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Essay: Shatila refugee camp

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  • Subject area(s): International relations
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  • Published: 5 August 2022*
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Refugee condition and spaces have been analysed and observed through Agamben’s reflection on ‘bare life and the camp’. However, at this present day, there has been escalating critique of Giorgio Agamben’s highly respected totalitarian camp studies as it doesn’t seem to mirror the conditions of refugee camps in this current time. Agamben expressed that a camp is ‘a space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule and gains a permanent spatial form’ (Agamben, 1998, 37). Most refugee camps in Lebanon were purposely located at a ‘distance from urban centres and under strict control by the internal security services’ called the Deuxieme Bureau (Peteet, 2006). Palestinian refugees were intentionally cast out and confined into ‘biopolitical spaces that allow for the separation of the alien from the nation’ (Martin, 2015). However what would occur if the space of the camp begins to merge with the city that envelopes it? Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon is a clear case study that demonstrates that refugees themselves can redefine the camps they are enclosed in and soften the physical and symbolic boundaries that divide refugees and nationals.

Shatila refugee camp located in southern Beirut was originally set-up for Palestinian refugees in 1949, prior to its formation, Armenians fled here in the early 20th century.

Palestinian refugee camps developed to become slums much prior to Nakba and the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland:
‘In 1922, the arrival, of 10,500 Armenians to Beirut fleeing Cilicia (where the threat of massacres was intensifying) marks the formation of the first slum in Modern Beirut. Arrangements for their accommodation were taken by the Red Cross, the French Mandate authorities, and the League of Nations, setting up thousands of tents on empty terrain (probably public), situated in the north-east extremity of the city’ (Fawaz and Peillen, 2003)

The Armenian camps at the time were perceived as ‘constituted points of attraction for those in need and search for better opportunities'(Martin, 2015). Shatila also carries this characteristic as now ‘it is estimated that half of the 12,235 inhabitants of Shatila are non-Palestinians, mainly Syrian refugees that are fleeing from the on-going civil war and lower class Lebanese citizens that cannot afford to live in neighbourhoods in the capital().

The refugee camp is considered one of the worst out of the twelve refugee camps that exist in Lebanon; refugees face detrimental environmental health conditions as according to UNRWA ‘with only threes three square meter per capita, the camp is overcrowded, the sewage system is inadequate to serve a large number of inhabitants, and with open sewage drains and an unreliable drinking water distributed by the municipality of Beirut the health hazard is very high'(UNWRA, 2018). The shelters are made out of ‘concrete slabs with pieces of cardboard, corrugated steel and plastic sheets for walls’ (Roberts 2000, P.31).

In 1969, an agreement took place known as the Cairo Accords in which the Lebanese government authorised the Palestinians to ‘self administer the camp'(Martin, 2015), new settlers both Lebanese and Palestinians began to occupy areas surrounding Shatila. Although under Lebanese law expansions of refugee camps are illegal, ‘the quarters of Sabra and Hay Gharbeh, respectively north and west of the camp, became natural extensions of Shatila’ (Clerc-Huybrechts, 2008).

The Cairo Accords granted Palestinians to gain autonomy as it allowed Palestinians to have the right to employment, residence and movement, the formation of local communities as well as the establishment of posts of the Palestinian Armed Struggle (PASC) inside the camp (Brynen,1990). The resistance movement was admitted control of the camps in Lebanon and provided refugees with a multitude of health and social services as well as ensuring security within the camps. Unfortunately, these benefits were short-lived when accusations of “a state within a state” emerged and thus evoked resentment from some sectors of the Lebanese polity (Peteet, 2006).

