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Humanity and Humanitarianism: A Visit to A Refugee Camp in Djibouti

By Scarlet Ng

UNHCR/Vanessa Panaligan

Our group went to visit Bashraheel’s museum at the camp today. It was a haunting sight — bald, decapitated dolls sitting atop metal poles, skewered; ragged teddy bears strangled by broken barbed wires; silicone heads dangling in the air, their hair caught in splintered metal; naked Barbie dolls with their legs apart, the metal poles spiking straight through their bodies. Most striking of all, though, was the sheer amount of pride he took in his exhibits — the pumped chest, the upright posture, and the broad grin spanning his weathered face when he revealed the origin of his cherished artefacts with an unbridled triumph matched only by the crow of his rooster: “The garbage!”

This was Markazi. The refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti that is home — to the extent that plastic tents and shipping containers can be called as such — to over 1500 Yemeni refugees escaping from their war-torn homeland across the Gulf of Aden. Under the cloudless sky and the merciless sun, they strive to free themselves from the pestering flies, the blinding dust, and the bondage of the refugee identity by finding their unique role in the camp as grocery store owners, English teachers, volunteers or tuk-tuk drivers — as humans with agency and dignity.

The museum is an exemplary testament to their humanity. It attests to humans’ ability to adapt and to create art and beauty with whatever and however little they have. What may be dismissed by the world as worthless garbage without a second thought, may to some be the very things that keep them alive and their sanity, hope and humanity intact amid the dehumanising conditions of the camp. More tangible examples would include the refugees who would chew up used water bottles lying around on the ground in half, and others who would retool holed, tattered plastic bags to create objects capable of transporting their rations. Ironically, the very people who have been abandoned by the world are those who are breathing new life into these abandoned objects, almost as if to declare to the world that they too are of worth.

Creating (and curating) the museum is not so different from adopting the sickly dogs and goats roaming around the camp — arguably a much more popular practice, in that both are driven by a deep-seated desire to establish routine and normality in the state of limbo and uncertainty these refugees have been involuntarily hurled into and are now mired in; to take possession of something when they are themselves dispossessed; to prove to and remind themselves of their own humanity.

The ‘short stories’ — how Bashraheel refers to his exhibits — that he made out of these items about peace and war are physical embodiments of his most profound inner desires. What were eerie blue eyes on a bodiless baby doll to me, were to him windows to a world of hope, peace and harmony. What were sinister, strangled dolls to me, were to him representations of a childlike innocence, joy and simplicity. Even though our circumstances are drastically different, our desires for peace, love and happiness are universal because these are the core values that underpin humanity and — at the risk of stating the painfully obvious — they are humans just like we are. This thus begs the question: Why are we unable to treat them as such?

Chimni provides some insight into this in a paper published in 1998. He argues that since the UNHCR was intended to be non political in character, it encouraged a depoliticised discourse and shored up the international refugee law preeminence in refugee studies. The neutral language of humanitarianism was seen as the most appropriate counter to the Soviet critique of the UNHCR and refugee law: Without political strings attached, objectively human responsibilities embodied in humanitarianism cannot be shirked. And yet, it is precisely this depoliticisation that cripples the UNHCR and the refugee law’s ability to address the tensions between the rights of states to regulate movement of people and the rights of individuals to life and liberty. Ultimately, what was originally a boon became a burden and loophole. The UNHCR’s lack of political stance allowed it to be easily influenced by those who wield political power and are providing the funds necessary for its operational expenses, meaning that the subjectivity inherent in politics which the founders of the UNHCR had so actively rejected has now been let into the system that was supposedly based solely on rules that were objectively interpreted and enforced. This subjectivity allowed the common biases and discrimination on the bases of race, nationality and economic status to seep into, lodge and flourish in the system, insidiously but forcefully.

As a result, resettlement has become outmoded and “voluntary repatriation” is now advocated as the only appropriate, viable, durable solution. However, the line between what is voluntary and what is not is often blurred, and many are often repatriated to their countries of origin against their will. The new focus on and shift of blame onto the countries of origin — the very countries embroiled in conflict and are, more often than not, on the brink of collapse — is but a reflection of the selfish interests of the West, who would go as far as to create what Chimni refers to as “the myth of difference” to exaggerate the differences between the white, politically persecuted, anti-communist, male refugees in Europe and those who are desperate, poor, coloured in the Third World, in order to evoke anti-immigrant sentiments in the public. This thinly veiled act of alienation and othering is what has intensified social division and perpetuated inhumane humanitarian aid and solutions which continue to disappoint refugees.

Many of them simply ask to be treated as equals, as humans of worth. Yet the humanitarian work we see today perpetuates a narrative that treats refugees as less than human, as burdens, as passive recipients of the West’s generosity — a narrative that glorifies the West at the expense of developing countries. Instead of ignoring and shying away from investigating the root causes which may often incriminate them, Chimni contends that donor countries in the West distort realities by producing internalist explanations of the root causes and shifting the bulk of the blame onto countries of origin. Rather than addressing the multifaceted, complex nature of conflicts and taking into account the international and external events which often play an indispensable role in causing them, these countries have removed themselves from conflict narratives entirely and thus evaded moral responsibility by producing a seductively reductive and thus unrealistic narrative of the root causes.

Chimni concludes his article with a rather hopeful suggestion of an approach that prioritizes genuine, open dialogue, encourages inclusionary policies and embraces values of “global democracy” — basically, expanding our loyalties to beyond mere nation states, but to the world and the larger human society.

Twenty years later, Chimni’s vision for a world in which we learn to focus on the commonalities we share as human beings (rather than the differences played up by the nation-states-led political system) and for a humane approach that deserves the name has made little progress in becoming a reality. While bureaucracy and diplomacy take their time to find durable solutions, Bashraheel will continue to expand his collection of deserted treasures at his homemade museum as warplanes zoom overhead and vanish into the distance.



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