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Kenya's refugee camps have evoked spectacular imaginaries of terrorism and humanitarian crisis. Drawing on everyday discourses and shared knowledges among camp administrators, this article reveals that these geopolitical narratives are underwritten locally by more generalized concerns about the imagined ‘otherness’ and moral degeneracy of the displaced. Refugees are thus portrayed as criminals and crooks, sexually deviant and idle, as well as ‘mad’ and uncivilized. Together, these tropes constitute a cultural text of encampment that reproduces postcolonial imaginings of difference and engrains the notion that ‘refugeeness’ equates to a state of ‘moral disorder’. The article is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Kakuma refugee camp in north-western Kenya's Turkana county. It argues that the discursive production of refugees as immoral subjects not only has practical effects for the actions of government officials and aid workers but rekindles a binary colonial mapping of the world into ‘civilized’ and ‘uncivilized’ spaces. These social imaginaries and banal discourses illustrate that the camp has not just a political but also an imaginative geography. Kakuma camp is hereby doubly excluded: from the modernity that humanitarianism ostensibly embodies and from the imagined moral community of Kenya.

More information Original publication




Journal article


Cambridge University Press

Publication Date



91 (1)


153 - 176