A fifteen year period civil war occurred between 1975-1990, Israel invaded Lebanon, besieged and ultimately entered Beirut and carried out a massacre at Sabra-Shatila refugee camps which resulted in 2,750 Palestinians and Lebanese nationals murdered in three days (Fawaz and Peillen,2003,p.12). 1982 was the year ‘Palestinian autonomy and institution-building came to an abrupt and dramatic end’ (Peteet, 2006) due to the removal of the PLO’s forces and personnel from Lebanon. Palestinian refugees once again suffered from confinement and marginalisation by the Lebanese government. Julie Peteet recounts her visit to Shatila in 1970 to early 1980:

“When I first carried out fieldwork in the camp, it had a vibrant infrastructure of social services and facilities such as clinics, vocational training centres, workshops, childcare facilities, clubs, and resistance offices. Shatila in 1992 was a virtual wasteland. Yet by the end of the decade, the population had expanded to nearly 12,000; some Lebanese families had moved in, seeking cheap housing. A small number of NGOs were operating to provide a modicum of services”

Palestinian refugees felt bereft and constrained by this overbearing sense of containment orchestrated by the Lebanese government rendering them to believe that the Lebanese authorities were implementing a plan to compel them to leave by making life miserable (Peteet, 2006).

“They are strangling us!” shouted Abu Khalid when I asked him about the situation in post-war Lebanon. “All these restrictions on jobs and rebuilding the camps-they think we will leave if our lives become unbearable” (Interview by Julie Peteet)


The abandonment of the camp by the Lebanese authorities after the establishment of the Cairo Accords stimulated motion as Palestinians began settling outside the camp but also change as this occurrence subsequently rendered Shatila to become ‘a multi-ethnic slum and contested war memorial with high emigration rates’ (Knudsen,2016,p.453); a place where fugitives in need to escape from the state’s jurisdiction and a sanctuary to settle in for those who cannot afford to live elsewhere (Martin, 2015). This reflects how the French banlieues took shape and were occupied by the “human waste” (Bauman, 2004) of the French system; a ‘place of banishment (ban-lieu) is socialized or urbanized in the process of globalization’ (Agier, 2011, p.286). Banlieue, the French word for the term ‘slum’ and in Agambenian terms the ‘inclusive exclusion’ and a ‘place formed that is attached to the centre yet abandoned by it'(Martin, 2015, p.15). However, as French anthropologist Michel Agier (2011, p.45) expresses one cannot disregard the social and cultural activity that is cultivated within the walls of the place of confinement and this is what is being overlooked within the grounds of Agamben’s understanding of the camp.

Through observing and understanding the camp in relation to the city rather than apart from it one can comprehend Shalita’s transition from a space of exception to the slum beyond the Agambenian reasoning of perceiving a camp as a way to ‘define the modern nation-state and law’ (Schiocchet,2014). Agier’s observation of camps facilitates this contemporary and less impersonal discovery of refugee camps of today in which he analysed the camp on three accounts through the lens of how one would interrogate the functionality of a city: the production and reproduction of spatial symbolics, the outlining of social stratification and the construction/negotiation of identities (Bauman, 2002,p.). Agier expresses that refugee camps in dense urban areas such as Shatila aren’t the manifestation of bare life such as the extremely poor urban enclaves Brazilian favelas since they have closely become part of the urban landscape (Schiocchet, 2014).

Surrounding Shatila there are informal settlements that share similar physical characteristics to the camp which further elaborates how the line between camp and city are indistinguishable which suggests Shatila reidentification as a new slum. The fluidity of the camp and its amalgamation with the city is further mirrored in the shared standard of living of the households that surround it. Both the camp and neighbouring settlements suffer from extreme overcrowding, lack of educational services, low income and wealth (UN-Habitat and UNDP, 2010). One would not consider being better-off living in these Lebanese settlements in comparison to the camp.

Shatila refugee camp also further facilitated an increase of the camp’s population since it opens itself out to the capital city and has multiple access points with ‘boundaries are represented by streets that are wider than the narrow alleys within it'(Martin, 2015). The lack of control and restriction of the camp from the sovereign power tests the boundaries of Agamben’s understanding of the camp a space in which ‘refugees can be seen as the ultimate ‘biopolitical’ subjects: those who can be regulated and governed at the level of population in a permanent ‘state of exception’ outside the normal legal framework’ (Owens, 2009). This ‘leaking out’ (Bauman,2000,2002) of Shatila over onto the capital city’s urban fabric transforms ones perception of refugee camps and negates the belief that refugee camps exist to merely remain stagnant on creating ‘bare life’ when rather evolving to become in fact a positive space in potentiality (Agamben, 1999).

