Not long time ago I had a chat with Nora Akawi on the space of invisible. She was at the time my housemate in the Columbia Housing apartment I was living in as graduate student at SIPA. Nora is an awesome graduate student of architecture at Columbia University, and also a very good friend. I was attending at the time a class about humanitarian affairswith Professor Dorthea Hilhorst.
The whole point of the class was to understand how important is the perspective that we have as humanitarian workers of the so called “receivers”. One of the best readings we did in this class was Agier, M. and F. Bouchet-Saulnier “Humanitarian Spaces: Spaces of Exception’, in: F. Weissman (ed), “In the Shadows of ‘Just Wars’. Violence Politics and Humanitarian Action”. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 2004. I came back home very excited about the political implication of the idea that Refugee Camps are an “exceptional” space, where we assume the people leaving in it, as people without an identity.
The idea is that when we see refugees, or we face a war zone, we assume that the people leaving in it lose completely their ability to decide and to take autonomous decisions. If we see a refugee, even if he was doctor before becoming a refugee, we assume that everything this person was able to do and influence when he was not a refugee is entirely replaced by the refugee identity.
It is difficult to get away from this paternalistic perspective: a refugee is in our mind someone in need of help, and as such, it is unable to decide by himself. For me the most interesting part of this concept is the idea of anarchy that we assume as being the political space that dominates conflict zones.
When I talk to Nora about this concept she explained to me the idea of the space of invisible. This idea starts from the concept of political urbanism as applied to refugee camps, where the organization of the urban space is completely different from the ones that happened outside. Cities and urban spaces are organized by logical planned systems that assume the existence of rational persons living in it.
Refugee Camps, by contrary, don’t have a planned urban special organization, but are in this sense an anarchist space: the organization of the space in the refugee camps is normally mostly decided and managed by the refugees themselves or by a body of unelected external subjects, the humanitarian workers.
If we overlap to this context the political layer, we can see the Refugee Camps as a political experiment of anarchism, where the political structure is one of the most atypical ever. Refugee camps are in this perspective a completely autonomous and exceptional space where decision-making, space and urban structure are the result of the interactions between the humanitarian workers and the refugees.
The space of invisible is here a political and an architectural concept: the refugee camps as an isolated space where the invisibles are relegated, in a vacuum where the political organization is completely separated and autonomous from the one outside it.
An interesting concept that emerged from this analysis is the one expressed by Alessandro Petti (Research Fellow at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths College, University of London and Architect based in London/Bethlehem) about the architecture of apartheid. There, Alessandro explains spatial organization from the prospective of the political meaning of the exclusion of certain categories of people from certain spaces.
Alessandro uses here the example of gated communities in the US or the so called “Settlers Roads” in the West Bank. Again, the idea is that the organization of the space reflects a specific political organization, which can be analyzed by looking at the architecture of the space itself.
To go back to our Refugee Camps, what emerged from the analysis above is the idea that space is not a-political or neutral, but it is the very true expression of the political meaning that we attach to the people living in it.
So the question is, what is the political meaning we attach to refugees, if we look at the spatial organization of refugee camps?
The answer is that refugee camps appear to be the space of invisible, a space where people without identity are relegated in a space without a political organization, and where the political values that we consider fundamental for ourselves are not valid anymore. There is no discussion going on in the International Arena on why UNHCR takes certain decisions about certain people without being a democratically elected organism, for example. And this is because there is no concept of the refugees as people that can decide for and by themselves, as we, citizens-electors, can do.
But is this the case? Are refugees people without identity? And is the absence of identity enough to say that they have no rights as citizens?
If we look more closely to refugees, and in general to people living in war zones, the true is that these people not only still have a very present identity, but that their identity is reinforced and re-affirmed thought the experience that they had. A doctor doesn’t stop to be a doctor just because he lost his house, as well as a mother doesn’t stop to be a mother because she lost her children.
An example of this is the fact that last year in Mogadishu 7 students graduated from the Faculty of Medicine. In a country where there is no government, no “order” as we define it, not political organization, students go to school and graduate as well as we do in our “organized” society. In Mozambique, after a 15-years civil war that produced more than 4 million deaths, farmers were traveling from their homes to the other side of the country to sell their products, and kept doing it for all the 15 years of the war.
Life doesn’t stop during war, and identity doesn’t disappear when you become a refugee. So why does it citizenship and all the rights related to it? Why we want to protect refugees by depriving them of their rights as citizens, and by relegating them in the space of invisible? What is that those people represent to us that we don’t want to see? And, most important, what will happen when the invisible will come back to claim its rights? The fact that we don’t wanna see doesn’t means that things are not going on: we better watch out what is going on in the spaces where we relegate the invisible, cause the consequences of its political exception will not be so invisible.