Refugee Camps – or – Ideal Cities in Dust and Dirt


Published in: Urban Transformation, Ruby Press, 2008




Refugee camps are often perceived of as representing extraterritorial zones and tied into a global network of enclaves and non lieux, or “non-places” (Auge, 1995) that are literally dislocated and disconnected from any immediate context. Their precise location seems to be of little concern. This view, which has gained a certain prominence within architectural discourse and cultural studies, ignores the social, legal, and economic interrelations that exist on the ground and the immediate physical context that refugee camps are located within. It is also blind, firstly, to the problems that are triggered on a political or developmental level, and, secondly, it is blind to these relationships that are implicated in the instrumentalization of refugee camps and the dilemmas of humanitarian aid, ultimately indicating the responsibilities of the planners.


Common consensus is that refugee camps should be temporary. Preferably, refugees should be allowed to return to their towns, villages, and homes once the situation no longer presents a danger. Normally, or ideally, the emergency aid delivered to refugee camps is of a completely different nature to the developmental aid delivered in situations of economic plight, urban slum dwelling or reconstruction after disaster. While the latter aims at improving living conditions by upgrading and stabilizing impoverished neighborhoods, for example, the former aims at providing security and immediate care of the most urgent needs, and predominantly at saving lives – again, the emphasis here is on this aid being of a temporary nature. As poverty and a low level of development often characterize the context in which conflicts unfold – and refugee tragedies take place – by necessity, aid for refugees has an impact on non-refugee populations as well as on local culture, local infrastructure, and the whole strata of political life.



One of the poorest countries in the world, covering an area three times the size of Germany and with a population of just eight million inhabitants speaking 300 different languages – i.e., under-populated and fragmented – Chad, a central African, landlocked country, has probably experienced one of the worst processes of decolonization in history. Since gaining independence in 1960, this former French colony has not been able to develop anything remotely reminiscent of what is usually described as a “civil society.” The level of development throughout the whole country is extremely low, affecting the local population in terms of education, medical facilities and availability of cultivable land and food. The whole country has seven dentists and no bookshops. A network of paved roads hardly exists. Half of the population never reaches the age of 40 and only 9% of the inhabitants have access to sanitary facilities. Its cities have no functioning water system, nor a working electricity network. When Morris Forster, then president of ExxonMobile, opened the oil excavation and pipeline project in October 2003, in his opening speech he stated that he was very proud to participate in laying the foundation for a better future for the country and its population.  In those last four years, the education level has worsened, the rate of illiteracy has risen, and the life expectancy has further decreased.  Because of this extremely low level of development (and – apart from the oil – the general disinvestment of the international community), and  because the country is seen as a blank spot on the map, Chad has become an ideal situation for refugee camps. The camps and the humanitarian organizations enable the country to embed itself within an international (economic) network. This network goes beyond the field of humanitarian action, reaching into areas of a global media network, international conferences, developmental aid and logistics. The refugees, therefore, become the country’s means of participating in this global network and the world economy.




Approximately 30 million people are currently considered refugees or internally displaced people in more than 1000 refugee camps in over 60 nations.  Despite these facts, there is only one single chapter within one single book that describes planning strategies for refugee camps.  And even though the context within which these camps develop could not be more political or conflictual, the planning discourse remains on a purely technical level only. It ignores the social, political, and collective consequences that any decision might have in this critical context.


It was a case of unhappy coincidences and sheer “bad luck” when on 16 March 2003 the former chief of staff, Francois Bozize, toppled Félix Patassé as head of state in the Central African Republic. On the day that the world stood by, watching American and British troops enter Iraq, all other international events were relegated to the back pages of the next day’s newspapers, if being mentioned at all. Despite throwing a whole country deep into turmoil and uprooting more than two hundred thousand people trying to escape from the ensuing murder and rape, this coup d’état was completely ignored by the Western world. Since then, tens of thousands of people have fled across the northern border into Chad. When the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) went to Goré (in southern Chad) to help the refugees coming from the Central African Republic in 2003, it was a sleepy town with a few market stalls, a single dirt road, and a few thousand inhabitants. Three years later, it is still an unattractive sleepy little town. The dirt road though is traveled by numerous white Toyota Land Cruisers that belong to the many humanitarian organizations that have settled in the context of UNHCR. While Goré has since then doubled in population, two much larger settlements have developed in the vicinity: the refugee camps Amboko and Gondje with approximately 15,000 refugees each.