Julie Peteet upon visiting Shatila:

“the exact borders of Shatila camp were apparent to me only in the early 1990s. When I worked in the camp in the 1970s and 1980s I had not paid much attention to the borders because they were simply not much of an issue at the time. And indeed, they were so fluid that I would have had to ask someone to show me exactly where they were. Yet there were some physical and social signs that distinguished space during this period. Over time I learned some of them on my own and generally was aware of when I was, and not, in the camp.” (Peteet, 2006,p.137)

Foucault- Heterotopias

Dorai (I think) Daily mobility

Although one could develop a clear sense of where the camp begins and ends, the absence of fences leads to a virtual extension of the space of the camp (Al Husseini, 2012, p.48)

(Boano and Talocci, 2014) Page 69

Such spatialities are defined by Foucault21 as heterotopias, the “kind of places that are outside all places, even though they are actually localizable”22 and maintain connections with them, at all possible scales, relying upon mechanisms of filtering.

“Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and make them penetrable,”23 or in other words they allow the passage of someone or something in particular, at given times or through specific rituals. It can be possible to argue that contemporary cities are made of many heterotopic urbanisms and impregnated with such rituals: highly connected spaces – at the center of flows of capital, knowledge, and people – become, day by day, sacralized, and penetrable by fewer people on fewer occasions.

21. Foucault, “Of Other Spaces.”

22. Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” p. 17.

23. Foucault, “Of Other Spaces,” p. 21.

24. Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter, “Heterotopia in a Postcivil Society,” in Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter (eds), Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, London: Routledge, 2008

Despite the camp being “decided” by the sovereign, those who inhabit the ‘space in which the alien is intentionally kept far from the national body’ can, in fact, toy and exploit the exceptionality of the camp and eventually redefine it to theirs. Before the civil war, members of a single family would occupy an entire building whereas now the organisation of the housing structure is changing continually. Regardless of the restrictions set by the Lebanese government on expanding the refugee camp, there is a ‘widespread violation of building and construction codes'(Fawaz and Peillen, 2002, p.7) and the camp continues to develop vertically; ‘residents build upwards, adding a floor here, a joining passage between buildings there, an extra room on a roof…until the concrete layer-cakes reach as high as seven storeys and lean ever closer to each other, blocking out the sun'(Cornish, 2018). These new constructions are then seen as a source of income for Palestinian refugees due to the large influx of Syrian refugees settling in the camp, despite being confined within the camp’s boundaries the refugees develop their own informal economy.
Zahra, a social worker that accompanied Diana Martin during her encounters in Shatila explained that:

‘a person interested in building must seek approval from the owner of the top flat whose permission costs between 2000 and 3000 US dollars. The roof of the top flat is then turned into the floor of the new house and in this way, the construction process continues’ (Martin’s interview with Salah, November 2008,p.14)

This observation amplifies the view that Shatila has developed to become ‘a space in abjection in the Agambenian understanding’ (Martin, 2015,p.14) that we can no longer describe Palestinian refugees as the ‘Homo sacer’ – ‘an outcast, one whom it was pollution to associate, who dared to take no part in any of the institutions of the state ((David Bleeden, 2010,p.77) describing James Muir in his Historical Introduction to the Private Law of Rome (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1886), 18, assertion of what a Homo sacer is). Camps like Shatila are rather a place that is formed to be the genesis of an ‘identity strategy'(Agier, 2011, p.284) rather than the stripping of one’s identity-bare life.

Refugees themselves gain autonomy and use their creativity to find cost-effective methods to accommodate new residents at the camp despite not owning the land on which the camp is established. This developed independence of the refugees renders them to generate ‘productive spaces in evolution where new forms of governance can be experimented’ (Hanafi,2010). Camps such as Shatila that are intended by the state to remain true to the transient nature of refugee camps gradually dissipated The permanency of the encampment gradually becomes more evident through these methods of construction, use of solid materials and vertical expansions and thus goes against the transient nature of refugee camps which the state intends to hold onto but are now grasping at straws.
Agier’s main driving question behind his subsequent anthropology of refugeeness makes us question: “Can the refugee camp become a city in the sense of a space of urban sociability, an urbs, and indeed in the sense of a political space, a polis?” (Agier, 2002,p.322) – They most probably can and this transformation can develop much faster with support from agencies outside the Lebanese sectarian system.

