The refugee regime - Moving in its own way

“UNHCR officers can freely ‘advise’ African governments on how to deal with refugees arriving to their countries while simultaneously their own governments are closing borders”

Cindy Horst, Transnational Nomads

Our approach to the readings on migration and ethnicity will be focused on two alternatives: analysis focusing on macro-level and on the wide structural nature of relations between the actors in the refugee regime; and grassroots anthropological, deductive approaches building theory from below. We will argue towards the need for an integrated approach, by breaking down and inter-relating two central texts: one is Cindy Horst’s (2006) anthropological study of the Somali refugee camp of Dadaab in Kenya and the second is the 2006 UNHCR report on the state of the World’s Refugees (2006). These two core texts will in turn be commented and opinionated with help from insights of other readings from the field of migration studies.

Assessing the components of the Refugee Regime

Horst’s piece consists on a bottom-up anthropological voyage inter-weaving the narrative of ‘real life’ at Dadaab refugee camp (with its power struggle and micro-politics incidents and intricacies) and the bigger picture of broad policy-making by key actors on the field such as the hosting State, UNHCR, CARE and the International Community. It withholds a deductive and vertical analysis of both the structural strengths and weaknesses (but mainly weaknesses) of these last players taking part in the dynamics of the contemporary refugee regime. A great strength of her study is its systemic approach which, although highly academic, manages to remain caustic and passionate, demonstrating a close contact, experience and observation of the conditions on the field. Her work encompasses all different actors putting together the system of the camp and links the global with the local, showing how shifts and ossified historical elements of refugee policy-making have direct impact on the life of those in the camp. A demonstration of this is her first-hand critique of the psycho-political process of refugee dependency syndrome whereby refugees supposedly seem to go through a process of “learned helplessness” and passiveness (Horst, 2006: 92). She disapproves of this as a harmful and imprecise classification since it puts the locus of guilt on the refugees’ side, forgetting about the dynamics of power set up by other actors. This core argument is well underpinned firstly by an analysis of the different economic and physical insecurities faced by the refugees (2006:81-86), and secondly by a look at the main institutional weaknesses of UNHCR, its inherent contradictions, inefficiencies and limitations (2006: 111-112). The whole anthropological study revolves around the power-systems in the camp that have, in turn, dialectically socialized and determined who different actor is “meant to be”, suppose to behave like, and what level of agency it is suppose to hold. In this sense, for example, refugees are “meant to be” ‘vulnerable’ in order to be liable for handouts of food and resources (Horst, 2006:93). The most fascinating aspect in this literature is how the mainstream discourse, dominated by humanitarianism, constitutes a very active problem because while the eyes, pockets and minds of international actors are “focused on care for refugees, far less attention is paid to providing opportunities for self-sufficiency” (Horst, 2006: 81). It is indeed truly astonishing how this humanitarian-dominated discourse is replicated within “camp life” with a (usually successful) initial assistance phase but a deterioration in the long-term when refugees start stepping out of place and reacting to the strange role of residual apolitical sponsoring they are premiered with.
An interesting question arising out of this discussion is if one can criticize the UNHCR report (2006) for dehistoricizing and depoliticizing refugees? Well, the text consists of an interesting and vast set of updated statistics on the current number of refugees using both stock and flow data and opting for a simple and accessible report-like writing style, seemingly trying to assume a rather neutral and assessmental tone. It is more of a survey than a critical, solution-provider exercise, meaning that it highlights trends and what it sees as the evolution of data and ‘facts’ on refugees. Invoking Malkki (1996:389) as a viable critique to the report can be on the whole unfair given some case-by-case empirical examples and the purpose of the report, however his argument that some representational practices “tend actively to displace, muffle, and pulverize history” can indeed be applicable to other over-positivistic reports of the same nature. Recent writings on refugee dependency confirm this, illustrating how, while the time-horizon of the processes, events and challenges for refugees has changed towards being increasingly long-term, the solutions that the refugee regime support remain immediate and short-term in scope for a variety of reasons, namely: inter-institutional competitiveness, sponsoring dependence, unaccountability of UNHCR (Horst: 109). In sum, the variables measuring success are sometimes flawed and calculated by using “western formulas”, not accounting for an effective completion of the “refugee cycle” (Koser & Black, 1999). These formulas fall short, at times, of acknowledging refugees as evolving groups to whom the regime subsequently fails to adapt to. After saying this, the report praises a diminution in the numbers of refugees (in the strict sense) in comparison to the 1990s but does recognize that there is a huge parallel “side-problem” in the form of a different category denominated Internally Displaced People (UNHCR, 2006) and other challenges such as increasing human trafficking and smuggling, migration induced by environmental and natural disasters as well as development-induced displacement. It is therefore informative and useful.

