Keeping the Gate: Refugee Management as Statemaking in a Post-Sovereign Era

American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting
November 29 – December 3, 2017
Washington, D.C.

The assumption in anthropology for the past few decades has been that refugees challenge “the national order of things”; however, these arguments emerged amidst debates in anthropology and elsewhere about whether the nation-state in a global era would remain the predominant modality of social, political and economic organization, or would cease to exist. At present it seems clear that nation-states are not going anywhere, even as their role in the world is far more insecure, yielding new strategies of governance and approaches to statemaking, and new approaches to the care and control of refugees. It is now broadly understood that the nation-state is a “node in a network,” in which sovereignty is weakened and insecure. One manifestation of this newly anxious sovereignty are efforts to manage the flows of people across borders, particularly refugees. It has been argued that building walls and/or more stringently guarding the gate at entry points to national space (for example through strict and punitive immigration and border control tactics) is a response to weakened national sovereignty. However, while some countries build or reinforce both physical and metaphorical walls to keep out mobile populations such as refugees, other countries seem to embrace, and capitalize on, the flows inherent in the post-sovereign world. For example, while Kenya builds a wall along the Somali border and threatens to close its largest refugee camp in the name of maintaining national security, in neighboring Ethiopia, officials state that refugees are an economic and political asset and are radically revamping their refugee policies such that refugee camps may eventually no longer be necessary. This panel explores how what appear to be radically divergent dynamics are manifestations of the same phenomenon – attempts by states to govern under this new post-sovereign paradigm. Frederick Cooper’s concept of the gatekeeper state is useful to explain how states seek to shore up their power to govern through channeling the flow of material and symbolic resources across borders. In its original conceptualization, the “gatekeeper state” was oriented toward capturing rents from valuable goods that pass through the state. In a global era, fluidity arguably produces opportunities for states that are adept at managing flows, but also increases anxieties. We invite papers that consider the ways in which emergent forms of gatekeeping as statecraft take shape through the care and control, expulsion and containment, welcome and deterrence, of refugee populations. What national, regional, and global politics emerge as states manage the flows of people across borders, in some cases selectively closing gates and building better walls, and in others creating new more open portals?  How might welcoming or deterring refugees become a means for states to govern both within and across borders, influence regional relationships, and gain leverage in international spheres?  Through comparing papers across case studies, we hope to illuminate the ways in which both maintaining rigid borders which guard against flows of “undesirable” people, and encouraging flows across borders are responses to the insecurities of the post-sovereign era, resulting in profoundly new forms of statecraft.

Please send a 250 word abstract to Jennifer Riggan ( and Amanda Poole ( by Friday March 31.