Refugee camps are usually planned by the architects and technical planners of UNHCR. The standard model for a refugee camp is described in the “UNHCR Handbook for Emergencies.” Based on the belief that human rights and human needs are valid and identical all over the world, the fundamental planning approach for camps is characterized by neutrality. After discussing criteria for site selection that take issues such as accessibility, climate, and health risks into consideration, the handbook introduces the planning of the physical organization of the refugee camp through the tool of the “master plan.”  The standardized plan for such a refugee camp starts with the tent or the refugee family as the smallest basic unit. The handbook then goes on to describe a “modular planning” approach. This unit of the family is organized into camp clusters (16 tents), camp blocks (16 clusters), camp sectors (4 blocks), and finally the complete camp (4 sectors), which in its “ideal” case houses 20,000 refugees.  These camp units are organized hierarchically and are numbered and equipped with specific services that are indicative of the planning approach based on hygiene and order: latrines, feeding centers, distribution points, health centers, and a referral hospital. Every camp cluster has a specific number of latrines and refuse drums, every camp block a central place with water taps, and every camp sector has a school. The units of the camp are most often designed as orthogonal areas, creating a hierarchical matrix of spaces from the smallest unit of the tent, to the camp as a whole. Smaller paths and non-motorized lanes separate clusters and blocks from one another, while roads for motorized traffic access the larger camp sectors.


Overall, an image starts to emerge from this agglomeration, one that – in its belief in structured organization, low density, and clear separation of functions and uses – suggests an idealized city reminiscent of those of early modernist urban planning of the 1920s. It is marked by a notion of modernist optimism – a trust in order and hygiene. The concept of hygiene shapes the refugee camp on a direct level, as much attention is given in the planning and management of the camp in terms of health conditions, sanitation, transmittable diseases, and vector control. In fact, the minimum distance between refugee families (i.e., the densities of refugee populations) is defined according to the impact on health conditions. Camps usually include a quarantine area, in case of a break out of cholera, a disease of which the magnitude of impact is directly related to density of living conditions as well as the quality and availability of sanitation facilities. But hygiene also marks the design of a camp on an indirect or symbolic level. Different ethnic groups are usually housed in separate camp blocks. Block and sector representatives of the refugees are divided along religious and tribal lines. Refugees are kept at a distance from humanitarian workers and their bases of operation, which are often located at the perimeter of the camp as to facilitate an easy escape in the case of camp unrest. The organization of the refugee camp strives towards reducing the mixing of different refugee groups and towards the homogeneity of the different camp units. Because of the fear of violence between different refugee communities and/or other people in the camp, the refugee camp has become a place of segregation.


This modernistic planning approach finds its application all over the world. Whether the humanitarian disaster is taking place in the Saharan desert, within a tropical jungle, in the dry highlands between Iran and Afghanistan, or near urbanized areas in Kosovo, the camp model applied is identical. That is, everywhere the same naïve model is used to project refugee settlements grounded in European planning methods and their agendas, in regions that could not be more different. Once applied to the specificities of local situations, the disjunctions and incompatibilities of the “neutral” planning approach become apparent. In the context of violence and catastrophes, it is exactly this neutrality that makes this planning approach so susceptible to instrumentalization and politicization.


Even though phrased in a neutral language such as “local knowledge,” “local population” or “identity of the refugee population,” and vigorously refraining from using any culturally tainted terms such as “belief,” “tribal” or “customs and rituals” respectively, when referring to the particularities and the geographical context of the societies affected by terror and plight, the official agenda of UNHCR and its mode of thought is, nevertheless, based on a binary split between a civilized “Us” of the first world and a perceived primitive “Other.” The “Handbook of Emergencies” reveals a thinking in a developmental approach of modular order and rationality that, with contributions by the industrialized Western world, will aid ailing Africa and other regions where humanitarian emergency situations are unfolding; the goal is to stabilize and find a basis of improvement. It mirrors the mechanisms and patterns of the processes of 19th century colonialism that intended to bring the values of the Enlightenment to “wild” or “savage” Africa and the Orient.


UNHCR applied their standardized plan for refugee camps for the new camp of Gondje with a projected refugee population of up to 20,000 in a region that was heavily forested and had specific topographical features which made their “neutral” plan unusable. As they were lacking the specific local knowledge of the region, the architects of UNHCR never noticed the inappropriateness of their plan.  The clearing of large forest areas and the settlement of approximately 15,000 people – a size of settlement that is unknown to the area otherwise – had the gravest effects on the nature and water balance of the region.


The Camps


Amboko was the first camp to be built when refugees from the Central African Republic started to flee across the border. In April 2003, UNHCR reacted quickly and set up the camp according to the standardized model of its planning guidebook. Passing the checkpoint of the Chadian Refugee Commission (CNAR), the camp presents itself as large collection of clay huts in a formerly forested area. The “residential sectors” are organized in rows along the main access route which leads to a small central market where refugees sell varieties of goods: agricultural produce that they grow on their little plots, merchandise they were able to bring from their abandoned villages, or clothing which they produce with cloth and sewing machines supplied by some of the NGOs, among other things. Other facilities like a clinic or the school are located close to the market. Every few hundred meters water faucets provide water, and latrines represent the main sanitary equipment of the camp. Throughout its expanse, the camp has a homogenous density of population as well as physical structures, such as huts, and lies relatively isolated from access routes.