Old Structures - New Challenges

In terms of relevance to contemporary reality, the question of the refugee regime fits in with the wider debate on migration studies. The Noll (2006) and Chikezie (2006) articles, for example, provide evidence of what are the threats to the ‘North’ of a lack of self-sufficiency on behalf of refugee and other migrants (self-dependency in a broad sense, different kinds of migrants have distinct socio-economic characteristics and seeks diverse autonomies). All these threats seem to have had their roots in the inherent tension between freedom of movement and state sovereignty. It goes to show how migration, development and peace research are inextricably linked. In fact, migration policies are an untapped platform for development, as Chikezie notes:

“the World Bank, in its Global Economic Prospects 2006 conducted by Sussex University indicated that global benefits of a further 3% increase in migration from developing to developed countries could yield a $365 billion increase in global income, dwarfing aid or Foreign Direct Investment” (2006)

Unfortunately, as the readings have shown, the refugee “label” is not an ethnic one, but just like ethnicity, it can be “not only about difference but also a matter of sustaining inequalities of power and access to social resources” (Fenton, 2003: 132). Indeed, as Horst (2006) and Chikezie (2006) have noted the process of decision-making remains centralized and states resilient on this aspect since the definition of who can claim to be a refugee, under article 1 of the 1951 Refugee convention, is extremely vague and more than open for political manipulation and ambiguity. Understanding North-South relations in the wider context and the persistence of relative gains real-politik by ‘northern’ nation-states can also allow us to better understand the behaviour and objectives of those flying the “flag of the north” within the refugee camp. The refugee regime was an invention of the north and it has remained so - immovable and centralized.
Concerning a future master thesis, the readings have provided us with a great picture of how rigid structures in international politics can arise out of what are, in a personal constructivist interpretation, malleable perceptions which then turn into a modus operandi deeply influencing the reality on the ground. Attentiveness to this phenomenon will undoubtedly be a vital skill when looking at the determining moments in the processes of origin and perpetuation of trends – trends constitute the backbone of any foresight framework. From the examples, we took the 1951 refugee convention and the early history of the refugee regime (both in its built-imaginary and structural evolution), as powerful determinants of today’s situation, as so, this early period, to use the notion of Dahrendorf (2005), represented a moment of “constitutional politics”, a time that set the rules of the game and the institutional and political structures defining the social order.


To wrap up, Horst’s micro level approach, humanizing refugees and portraying them as individuals with agency potential acting within a constraining and difficult context is complemented by the UNHCR positivist macro-level approach, painting the situation in vast statistical “brush strokes”. An integration of these approaches can considerably help us understand the dimensions and overlaps of migration studies in general and the refugee regime in particular. If, on the one hand, arguing that there has been a “maturation” of the refugee regime can be troublesome when we look at the variety of continuities remaining from the events prior and following the issue of the first Nansen passport (1922), on the other hand we have undoubtedly entered a post-1990s era where the nature of the challenges and the dynamics of possible solutions have visibly changed while, unfortunately, most norms and conventions have not.


Chikezie, C. 2006. “Make poverty history? Make migration Easy!” in Open Democracy (online edition), 10 January. http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-africa_democracy/poverty_migration_3166.jsp (30 September 2006)

Dahrendorf, R. 2005. (originally published in 1990) Reflections on the Revolution in Europe New Jersey: Transaction Publishers

Fenton, S. 2003. Ethnicity Cambridge: Polity Press (Ch 6. “Migration ethnicity and mobilization”)

Horst, C. 2006. “Refugee life in the camps - Providing security or sustaining dependency?” in Horst, C. (ed.) Transnational nomads. How Somalis cope with refugee life in the Dadaab camps of Kenya. Oxford & New York: Berghahn Books (77-121)

Koser, K. & Black, R. 1999. “The end of the refugee cycle?”, in Jacobsen, K. (ed.) The Economic Life of Refugees. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books (2-17)

Malkki, L. 1996. “Speachless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization” in Cultural Anthropology, 11(3): 377-404

Noll, G. 2006. “The Euro-African migration conference: Africa sells out to Europe” in Open Democracy (online edition), 14 July. http://www.opendemocracy.net/people-migrationeurope/migration_conference_3738.jsp (30 September 2006)

UNHCR, 2006. The state of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millenium (Chapter 1 – Current Dynamics of Displacement). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

1 comment:

João Borges said...

Tenho a honra de inaugurar os comentários neste post.
Orgulho-me de ver um extraordinário politólogo a desenvolver-se. Muitos parabéns Daniel.

Forte abraço Luso.