Last week someone tweeted a link to my post about the average length of stay in a refugee camp to the BBC radio programme More or Less, which investigates numbers that are in the news. The “17 years” statistic is exactly the kind of thing they like to get their teeth into.
I duly got a message from the producer, and went into the BBC Scotland studios here in Glasgow for an interview earlier this week. The programme was broadcast on the World Service last night—you can listen to it here.
The image is borrowed from the More or Less programme page (click for link),
and I’m quite pleased that it’s not an aerial view:
An Afghan woman carries laundry in a refugee camp in Malakasa.
Credit: Milos Bicanski / Getty
This is the first in a series of posts about images of refugee camps. For three earlier posts about images of refugees, click here, here, and here.
You’ve already seen this photo, or one like it. It’s Zaatari refugee camp in northern Jordan, home to a large (though fluctuating) population of Syrian refugees—about 80,000 at the time of writing, according to the UNHCR data portal’s page on the camp, though it’s been higher. At the moment, Zaatari is probably the most famous refugee camp in the world, though there are many that are older, or bigger, or both. Politicians, diplomats, celebrities, and tourists visit it, and so do many, many journalists. That’s one of the reasons why I say that you’ve already seen this photo, or one like it: if you pay even the slightest bit of attention to the news media, your eyes have passed over an aerial view of Zaatari in the last few years. The hi-res image above (if you do right-click ‘view image’ you can zoom in, it’s impressive) is from the design website Dezeen, but there are others all over the internet. Look:
I could go on, and on. This MailOnline story is more of an image gallery, with six pictures of the camp, five of them aerial views. UNHCR itself tweets pictures like this:
In other posts on this blog I’ve written about visual tropes of refugees: ways of seeing refugees that recur again and again across time and space, making very different groups of people in all sorts of places look more or less the same—making them look like ‘refugees’, in fact. There are some technical reasons why photos of groups of refugees look so similar, to do with the equipment photographers use and the format requirements of the news media where their pictures are (or have been) reproduced. But the choices that photographers and picture editors make are more important.
If there are standard ways of picturing refugees, the same is true for refugee camps—and one of them, as we see, is to look down from above. What are all these aerial views trying to do?
The answer depends on where they’re being used. In the news media, it’s striking how often stories about refugee camps, or even just about refugees, start with a bird’s-eye view of a camp. Here’s one of Dadaab, from a recent article in the Toronto Star:
That article is actually about a new book on Dadaab, the camp in Kenya whose residents could virtually trademark the words ‘The World’s Largest Refugee Camp’. It’s by Ben Rawlence, and based on extensive reportage. But although the book focuses on individuals, the news story starts with an aerial photograph. The Telegraph, publishing a lengthy extract from the book, gives a more varied set of images—but it includes an aerial view too:
Aerial views certainly help to communicate a sense of the scale of a camp like Zaatari or Dadaab. They back up statements about such camps’ sheer size: the Mirror piece about Zaatari, which is from a year ago (30 Jan 2015), observes that in population the camp is ‘virtually the same size’ as the British town of Stevenage, and had been considerably bigger at its peak. Reports, image galleries, and UNHCR tweets alike cite population figures; most of them also mention that the camp is one of the biggest ‘cities’ in Jordan. In fact, when they’re used to illustrate pieces like this, aerial views of refugee camps are one element of a journalistic shorthand, telling the reader what to expect. With a picture, a handy stat, and a factoid (albeit a volatile one: ‘the 3rd/5th/9th biggest city in Jordan’), the scene is set—we’re in a refugee camp.
Such shorthand always leaves me uneasy. Rather than start with a person and a story, it establishes from the start that the story has nothing to do with the reader—this is a different world, one where refugees rather than people live. The occasional relatable fact (‘Crikey, it’s as big as Stevenage!’) doesn’t so much bridge this distance as emphasise it. Sometimes the choice of image runs counter to the story: the BBC story introduced by the picture above is actually about an individual, Mohamed Harib, attempting to run a small business in Zaatari. But just as often, the story itself remains as distant from the people in the camp as the photographer.
Once you notice this, you see it frequently. One example is the Mail Online piece linked above. It’s mostly images: five aerial views of Zaatari, one picture of people at the camp gate, and a map of the Syrian-Jordanian border. What text there is follows US Secretary of State John Kerry on a visit to the camp in July 2013. There are five aerial views of the camp, but it only quotes one person who lives there.
The first photo in this post was taken on that same visit, in fact. As the Mail mentions, while Kerry was visiting Zaatari he took a helicopter flight over the camp: the State Department released this picture from it on its Flickr site. Issued by the US federal government, it is in the public domain, which is why Dezeen also used it. (Wikipedia uses the same photo.) Tellingly, on Flickr the State Department calls this a ‘close-up view’ of the camp.*
Still, at least Kerry visited the camp itself and spoke to people living there. Compare this with another story about refugee camps, and another set of aerial views, on Quartz.com:
This is a story about refugee camps in general, and the growing recognition that ‘temporary’ camps are an increasingly permanent part of the human and natural landscape in many parts of the world. I wouldn’t dispute that fact, nor the argument that we need to rethink what a ‘camp’ is and how they’re planned, built, and run. But there’s a problem of perspective here, and the images that accompany the piece illustrate it better than they realize.
