How time reveals hidden power in the refugee camp

By Melissa Gatter, University of Sussex

This blog post was originally published in the Sussex Centre for Migration Research blog.

While a universal experience, the passing of time is not an equal one. For those whose mobility is policed, time becomes more immediately present, almost tangible, as they must wait for permission at every border crossing, however official or informal.

Such is the case for the residents of Azraq refugee camp, the desert site that Jordan and the UNHCR designated for 40,000 Syrian refugees in 2014. Located 35 kilometres from the nearest city on either side, Azraq camp looks nothing like Jordan’s well-known Zaatari camp, which features a booming microeconomy, winding cul-de-sacs, and a consistent rotation of journalists, researchers, and documentary filmmakers. In Azraq, the bustling market is instead a strictly regulated cash-for-work scheme, the neighbourhoods with makeshift patios and courtyards are replaced with straight rows of identical caravans, and the journalists, researchers, and filmmakers are often turned away at the camp’s entrance.

Order and compliance, not liveability or comfort, are prioritised in Azraq camp. This is enforced by the camp’s security apparatus, which responds to disobedience by threatening deportation. Village 5, the camp’s high security zone housing thousands of residents awaiting security clearance in lockdown, is an enduring reminder that residents are never truly settled in Azraq.

Azraq Refugee Camp – 2018 (taken by the author)

Since 2014, those living in Azraq have resided there for an indeterminate period, during which time their biological and biographical fates lie in the hands of a stranger: an aid worker or a security officer. In the meantime, they seldom have access to ‘national’ time; that is, the temporalities available to Jordanian citizens who can participate in capitalist timelines. While UNOs and NGOs run centres throughout Azraq, it does not take long to see that programming seldom carries biographical significance. Because humanitarians do little to address the structural marginalisation of refugees in Jordan, the skills certificates that many residents earn at NGO centres do not grant them access to careers, and diplomas achieved in the camp may not result in a place at a university. Many young residents become frustrated, resorting to the poorly paid cash-for-work scheme not for the income but for the sake of work itself.

The apparent temporal stillness of the forcibly displaced contributes to the archetypal image of refugees as ‘stuck’. Their lives appear on hold; their wait, permanently transitory. My forthcoming book, Time and Power in Azraq Refugee Camp: A Nine-to-Five Emergency (AUC Press, 2023), is an ethnographic investigation into these temporal politics. It foregrounds time in its study of Azraq camp, revealing realities often overlooked by studies of forced displacement that centre around space. Studies that leave time to the background of camp spatialities tend to reproduce narratives of refugees as living in a paradoxical state of temporary permanence in which power is exercised solely through the tangible and perceptible: borders, material infrastructure, and space itself. When we focus solely on the spatial dimensions of power in camps, we miss all the ways that power also operates—and is challenged—through the temporal realm.

By honing in on the everyday temporal experiences of the Jordanian aid workers and Syrian residents of Azraq, my book locates invisible power across the camp as it affects both those who work there and who live there, emphasising the critical importance of the camp as time, not just a space. Examining the numerous ways that power operates through time is crucial to how we understand refugee camps as modern technologies of care and control. Through its investigation of Azraq’s everyday operations, Time and Power depicts a multifaceted timescape within which both aid workers and residents negotiate, challenge, and comply with the workings of the aid regime.

My examination of time in the refugee camp is not only concerned with its residents’ wait for the return to Syria. It carefully situates the everyday tempos of the camp within overlapping and conflicting contexts of humanitarian emergency, bureaucratised aid, neoliberal development, facades of care, and architectures of control. The book’s focus on time considers how humanitarian and development work operate through blurred timelines, how aid jobs are structured by deadlines, contracts, and proceduralism, and how aid workers have deeply personal perspectives on time’s passing in the camp. It is also about how camp residents build daily schedules, wait for services and work, and project themselves into alternative presents and various near and far futures.

The year I spent conducting ethnographic fieldwork in the camp between 2017 and 2018 revealed that while Azraq’s residents are indeed active in their waiting, the realities of displaced temporalities stretch far beyond either active waiting on the one hand and limbo, stuckness, and liminality on the other. Time and Power contends that time in displacement is not straightforward, but messy; not frozen, but confused. The camp is not only an endless present for its residents but also part of their recent pasts and near futures. We can acknowledge the co-evalness of Azraq while still not denying the reality that its residents feel that the timescapes of the camp are different and isolated from outside temporalities. Every moment of Azraq residents’ lives in the camp is bordered not only by material infrastructure that separates and confines but also temporal scaffolding that restricts and alienates.

Through ethnographic accounts of boredom and urgency, the book illustrates how Azraq’s residents are exhausted by keeping busy in the day-to-day while simultaneously confronted with an abundance of time in the camp. It follows residents as they navigate the camp system and negotiate the temporal and spatial power that shapes their lives in order to create more meaningful and comfortable residence in exile.

In its investigation of the ‘best-planned refugee camp in the world’, Time and Power asserts that it is impossible to analyse emergency response without critically evaluating bureaucracy, to understand how residents wait without acknowledging how they resist, to identify how aid workers care without recognising how the aid system controls, and to interrogate power without accounting for time and space together. My book is a call for more research on the politics of time in spaces of displacement, paying attention to the hidden dimension of disempowerment and isolation, but also agency and endurance.

About the author

Melissa Gatter is a Lecturer in International Development (Anthropology) at the University of Sussex. Her research centres on the anthropology of forced migration and development in the Middle East, particularly the intersection of time, space, and aid in refugee camps in Jordan and beyond. She is the author of Time and Power in Azraq Refugee Camp: A Nine-to-Five Emergency (American University in Cairo Press, 2023).

The views expressed by our authors on the CBRL blog are not necessarily endorsed by CBRL, but are commended as contributing to public debate.