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Dania Abdel Samad

Alumnus

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Borders: A State of Mind



Refugee camps are an ever-present reality and phenomenon of "being" among the world's plane of territories, states and communities. They are not new to us, however with time and the evolution of events, one can say that they are one of the many embodiments of supermodernity to use Marc Augé's term, which is a state of being characterized by excess. The excess being that of time, space and individuality, which in turn produce what Augé calls non-places. 


The overabundance of time here is that of events, the now; history is being accelerated with the excess of events and is made the moment it's been lived; thus emerges the need to give meaning to our present; "The need to give meaning to the present, if not the past, is the price we pay for the overabundance of events corresponding to a situation we could call 'supermodern' to express its essential quality: excess"  (Augé, p.29).


As mentioned before, our supermodern world is the spring point of the so called "non-places"; spaces unlike the anthropological place, not defined as relational, historical nor concerned with identity. A non-place never exists in pure form; places reconstitute themselves in it, relations are resumed and restored in it (Augé, p.77-78). Such places (not the anthropological place) are perceived to be temporary and suspended, places for the passing not for dwelling, places for strangers and travelers. Places such as airports, hotels, railway stations, supermarkets all fall under "non-place"; as they are spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure) (Augé, p.94)


So evidently, refugee camps are also one of the many embodiments of non-places. To start with, the sites of refugee camps are ones with no previous history nor identity, they are lands often on the outskirts where nobody had settled before, disregarded until the arrival of those who have been displaced, until an event actually takes place. They are also spaces of transit, or at least they are originally designated as such.


The temporality of refugee camps is questionable. What starts out as a temporary abode for refugees and asylum seekers until they can return to their homeland, prolongs its existence into a more "permanent" situation as these camps become more and more defined places, with their own rules of governance (or lack thereof), independent from the countries the people originated from and independent as well from the country in which they now reside. Thus they become islands in an archipelago of exceptions as architect and intellectual Eyal Weizman would call it.


Refugee camps around the world have become in some cases, zones or entities disconnected from the world, the world of states and laws and security; in other cases extensions of these states beyond their borders. Consequently, we are witnessing somewhat a delineation of states and sovereignty, and the emergence of new sovereignties with these new "borders", official or not.  


So what are borders but lines drawn on a map? The emergence of this situation of extraterritoriality and the reality of the refugee camps and their means of governance and survival and their relations with their surroundings, or the "outside". Borders are already drawn before a temporary refugee camp transformed into a permanent one (such as the Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Jordan). They have been drawn in the minds of the refugees and the nationals of the countries which are hosting them. 


And here if we refer to Zygmunt Bauman's take on borders; we see that they are the obsession of today's communities, on all scales. According to him the main reason we draw borders in the first place is to overcome fear and insecurity, which are both prominent in our modern day lives. He describes the city to be the dump of globally produced problems (of which are refugees and asylum seekers), the battlefield where freedom and insecurity meet, struggle and attempt to reconcile, and lastly it is the lab in which local solutions to global problems are experimented with and put to the test (Bauman, New Frontiers and Universal Values, from lecture on "Borders", CCCB, 2004). 


In an attempt to find this balance between security and freedom we draw up borders of all kinds, to fence out the "sources of our fears and anxieties", this translates automatically to establishing a difference between "we" and "they". Gated communities, walls, highly developed surveillance and security systems… all products of our struggle to find this balance between freedom and insecurity which Bauman talks about. Another manifestation of this struggle is the involuntary formation of ghettos as well, people draw invisible borders between those outside and those in. Those on the outside perceive ghettos as a "no go" area, the people inside labeled different, and when you stand on the other side of the "border",  the people there are those who want to get out but can't (for reasons that shall not be discussed here). The border here is a state of mind.


Such is the case for refugee camps. True, in some instances the borders are in fact real concrete ones (as in the Israeli fortified concrete separation wall, which for that matter has been bypassed physically also as settlements and camps are scattered in and out, tunnels built underground and planes hover above). However, the issue here is that the refugees see no border around their camp, the border they maintain in their mind is that of their homeland, because return is their motive whether they've been refugees for weeks, months, years, or generations. Even the temporality or permanence of the camp they are in is irrelevant, because when asked the answer does not resemble the reality they are in.


When taken from the stand point of the occupant or the host country of refugees, again the answers as to where the borders are and the description of what is happening within their confines differ. So who is to say when and where a line should be drawn, and what is the significance of it (the material one), when the one that actually prompts and drives situations we are experiencing today is the immaterial border in peoples' minds. 




Bibliography:


Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, 1995

Eyal Weizman, On Extraterritoriality, conference lectured at the symposium "Archipelago of exception. Sovereignities of extraterritorially", 2005

Zygmunt Bauman, New Frontiers and Universal Values, lecture on "Borders" at Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, 2004



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