Humane Detention: Care and Displacement at the End of Empire

Friday, January 5, 2018: 2:10 PM
Hampton Room (Omni Shoreham)
Jordanna Bailkin, University of Washington
The notion that detention could be humane has a long imperial history. This paper explores how this longstanding notion of “humanitarian detention” shifted during the era of imperial crisis and the redeployment of imperial power. In particular, it considers the material culture and built environment of humanitarian detention, from refugee camps to holding centers for “illegal” or shuttlecocked aliens.

The paper examines the creation or repurposing of army and air force bases to house three groups of refugees whose displacement was generated by different moments of imperial collapse: Anglo-Egyptians (who were forced to leave Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956), Ugandan Asians (who were pushed out of Uganda by Idi Amin’s Africanization policies in 1972-3), and “boat people” (who were fleeing civil war in Vietnam in 1981-2). I compare the diverse environments in which these refugees stayed upon their arrival in Britain. I focus on policies of spatial freedom and unfreedom, and the highly varied degrees to which these refugees of empire were free to leave their camps. I consider both how British camp authorities sought to enforce restrictions on mobility, and how refugees resisted these policies.

The paper further considers how these refugee camps – defined as spaces of aid, but often experienced as spaces of incarceration – morphed in the late 20th century into detention centers for “illegals” (also themselves frequently from postcolonial locales). By exploring the close ties of personnel and policy between these two presumably differentiated types of spaces, we can better understand the genealogy of the ties between humanitarianism and the security state during the end of empire and beyond.

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