Sent(enced) to Camps

When state announces that ‘there shall be Camps’, it should worry us for it is the apotheosis of Othering those like us

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 4th Sep 2019   12:05 am Updated: 3rd Sep 2019   11:36 pm

Newspapers and the media are rife with stories of various Camps – detention camps (most notoriously exemplified recently by Gitmo and Abu Ghraib), concentration and extermination camps (Nazi Germany), labour camps (Soviet Gulags), refugee camps, ‘rape camps’ (Sudan during the civil war, and in Serbia during the 1990s), internment camps, among others.

If, as Zygmunt Bauman has argued, the Holocaust is a natural, if horrific, consequence and stage in the processes of modernity, one could see the Camp as the quintessential architectural embodiment of our age’s traumatic modernity, to coin a term.


UNHCR Definition
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) defines the refugee camp thus: ‘A refugee camp is intended as a temporary accommodation for people who have been forced to flee their home because of violence and persecution. They are constructed while crises unfold for people fleeing for their lives…’

The Camp embodies an immobility regime: where all movement ends, willingly or unwillingly, a barrier to further migration and mobility. Yet, oddly, the term Camp in itself implies the possibility of further and onward movement, as in the phrase, ‘to move camp’. This is the paradox that afflicts millions around the world, and India too – whether the Pandits who fled Kashmir, refugees from the Partitions, the Rohingyas and now, in all likelihood, those not in the NRCs.

Carceral geography studies (Dominique Moran and others) note that the detenus seek to assert some form of cultural identity even in these sanitised, surveilled spaces in an attempt to reclaim that space in minimal ways. In Kate Evans’ Threads from the Refugee Crisis or Olivier Kugler’s Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees we see photographs, food, clothing styles as modes of such reclamation. Yet, despite these attempts, the Camp essentially remains unchangeable in its very quality of life.

Time is Frozen
Time in a detention camp, like in prisons, ceases to have the same measure as everywhere else. As Dominique Moran puts it:
externally imposed clock time which measures sentences in days, weeks, months and years [is different from] the experiential time as experienced by individual prisoners who variously sense stasis … who perceive time to flow more quickly outside the prison than inside … or who observe the passage of time biologically (through their own embodied processes of ageing and attendant physical deterioration)

But carceral time is not just this. It is the fact that they never seem to leave a so-called transit camp for a better world/home. That is, the Camp, set up as a stop-gap residence for the displaced, eventually sediments into a permanent home for many. For these unfortunates, time is frozen in the historical moment when they entered this Camp. They are described as experiencing time as a limbo, even by the United Nations: ‘Once a person becomes a refugee, they are likely to remain a refugee for many years. Many will be displaced for nearly two decades. It is a life in limbo.’

Visible and Invisible
As WJT Mitchell points out in his essay ‘Migration, Law and the Image’, the detention camps occupy a ‘peculiar status as temporary and permanent, visible and invisible’. In Gaza, often described as the world’s largest open-air detention camp, the refugees live for decades in a state of unending crisis.

In Tings Chak’s horrifically innovative Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention, a graphic novel about migration (2014), she draws various detention camps in Canada. With stylistic minimalism, she sketches the living spaces of the migrants. Drawn as architectural plans, Chak shows us how the refugee’s life is reducible to walls, surveillance cameras and the bare bones of ‘housing’.

The rooms’ dimensions are specified by the ‘Design Standards for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’ (2007) and in line with the UNHCR’s ‘Camp Planning Standards’, which specifies that ‘45 sqm per person’ must be allocated.

Permanence Without Belonging
The point is not that these walls and buildings are so functional and aseptic, the point is that they start off as temporary ‘Camps’ and end up as ‘homes’ for many. It is this permanence without belonging that haunts us when we look at detention architecture of the Camp.

The Camp is increasingly a code for hypersurveillance and monitoring, and Chak’s work does that – every room, every walkway, every space in the Camp is under CCTV eyes. The immobility regime of the Camp means that any minimal mobility is also performed under conditions of surveillance. Imagine, then, living like this for decades, where every move is monitored and recorded. Mobility is restricted when one is monitored thus.

The Camp is designed as a habitat, an inhabitation. It has all the outward appearance of human dwellings too. One could say, it is a clone of human habitation. But that is not quite the case. As refugee comics and diaries such as Kate Evans’ or Olivier Kugler’s show, these never truly become homes. And this is where the question, the ‘problem’, of the refugee or detention camp, intersects with something more.

Fear of Similarities
Those not in national registries, and those in migrant and detention camps, trigger an anxiety not because they are radically different from us, but because they are so akin to us. The ‘enemy’ is so very like us, and yet induces a fear precisely by being a version of our self. Mitchell terms this ‘clonophobia’, the fear not of difference but of similarities, just as we are afraid of humanoid robots not because they are different from us but because they are too much like us.

The Camp is akin to home, to human habitation and yet is not so. A clone with a difference, it contains – literally and metaphorically – those like us, similar to us, who have suddenly with a stroke of the pen been transformed into Others. Our neighbours, who have lived with us for decades, whose children grow up with our own, are suddenly reclassified as alien, foreigner, outsider. And yet – and this is the key – they continue to look, eat, behave like us. A registry or a headcount does not suddenly take away their sameness and bring in difference.

Such processes of alienating people who are then, if reports are to be believed, sent(enced) to Camps, is the start of a humanitarian crisis. It creates Camps out of thin air, alters the boundaries of a city, relegates and confines those like us into settings where, by definition, people unlike us live. The Camp is the apotheosis of Othering those like us.

When the state apparatus announces that ‘there shall be Camps’, it should worry us. One day, we may well be in such a space.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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