Urbanizing Refuge: Interrogating Spaces of Displacement


  • This research was funded by a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship, the Al-Falah Fellowship from the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, UC Berkeley and the Spiro Kostof Fellowship from the Department of Architecture, UC Berkeley. I would like to thank Nezar AlSayyad, Steve Graham, Steve Pile, Martin Coward and three IJURR referees for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this article.
  • Correction Note: This article was first published online on the 23rd of May 2013, under a subscription publication licence. The article has since been made OnlineOpen, and the copyright line and licence statement was therefore updated in June 2014.


Refugee spaces are emerging as quintessential geographies of the modern, yet their intimate and everyday spatialities remain under-explored. Rendered largely through geopolitical discourses, they are seen as biopolitical spaces where the sovereign can reduce the subject to bare life. In conceptualizing refugee spaces some scholars have argued that, although many camps grow and develop over time, they evolve their own unique form of urbanism that is still un-urban. This article challenges this idea of the camp as space of pure biopolitics and explores the politics of space in the refugee camp using urban debates. Using case studies from the Middle East and South Asia, it looks at how the refugee spaces developed and became informalized, and how people recovered their agency through ‘producing spaces’ both physically and politically. In doing so, it draws connections between refugee camps and other spaces of urban marginality, and suggests that refugee spaces can be seen as important sites for articulating new politics.