Shatila’s process of ‘ghettoization’ (Agier,2011, p.285); evolving from a place of exception to an ‘informal ghetto’ due to the hostility from the state helped provide the camp official recognition and support from the international community and various organisations. This emphasises the fact that refugee camps such as Shatila do not come under the description of the exception being tied and controlled by the legal system since the inhabitants are ‘legally excluded from the state’s protection’ (Martin, 2015,p.16) this gives international housing aid charities such as Habitat for Humanity an increased incentive to encourage empowerment and autonomy within the refugee community. Habitat for Humanity aims to make ‘basic accommodation more homely’ and due to the absence of the state they also attempt to make the camps safer. Shatila in particular, refugees live in constant risk of electrocution due to large prominence of live electric wires overhead dripping with water an slipping downwards when they get too heavy. Habitat for Humanity alleviates the issue simply by separating wires from pipes, installing trays to keep them apart which lets in more light seeping into the dense encampment. The presence of services provided from organisations such as these also contributed to the growth of the area and the informal settlements due to the promise of living in an environment with plugged leaks, painted walls, adequate toilet conditions and safely distributed electricity supply (Martin, 2015). This proves how the ‘forced’ depoliticisation of Shatila by the Lebanese state which creates a void in the social and symbolic order simultaneously generates a hyper-politicisation of the camp whereby new competing orders and identities are formed (Turner, 2015, p.145).

Despite the intense development of social, political and cultural identity within the camp, it does not take away from the fact that the refugee camps can also become places one would want to leave as soon as social mobility is possible. Palestinian refugees yearn more for their return to their exiled land than as I had been told by a Palestinian at the Perspectives on the Nakba lecture held at Oxford Brookes University (2018) “If it meant that I can only sleep under an olive tree in order to live in my homeland then so be it”. Their inclination to produce a more permanent space stems from their shared memories of the Nakba and particularly for refugees the Shatila the Sabra-Shatila massacre in 1982, in other words, their practice and input in reidentifying and reforming their “waiting-spaces” is an approach of resistance. Agier accurately summarises this in From Refuge the Ghetto is Born (2011):

‘The apparently radical and initial otherness that is lodged there and it seems to give it distinct or inner meaning is in the reality the result of the relation of conflict, rejection, and resistance between the central power and the margin it has instituted’ (Agier, 2011, p.284)

Analysis of the replication of memory and reflection of the past etched onto the landscape of the camps and how the evolution of the camp is dictated immensely by the inhabitants of the camp will be further investigated in the next chapter in which Burj Al Barajneh a neighbouring camp to Shatila is the chosen case study.

To conclude, Shatila refugee camp is an inhabitation that appears to be segregated and marginalised by the constraining laws upheld by the Lebanese state that ensure the security of the country’s sovereignty but also to ensure the transiency of these camps. However, due to the large influx of other groups of refugees and migrants flooding the urban fabric of Beirut and we begin to discover on a personal level how refugee camps are strongly connected and merged within their urban environment. One can observe how Shatila today sits within Beirut as a ‘portion of a city’ and a place that has been ‘filled up by the interior'(Agier, 2011, p.284).

However, the argument here is not to see how camps have changed to develop into slums but rather analysing and providing a more developed anthropological response and attitude towards this inevitable transition since long-term refugees like the Palestinians cannot remain in tents forever until their right to return is granted. Michel Agiers more symbolic than geographical study of refugee camps provides a more personal observation of refugees and their relation to the camp in comparison to Agamben’s valuable, yet statistical analysis of refugees referring to them as a homogenous group thus overlooking the autonomous, entrepreneurial and empowering qualities of refugees whilst confined to the boundaries of the exception. This development of the refugees’ character translates and is reflected the environment they inhabit and beyond as the boundaries that intend to keep them within spills out onto the urban fabric of the city.


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