If views taken from aeroplanes and helicopters act to create a distance between a news story (and its readers) and the people living in a refugee camp, what are we to make of these views from space? At least in some of the hi-res aerial photographs you can see actual people going about their business. Not here, though, where the view is from a satellite:
That distance isn’t just metaphorical. Read the article and notice how many refugees it quotes: none. The people who live in Dadaab or Zaatari are a purely rhetorical presence. The headline refers to refugee camps that ‘last three generations’, but the author—who perhaps never left the office to write the story—has not spoken to anyone who arrived at Dadaab as an adult and grew old there, or was born in the camp to refugee parents and grew up there.
Who is quoted instead? Kilian Kleinschmidt, former director of Zaatari, now a freelance development consultant; Céline Schmitt, a UNHCR spokesperson; Taner Kodanaz, from a satellite imaging company called DigitalGlobe. These people are, respectively, based in Vienna, Paris, and Denver, not Dadaab, Zaatari, or any other refugee camp—and if they do go to one, they can leave it when they choose. All well-informed and thoughtful, especially Schmitt and Kleinschmidt, they’re good people to talk to about refugee camps, but it’s a problem that the article talks to them instead of, rather then as well as, anyone actually living in a refugee camp as a refugee. And this is common in much reporting about refugee camps: refugees themselves barely figure, or they make a token appearance (‘speechless emissaries‘ again) in the first paragraph. The images that accompany, and introduce, an article are often the first warning of this.
Here, it’s a more serious problem still, because as I said, this is a story about refugee camps in general, not a report from a single specific camp. Now, there’s an evolving policy debate among humanitarian practitioners about refugee camps: the UNHCR, for example, has recently adopted a policy of seeking alternatives to camps where possible.** This needs to be a wider public debate, too, since refugee camps aren’t just a matter for humanitarian NGOs: they figure in government policy, and not only in states witnessing large inflows of refugees. (In Britain, where I’m writing from, the government persists in seeing encampment in the region as the ‘solution’ to the displacement of millions of Syrians.) The new UNHCR policy is itself a tacit response to the fact that states still prefer to encamp refugees. But any public or policy discussion of refugee camps that doesn’t start with, or at least make a sustained effort to understand, the experiences of the people who live in them is missing out the most important thing about them. This article, which looks down on refugees from space, is an example. What do people who live in refugee camps make of views like this, I wonder? A journalist might think about how to find out.
Humanitarian practitioners, too, should be wary of the view from above. As the author notes, ‘To help them best coordinate space, shelters and facilities, many aid agencies use satellite imagery’. For instance, here’s a recent update (November 2015) on the infrastructure of Zaatari:
It’s easy to find such images on the UNHCR data portal for Zaatari and other camps. It’s harder, though not impossible, to find evidence that refugees themselves have had any role, even a consultative one, in planning the camp and organizing its day-to-day life. Whether we think of them as mere holding camps or as ‘cities of tomorrow’, if those of us who are not refugees get used to seeing refugee camps from space, then whatever plans ‘we’ make for them are destined to fail.
The Quartz article quotes Taner Kodanaz of DigitalGlobe. ‘Our imagery shows the human impact of the crisis,’ he says: it is ‘a very powerful storytelling mechanism.’ Whether they’re setting the scene for a news article or serving as a planning tool for humanitarians, images of refugee camps do indeed tell a story—and it may not be the story we think it is.
Update (same day): for many more of these unappealing views from above, see this ‘story map‘ from ESRI, a mapping software company. It allows you to zoom in on satellite views of the world’s fifty most populous refugee camps—each compared in size to some minor American city, but otherwise almost entirely decontextualized. It’s hard to see what the point is.
Click images for sources
*Taking non-essential chopper trips over a refugee camp is, to say the least, in poor taste, especially in this case. People who have fled Syria have overwhelmingly done so to get away from the regime and its indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations in rebel-held areas—most notoriously, ‘barrel bombing’, levelling whole quarters with cheap and dirty bombs made of barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from, yes, helicopters. It would be good to know if there was any purpose to that flight other than to reassure Kerry—and his host, the Jordanian foreign minister Nasser Judeh—of the great distance that separates them from the people who live in Zaatari.
Seventeen years: the average length of stay in a refugee camp. The figure came up in a conversation last week with a French journalist who’s making a documentary about camps, but I’d heard it many times before—perhaps you have, too. Here are a selection of international sources quoting this figure, which I turned up with a bit of cursory googling in English and an even briefer bit in French:
A 2013 article on TakePart.com (“a digital news & lifestyle magazine and social action platform for the conscious consumer”), quoting Liesl Spitz of FilmAid.
