Refugees and Refugee Camps: A Comparative Perspective since World War II

AHA Session 205
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom C (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Peter Gatrell, University of Manchester
Peter Gatrell, University of Manchester

Session Abstract

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in 2009, more than 15.2 million people were designated refugees.  Of these men, women, and children approximately thirty percent reside in refugee camps.[1]  The explosion of refugee camps in the aftermath of World War II set in motion what is often termed the “refugee regime,” encompassing UN agencies, international non-governmental organizations, human rights activists, militaries, national governments, and millions of displaced men and women.         

Our panel zeroes in on the refugee camp itself.  Rather than take camps for granted as constitutive of post-war upheavals and relief operations, we question the construction and consequences of “camps.”  What are the relationships between refugee camps, host nations, and international organizations?  How do technologies of surveillance and confinement define refugee camps’ physical and psychological dynamics?  How do refugees navigate the contours of these proscribed spaces?  In short, what are the histories and politics of post-war refugee camps, and what can we learn about placing these camps in a historic constellation rather than investigating them each in isolation?  As historians, we hope to read the archives in ways that recognize the historical contingency of refugee camps and contribute to contemporary debates.    

The panel brings together scholars of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States to spark dialogue and debate about the centrality of refugee camps in the second half of the twentieth century.  Anna Holian (Arizona State University) investigates how, and to what extent, the model elaborated in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in post-war Europe informed the development of UNHCR camps.  She analyzes refugee camps as a “technique of power” used to control and manage refugee populations.   Mezna Qato (Oxford University) will turn to Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, where she uncovers the complex relationship between Jordan’s state-directed initiatives and UNRWA and UNESCO technologies to “educate” Palestinians with clear ideological goals.  Jo Tague (UC Davis) moves the conversation to eastern Africa in her analysis of refugee camps in Tanzania that emerged during the 1964-1975 Mozambique War for Independence.  Unlike the camps above, the camps in Tanzania were not sanctioned or governed by the UN auspices, and she considers the politics of the camp in the context of an anti-colonial warfare.  Finally Jana Lipman (Tulane University) will turn to the United States and analyze the role of the US military in overseeing refugee camps in the United States on US military bases.  This practice served to blur the lines between military and humanitarian operations.  Peter Gatrell (Manchester University) author of Free World? The Campaign to Save the World’s Refugees, 1956-63 and Making of the Modern Refugee (forthcoming) will chair and provide commentary. 

Because of the contemporary nature of this topic, we hope the panel will spur thoughtful and comparative debate.  To that end, we are committed to presenting concise papers, and leaving plenty of time for discussion.   

[1] UNHCR Global Trends Report, (accessed February 1, 2011). 

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