Unwelcome participation, undesirable agency? Paradoxes of de-politicisation in a refugee camp
Drawing upon a chronological review of the camp’s political history, this article investigates the political dynamics inside a Liberian refugee camp, with a particular emphasis on the rivalry between the official refugee representation and informal opposition groups. Refugee-governing bodies often actively discourage political activity within refugee camps, perceiving it as a source of trouble. The de-politicisation of refugees, however, contradicts efforts to advance refugees’ “agency” and their “participation” – both of which are widely acknowledged and promoted by refugee policy-makers and researchers. Although the formal system of refugee representation in Buduburam camp was allegedly democratic, in reality the camp leadership consisted primarily of “elite” Liberians who were selected by the Ghanaian administration. Despite attempts by authorities to ban political activities inside the camp, opposition groups by “ordinary” refugees emerged and organised antagonistic movements against the camp authorities and refugee representatives. Nevertheless, their political activism was seen as problematic by some stakeholders and was criminalised by the Ghanaian Government. This article illuminates the inherent contradictions involved in the de-politicisation of refugee populations by the humanitarian regime, and argues that refugees’ political activities should be understood as an expression of agency and desire for authentic participation.