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What Happens to Law in a Refugee Camp?


  • Elizabeth Holzer

  • 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 Tehila Sagy 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 Lomo, Mary Bernstein, Francesca Bonelli, 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, Sociology Department and Human Rights Institute, Unit 2068, 344 Mansfield Road, Storrs, CT 0626; phone: (860) 486-4428; e-mail:


How do people living in a refugee camp engage with legal practices, discourses, and institutions? Critics argue that refugee camps leave people in “legal limbo” depriving them of the “right to have rights” despite the presence 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 international 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 campaigns: the emergence of wards of international law, people deeply embedded in the international legal system, but alienated from local law.