Camp Code: How to navigate a refugee settlement

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Camp Code: How to navigate a refugee settlement
Entrance to Bourj Al Shamali, a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon / © Claudia Martinez Mansell

Start with the obvious: not all refugee camps are the same. The experiences of some 60 million people — “one in every 122 humans,” according to the United Nations — cannot be generalized. They live in tarp shelters, tents, shipping containers, or concrete buildings; in formal settlements administered by the UN, or in makeshift camps on the urban fringe. They are refugees, asylum seekers, stateless, internally displaced. Around the world, their numbers are increasing.

In Lebanon, the crisis (or, rather, series of crises) has been going on since 1948. More than 1 million Syrians and 450,000 Palestinians — an astonishing one quarter of the population — live in twelve official refugee camps and hundreds of informal settlements. The oldest camps, once considered temporary, are home to third- and fourth-generation refugees. These are not tent camps but dense spaces of concrete and asphalt, urban materializations of an ongoing state of emergency.

What goes on inside a refugee camp? How is it organized spatially and materially? In these brief sketches, I invite readers to navigate the Palestinian camp of Bourj Al Shamali, situated high on a hill in southern Lebanon, overlooking the Mediterranean city of Tyre. Built as a temporary refuge in 1948, it is now an overcrowded, unplanned, permanent ‘city-camp’ housing 23,000 registered refugees in 135,000 square meters. It would be easy to drive right past it, mistaking it for a poor district of the adjacent village that shares its name. Seven decades after the camp was founded, what distinguishes the supposedly temporary from the supposedly permanent is anything but clear. […]