What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp?

Published date01 December 2013
Date01 December 2013
What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp?
Elizabeth Holzer
How do people living in a refugee camp engage with legal practices, dis-
courses, and institutions? Critics argue that refugee camps leave people in
“legal limbo” depriving them of the “right to have rights” despite the pres-
ence of international humanitarian actors and the entitlements enshrined in
international law. For that reason, refugee camps have become a highly
visible symbol of failed human rights campaigns. In contrast, I found in an
ethnography of the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Ghana, West Africa, that
although people living as refugees faced chronic insecurity and injustice, they
engaged extensively with several different facets of the law. I illuminate three
interrelated dimensions of their experiences: (1) their development as inter-
national legal subjects; (2) their alienation from domestic legal institutions;
and (3) their agency within the legal f‌ield. The article contributes to the
research agenda on law in humanitarian settings an empirically grounded
account of the subjective dimensions of legal alienation and mobilization
in a refugee camp. More broadly, it contributes to international human rights
debates by theorizing a mixed outcome of international human rights cam-
paigns: the emergence of wards of international law, people deeply embedded
in the international legal system, but alienated from local law.
An extensive patchwork of international, regional, and national
laws govern contemporary refuge whether people f‌ind sanctuary
in postindustrial cities or in refugee camps in the global South
(Barnett 2002; Cuellar 2006; Hathaway 1991; Nanda 1989; Wilde
1998). Over 100 states have ratif‌ied the major international refugee
I am grateful to the people who took the time to share their stories with me in the midst
of diff‌icult circumstances and to Anthony Nimley and Jelbeh Johnson, who contributed
valuable research assistance. I would like to thank Susanne Tete,Samuel Agblorti, and Jeff
Crisp for sharing their thoughts on UNHCR and the protests and Kaisa Akvist, Guy Threlfo,
and TehilaSagy for sharing their thoughts on politics and law in Buduburam. I would also
like to thank the following people for their feedback on earlier drafts: Andrew Deener,Alice
Kang, Kristy Kelly,Galya Ruffer,Zachary L omo, Mary Bernstein, FrancescaBonelli, Jeremy
Pais, Claudio Benzecry, Richard Wilson, and the editors and anonymous reviewers at
LSR. Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 13th Biennial Meeting of the
International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (under the auspices of IRC29
Legal Mobilization during Humanitarian Crises) and at the Northwestern Center for
Forced Migration Studies Faculty Working Group Series. This work was supported by a
fellowship from the Charlotte Newcombe Foundation, a grant from the National Science
Foundation (0719733), and a Large Faculty Grant from the University of Connecticut.
Please direct all correspondence to Elizabeth Holzer, University of Connecticut, Sociol-
ogy Department and Human Rights Institute, Unit 2068, 344 Mansf‌ield Road, Storrs, CT
0626; phone: (860) 486-4428; e-mail: elizabeth.holzer@uconn.edu.
Law & Society Review, Volume 47, Number 4 (2013)
© 2013 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
treaties. The United Nations established two agencies devoted to
the protection of refugee rights: the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees (UNHCR) and UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine
Refugees in the Near East (Loescher 1993; Morris 2004). Yet, critics
argue that refugee camps leave people in a “state of exception” or
“legal limbo” that deprives them of the “right to have rights” (Adam
2009; Diken 2004; Edkins 2000; Hanaf‌i & Long 2010; Knudsen
2009). For that reason, refugee camps have become a highly visible
symbol of failed human rights campaigns. Are these legal mecha-
nisms disappearing without a trace? How (if at all) do people living
in the midst of humanitarian crisis engage with legal practices,
discourses, and institutions?
Contrary to most refugee law scholarship, I argue that people
living as refugees engage extensively with several different facets
of the law. Existing debates about law in humanitarian crises have
not yet given suff‌icient attention to legal consciousness and legal
mobilization research (Edkins 2000; Hathaway 1991; Mendel
1997). For that reason, scholars have not yet recognized how much
even ineffectual international laws and unjust domestic legal prac-
tices change the way that people living as refugees think about their
social worlds. My contention is that refugee studies scholars would
benef‌it from drawing on the work of legal consciousness scholars
because f‌ine-grained observations of the lived experiences of refu-
gees can teach us interesting things about how a person actually
reaches and responds to what previous scholars have observed—
chronic insecurity and injustice.
