only autonomous and self-explanatory but also totalizing and all-encompassing: when you “have” a “home,” you not only have all that you need now but also all that you ever had. The political conditions of displacement, along with the political conditions that displacement eliminates, disappear in the form of a home exchange. And the growing number of displaced people who reside in urban areas rather than camps—now estimated at 60 percent of the world’s population of the displaced—also disappear; the Better Shelter not only substitutes homelessness for dispossession, but also substitutes shelter, better or otherwise, for the planet of slums that actually shelters the world’s dispossessed.