The camp as market frontier: refugees and the spatial imaginaries of capitalist prospecting in Kenya

Hanno Brankamp*, Sara De Jong, Sophia MacKinder, Kelly Devenney

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article critically interrogates the ambitions of humanitarians, policymakers, and their corporate partners to fundamentally remake both camp economies and the refugees who inhabit them. It draws on a unique set of elite interviews with key actors from a network of organisations driving ‘innovative’ humanitarian projects in the Kakuma camp and Kalobeyei settlement in Kenya. We identify their shared spatial imaginaries which, first, reconfigure camps from spaces of dependency to capitalist frontiers of the market and, second, produce a normative construction of refugee personhood that corresponds to this space. We show that the camp as market frontier is imagined as an enabling environment that both redeems and creates the otherwise ‘subdued’ humanity of refugees through allowing their flourishing as rational capitalist subjects. Against popular depictions of refugees as ‘burdens’, we find that our interlocutors present camp refugees as entrepreneurial capitalists-in-the-making who are only inhibited by their own lack of training, humanitarian welfarism, and the deficiency of a proto-capitalist environment. And yet this latent surplus population is thought to live alongside camp paupers whose value cannot easily be made legible within market logics geared towards 'productivity'. The stratification of camp inhabitants in this way signals the (re)production of an authorised version of refugee 'being' that resonates with the objectives of exclusionary marketisation agendas. While the optimism expressed in imaginaries of economic potential and thriving may appear seductive, in that these spatial stories promise to restore the ‘dignity’ of refugees, we argue that they ultimately enable less virtuous economic practices and conceal the complicity of global corporations and financial institutions in perpetuating the exploitative operations of capital.
Original languageEnglish
Article number103843
Number of pages11
Early online date21 Aug 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2023

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© 2023 The Author(s).

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