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Humanitarianism’s Housing Question: From Slum Reform to Digital Shelter


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Some refugees from the current civil war in Syria have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey and found themselves in novel spaces—novel not only with respect to the spaces they fled from, but also with respect to the spaces occupied by previous generations of refugees. These new spaces of refuge are structured by technologies of credit distribution in the form of automated teller machines and credit card readers: the means by which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) have been providing assistance to Syrian refugees with which to purchase food and rent shelter. This “voucher humanitarianism,” undertaken in partnership with credit card companies, mobile phone companies, banks, and other businesses, has already yielded what MasterCard and the WFP call “digital food,” as well as a form of housing relief that, replacing the refugee camp, will doubtlessly soon invoke the term “digital shelter.”

In one of the most recent innovations in voucher humanitarianism, all Syrian refugees arriving in Jordan are added to a biometric database. At Jordanian ATMs equipped with iris scanners, these refugees can be identified by iris scans rather than by ATM cards and PIN codes:

Instead of receiving food packages, money vouchers or bank cards from the UNHCR, refugees in the iris-identification system receive a monthly text message saying money has been placed in their accounts. Then, they walk up to an ATM owned by Cairo Amman Bank, and, rather than insert a card and punch in a pass code, they look into a specially designed iris camera. Once ID’d, a refugee would be able to withdraw his or her monthly allotment of cash.

Two rationales have been offered for iris scanning, each based on the increased efficiency of aid distribution that this scanning presumably permits: while refugees can “access their money in a secure way without having to keep track of a card and number,” scanning will also “help thwart refugee fraud.” And yet, voucher humanitarianism has also brought about a new relationship between humanitarianism and the housing market. With the control of refugee bodies no longer predicated on the spatial boundaries of the refugee camp, the development of a system of housing vouchers for refugees allows the housing market to at least notionally accommodate the provision of shelter even in states of humanitarian emergency. From substandard working class housing in industrializing cities of nineteenth-century England to the neighborhoods of foreclosed middle class housing in post-2008 US cities, the capitalist housing market has repeatedly been posed as a crisis or emergency, structurally unable to provide adequate levels of affordable housing; now, with the advent of “digital shelter,” precisely the same housing market is being posed as a response to housing crises and emergencies.

Read the full article here.