Kakuma Refugee Camp

Humanitarian Urbanism in Kenya's Accidental City

Bram J. Jansen


An extensive ethnographic analysis of one of the world's largest refugee camps, revealing a distinct form of urbanization and its unique challenges for effective humanitarian strategies.

Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp is one of the world’s largest, home to over 100,000 people drawn from across east and central Africa. Though notionally still a ‘temporary’ camp, it has become a permanent urban space in all but name with businesses, schools, a hospital and its own court system. Such places, Bram J. Jansen argues, should be recognised as ‘accidental cities’, a unique form of urbanization that has so far been overlooked by scholars.

Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork, Jansen’s book explores the dynamics of everyday life in such accidental cities. The result is a holistic socio-economic picture, moving beyond the conventional view of such spaces as transitory and desolate to demonstrate how their inhabitants can develop a permanent society and a distinctive identity. Crucially, the book offers important insights into one of the greatest challenges facing humanitarian and international development workers: how we might develop more effective strategies for managing refugee camps in the global South and beyond.

An original take on African urbanism, Kakuma Refugee Camp will appeal to practitioners and academics across the social sciences interested in social and economic issues increasingly at the heart of contemporary development.

Author Bio

Bram J. Jansen is an assistant professor in the department of sociology and anthropology of development at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. Humanitarian Urbanism
  • 2. The Entitlement Arena
  • Intermission: Walking the Camp
  • 3. The Camp as Warscape
  • 4. ‘Digging’ Aid: The Development of a Refugee Camp Economy
  • 5. Moving Along: The Camp as Portal
  • 6. There’s No Way Back to the Village
  • Conclusion


‘Mandatory reading for those concerned with humanitarian aid.’
Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

'Jansen’s concept of humanitarian urbanism offers significant and much needed insight into refugee camps and the biopolitics which dominate the lives of the people who live in them. '
Roger Zetter, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford (Emeritus)

‘Refugee camps are the defining spaces of contemporary humanitarianism. In this vivid ethnography, Bram Jansen cogently shows how the camp evolved into an improbable city, and how refugees became potential migrants.’
Didier Fassin, author of Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present

‘The findings of Jansen’s rich and original ethnography of Kakuma show how such camps create their own environment of stability and cosmopolitanism through everyday life. At a time when Europeans are discovering the brutal reality of their policies on migrant camps, this book should open the minds of politicians, activists and students alike.’
Michel Agier, Director of Studies, EHESS, Paris

‘An incisively argued study of humanitarian urbanism. Through Jansen’s carefully crafted observations, the extra-ordinary manages to find a productive ordinariness.’
AbdouMaliq Simone, Goldsmiths, University of London

‘An unrivalled and insightful account of Kakuma as a space in which people seek refuge, but also live and change. The book highlights the camp’s place in the region’s political economy as a home, a rear base, and as a stage in longer refugee journeys.’
Gabrielle Lynch, University of Warwick

‘Jansen challenges the notion of the camp as a place of exception, instead presenting it as a dynamic experiment of social organisation. His argument is underpinned by the rich ethnographic material presented in this clear, compelling and very well-written volume.’
Oliver Bakewell, University of Manchester

‘A fascinating and insightful examination of the protracted life of a refugee camp and its inhabitants. This highly readable book shows how the Kakuma camp came to be an accidental city.’
Nando Sigona, co-author of Unravelling Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’

'A much needed account of the complexities and ambiguities of protracted refugee spaces. The text is an excellent contribution to the existing literature on refugees, and challenges many assumptions within refugee studies.'
Angela G. Subulwa, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

‘A must read for anyone interested in the transformation of refugee camps into new manifestations of the urban. Empirically rich, illustrative and provocative, this is a welcome contribution to debates on the workings of refugee camps today.’
Claudio Minca, Macquarie University


Publication Date: 15 November 2019
248 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781786991881
Hardback: 9781786991898
eBook ePub: 9781786991911
eBook PDF: 9781786991904
eBook Kindle: 9781786991928

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