You find the same figure being quoted all over the world, by all sorts of different sources, and not just in English and French: in this Turkish news article from just two weeks ago, ‘Angelina Jolie stated that the average period for which refugees live in refugee camps was 17 years’ [Angelina Jolie, mülteci kampında mültecilerin yaşadıkları sürenin ortalama 17 yıl olduğunu belirtti]. Any statistic that’s so freely quoted by so many different people deserves a bit of critical attention, especially when no-one ever gives the source. And as it happens, my friend Eleanor Davey and I did a bit of digging around about this one last year.
Where does the figure come from? It appears in the 2006 edition of the UNHCR publication, The State of the World’s Refugees, which is probably how it began circulating more widely: lots of journalists, think-tankers, academics, and NGO media teams read this report and quoted from it. If you look on the UNHCR website you can read it too: you’ll find the reference to ‘seventeen years’ in chapter 5, ‘Protracted refugee situations: the search for practical solutions’, p109:
It is estimated that the average duration of major refugee situations, protracted or not, has increased: from 9 years in 1993 to 17 years in 2003.
But the authors are quoting directly from another source: an internal UNHCR document from 2004. If you read that document—and please do, it’s only twelve pages long—you’ll see that it is actually quite cautious about the figures it gives.
Two striking things about the quote itself:
It doesn’t refer to camps. At all.
It states the situation in 2003.
Those two things already raise big problems for our commonplace figure of 17 years being the ‘average length of stay in a refugee camp’.
First, in most refugee situations, protracted or not, many refugees don’t end up in camps—indeed, they often actively avoid them. Of the 200,000 or so Guatemalan refugees who entered Mexico in the early 1980s, just under 50,000 were settled in camps and given refugee status: ‘the others—an estimated 150,000—were defined as undocumented economic migrants subject to deportation’.* If you go to Jordan or Turkey today, you won’t just find Syrian refugees in the enormous camps near the border: you’ll find them in Amman, Istanbul, and other cities. Even if the average duration of a protracted refugee situation is seventeen years (and it isn’t, as we’ll see in a moment), that doesn’t say anything about the average length of stay in a refugee camp. Some people who should know better blur this distinction without quite ignoring it: here’s one example, and here’s another.
Second, things have changed a lot since 2003. The quote itself estimates that in the ten years since 1993 the average length of a protracted refugee situation had increased from nine years to seventeen: significant and rapid change. What has happened since then? Tina Rosenberg uses the same information in this New York Timesblog from 2011, but she doesn’t conflate ‘protracted refugee situation’ and ‘refugee camp’; she also takes care to give the dates to which the information actually applies. I wish Angelina Jolie and Philippe Starck had been as careful.
It gets worse. Read the 2004 document and you’ll see that the figure is very clearly presented as an estimate. (Some of those recent reports state it as ‘fact’.) It’s also based on what UNHCR itself called a ‘crude measure’: ‘25,000 persons or more who have been in exile for five or more years in developing countries’. Crude is the word. I can see the point of having a working definition by length of time displaced: you need some idea of what ‘protracted’ means, with a necessarily arbitrary threshold. I’m not sure why there’s also a limit by size of displaced population, though, nor why this definition is shaped by an even more arbitrary decision which ensures that ‘protracted refugee situations’ can’t happen in rich countries. The document doesn’t say how countries are classified as ‘developing’ or not, either. (This definition now appears to be obsolete.)
The document also notes that Palestinian refugees aren’t included. In institutional UN terms, that makes sense: this is a UNHCR document, and Palestinian refugees have never been UNHCR’s responsibility. As the document says, they’re covered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), set up in 1948—before the 1951 Refugee Convention, and before UNHCR was created. But any figure for ‘protracted refugee situations’ (or for that matter prolonged stays in refugee camps) that doesn’t include them is clearly meaningless: even other UNHCR documents from around the same time pointed out that they represented the ‘oldest and largest’ protracted refugee situation.
The point of this post isn’t to downplay the seriousness of protracted refugee situations, whether the people caught up in them are encamped or not. Nor is it driven by a desire for accuracy. (Well, okay, a little. “Factual Inaccuracy Found On Internet!”) The problem with this untrustworthy figure—bandied around endlessly despite being deeply problematic, over a decade out of date, and not actually about refugee camps—is what it does to refugees themselves. Like the image of ‘the refugee’, like the identikit photos of refugee camps (subject of a future post, as mentioned in the caption to the one at the top of the page), this figure reduces the enormous complexity of protracted refugee situations, and the much greater complexity, richness, and difficulty of the lives of the people living through them, to a mere cipher. It gives those of us who aren’t refugees a sorry little fact to wring our hands over—one of those things we can feel good about feeling bad about—then set aside. When people use it, they’re not really talking about refugees at all.
*Kristi Ann Stølen, ‘Contradictory notions of the state: returned refugees in Guatemala’, in Christian Krohn-Hansen and Knut G. Nustad, State formation: anthropological perspectives (London: Pluto Press, 2005), pp142–167, this quote at p151 and the figure for encamped refugees—46,000—at p153.