The contribution challenges and differentiates the debate on neo-institutionalism with an empirical analysis from the core of the international refugee regime. The central point of reference for this comprehensive institutional regime is the legal label ‘refugee.’ To understand processes of proliferation, cultural adoptions, and bypasses of such institutional concepts and rules, it is crucial to study their varying interpretations and uses on the micro-level. This is done here in the case of refugee camps, which represent an organizationally and culturally heterogeneous setting, while its elements are all part of the international refugee regime. Emic modes of interpreting and utilizing this label on camp level are analyzed. Empirically, the contribution is mainly based on research material from a six months field study in two Zambian refugee camps, conducted in 2003.
The use of the refugee label as a legal concept equipped with specific rights is only one possibility of employing the concept. It is interpreted in the frame of ‘legalism,’ reasoning that being a refugee, and thus vulnerable, implies certain rights, the fulfillment of which is then claimed. Secondly, camp inhabitants also utilize the refugee label in the interpretative frame of ‘compassionism.’ Applying to the cultural connection between refugees and suffering, they expect to evoke compassion and to receive a pittance. Beside these two utilizations of the ‘refugee’ label, there are also perspectives that do not relate to this institutional concept. In a third interpretation, the situation of encampment in a country of refuge is seen as being a guest, which allows for a temporary acceptance of limitations. Fourthly, some camp inhabitants see the camp not as temporary and extraordinary refuge, but as permanent home, whereby the ‘refugee’ concept becomes largely irrelevant in daily life.
Interpreting the results in the realm of the sociological neo-institutionalism, the international refugee regime can be seen as a ‘world polity’ domain. The respective theoretical approach helps to explain where institutionalized figures like the ‘refugee’ come from. However, there are great variations in the ways in which these institutional concepts and rules are employed on the micro-level. Here, ‘world polity’ research leaves an explanatory desideratum. The plurality of interpretations and utilizations of the ‘refugee’ label indicates an active and refractory functioning of the micro-level, rather than an isomorphic enactment of the legal elements of ‘world culture.’
© 2006 by Lucius & Lucius, Stuttgart