Book Review: On the Margins of the World by Michel Agier

“They are all emblematic of a human condition that is shaped and fixed on the margins of the world, one of its most tenacious foundations being our own ignorance of it” (3).

Michel Agier, Professor of Anthropology at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris, France, writes this of refugees in his book On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today, published in English in 2008. In a brief 104 pages, Agier seeks to shake the “tenacious foundations” of ignorance concerning refugees and to inform his readers of the refugee’s plight in the 21st century through concrete examples and philosophical analysis.

The outline of the book is refreshing straightforward and simple. After a brief introduction, Agier devotes one chapter to each of three “stages” of a refugee’s exodus. “Bruised Populations” explores the initial stage of destruction in which the refugee’s home is destroyed and he is forced to flee the town and country of his birth. “The Desert, the Camp, the City” addresses the stage of confinement. In this stage the refugee can spend months or years waiting for resolution to the situation that first caused destruction. Agier skillfully covers the difficulties of refugee camp economics and politics, especially as they affect the refugee’s own sense of identity. Finally, “The Right to Life” introduces the final stage of action in which the refugee comes into his identity, finds a voice, and perhaps forms new political commitments. A short conclusion closes Agier’s work.

The greatest strengths of this book are its length and its unique perspective. Much ink has been spilled speaking about the refugee crisis and every imaginable issue related to it. It is easy to lose the main point in the chaos of research and theory. Furthermore, Agier offers a unique perspective in the field of forced migration. He examines the refugee’s own struggle with identity in the midst of hardship and extreme dependency on the international aid offered by NGOs. The language used is more philosophical than theoretically or factually informative. While offering excellent examples from past refugee crises to support his points, Agier digs deeper than what seems evident on the surface to really ask what it is like to be a refugee.

The only weakness I encountered while reading this book was in the issue of translation. The book was originally written and published in French and at certain points it becomes evident that the English is not the best translation. Any resulting confusion, however, is slight and easily overlooked.

Agier, Michel. On the Margins of the World: The Refugee Experience Today. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2008).

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