Of the two camps near Goré, a strategy of “integration” was adopted by UNHCR when planning the newer camp “Gondje.” According to UNHCR, integration means sharing the central camp facilities such as schools or medical centers with the local population. In practice though, this leads to a permanent settlement of refugees in Chad. This permanent settlement is problematic first of all, as the refugees, whose lives are impacted, were never asked for their opinion. Instead, top priority should always be put on enabling a return of the refugees into their original home region. Only when it becomes apparent that such a return will not be possible for a long time, should a permanent settlement in another country be sought out. But the shared use of schools or medical centers gives the local population of the Chadian villages vital access to education and basic medical facilities, sometimes for the first time ever. Consequently, even the local Chadian population profits from the presence of the refugees. The international community which comes in the wake of the refugees has had a measurable impact on life expectancy and education levels. Those schools and medical facilities founded and run by humanitarian organizations are often of a standard not reached by comparable Chadian institutions. Thus, emergency aid, aimed at saving lives has become part of developmental aid for the host country. One of the consequences is that the Chadian regional administration is allowed to have ever fewer obligations towards its own population, as it has grown to rely on the presence of NGOs and the international community.


On the level of planning, the strategy of “integration” means added space. Instead of providing allotments of 45 m2 per refugee family, as is the case in the older camp, the master plan  for the Gondje camp provides plots of 200 m2.  Refugees are meant to plant vegetable gardens in order to achieve self-sufficiency. What seems neutral and positive when viewed on a technical level shows grave demographic consequences when social and political aspects are taken into consideration. Many of the refugees come from villages of the northern regions of the Central African Republic and have previously practiced a craft or ran small shops. Other refugees are nomads of the tribe called Buel were raising large cattle herds. They don’t like and don’t eat vegetables but are now made to grow vegetables. Through a specific act of planning and a simple design move, those village societies and nomads are being homogenized and turned into rural societies. Architecture takes on the role of the demographer, changing fundamentally the structure of the regional population.


The two camps that are becoming permanent settlements, Amboko and Gondje, each with 15,000 inhabitants, are larger than most of the Chadian towns. In spite of their large size, the structures that are emerging with the refugee camps are not of an urban character.  The camps occupy vast areas and are of low density; there is no concentration towards a center, and individual quarters of distinct character are lacking. Because of their homogeneity and their low density, they are like suburbs – without the corresponding city. When those camps become stable with the strategy of integration, gigantic permanent suburbias are created, with all the problematic aspects of typical suburbs: homogeneity reduces the possibilities for social interaction and eases the potential for observation and control by regional government and camp gendarmerie. There is no social or cultural life, no central density – just space for containing people.


Refugee camps are indispensable and essential, as they often represent the last life-saving sanctuary of protection. Often though, it is the spatial strategies and decisions made for a temporarily intended emergency support that become the permanent “solution.” This reduces the urgency of dealing with the conflict and its political causes – as well as the resulting “human catastrophe” – have been dealt with and contained. A permanent settlement, a solution with architectural means, turns into a strategy of sidestepping the political settlement. With the architect, it becomes possible to turn away from bad politics. As it is now, the architect has become an accomplice of neglect.


Space becomes a medium for politics. Refugee camps are probably the most direct translation of politics into space. Any political strategy or decision has immediate consequence on a spatial dimension in the camp. And any spatial modification, at whatever scale, immediately resonates on a political and demographic level. The camp is an instance of politics directly translated into space.


Organizers of Knowledge


Apart from the fundamental, life-saving functions in the context of conflicts and humanitarian catastrophes, refugee camps are performing a vital function in our globalized world: they are structuring and organizing knowledge of the “wild and savage” for the Western world. At a time, when humanitarian interventions are occurring ever more often, when local conflicts are inscribed into a global matrix of interests, refugee camps become the interface and access point for the activities of the developed world. Almost all knowledge conveyed about the conflict in the Central African Republic comes from the refugee camps and the humanitarian organizations based in the south of Chad. The various news agency reporters as well as the think tanks and diplomatic missions that travel to the camps – in order to get the latest information about the conflict itself and the condition of the rebels, but also information in the fields of ethnography and demography – give proof to the fact that refugee camps have become producers and organizers of knowledge. We perceive the country of Chad almost exclusively through those camps. In a peculiar way mirroring our perception of the East presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism, the refugee camps serve as mental blockades to any potential understanding of the problems in Africa today.