What happens in refugee camps matters for scholarly debates
about international human rights because refugee protection is a
vital form of international human rights activism today (Advocates
for Human Rights 2009; Harrell-Bond 2002; Hathaway 1991;
Human Rights Advocacy Centre 2008: 18–20). Researchers who
study international human rights activism tend to focus on the
spectacular successes (Keck & Sikkink 1998; Klotz 1999; Risse,
Ropp, & Sikkink 1999) and catastrophic failures (Pogge 2008;
Power 2010; Wilson 2005). These debates about international
human rights tend to overlook or downplay the unique effects of
mixed outcomes to human rights campaigns—the compromised
legal institutions and small concessions that are not really campaign
“successes,” but should not be wholly discounted as failures, either.
In the article, I use the refugee camp case to theorize one kind of
mixed outcome to human rights campaigns drawing upon a case
study of the Buduburam Refugee Camp, a predominately Liberian
refugee camp in Ghana, West Africa.
In the Buduburam Refugee Camp, I explored the subjective
dimensions of law—the ways that people made sense of the legal
practices, discourses, and institutions that they encountered (f‌ield-
838 Law in a Refugee Camp
work: March–April 2006; September 2007–August 2008; June–July
2011). As a case study, Buduburam exemplif‌ies the most effective
refugee camp policymaking in Africa in that camp inhabitants
faced little armed conf‌lict and few legal restrictions on economic
activities or migration (Apeadu 1991; Dzeamesi 2008; Kpatinde
2006; Zongolowicz 2003). In 1990, Ghana, a signatory to the major
refugee conventions, and the UNHCR, the leading refugee aid
organization, established Buduburam in the poor, but centrally
located district of Gomoa to provide sanctuary for refugees from
the Liberian civil war. By 2006, Buduburam had become the semi-
permanent home to over 20,000 refugees. People often imagine
humanitarian crisis as transitory, ungovernable violence, but in
reality, many conf‌licts linger for decades becoming “protracted
refugee crises” (Crisp 2002; Loescher & Milner 2005). Over the
years, humanitarians, hosts, and refugees develop systems of
meaning that routinize social life in the midst of perpetual disaster.
Such was the case in Buduburam, which became one of the largest
and most thoroughly regulated political units in the Gomoa district.
In Buduburam, I found that many people living as refugees
came to see themselves as rights holders under the protection of the
international community—a legal consciousness that inspired some
to claim rights in large-scale social movement activism in 2007–2008.
Yet, the story does not end so straightforwardly with the emergence
of refugee activists. Despite some efforts by the UNHCR and host
government to promote legal practices in the camp, most camp
inhabitants—including protesters—experienced host law as a pro-
prietary resource of citizenship from which they could not benef‌it.
This paradox—the simultaneous engagement with and alienation
from the law—has important implications for debates about the local
consequences of international law. It encourages us to give more
serious attention to the times when international human rights cam-
paigns produce compromised legal institutions; when legal empo-
werment raises confused awareness of entitlements. These mixed
outcomes are not just midpoints in the trajectories to success and
failure, but highly consequential outcomes of international human
rights campaigns to be conceptualized in their own right. This article
contributes to research on international human rights by theorizing
one mixed outcome to international human rights campaigns—the
emergence of wards of international law, people deeply enmeshed in
international human rights, but alienated from local law.
In this article, I explore the emergence of wards of interna-
tional human rights in a three-part analysis of legal subjectivity in
Buduburam. First, I explore how the refugee camp system encour-
aged people to understand themselves as subject to the law; I focus
on the role of the UNHCR, the foremost importer of law to the
camp. Second, I examine how people came to understand host
Holzer 839

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