Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

Governing Refugees

Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism, 1st Edition

By Kirsten McConnachie


200 pages

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Refugee camps are imbued in the public imagination with assumptions of anarchy, danger and refugee passivity. Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism challenges such assumptions, arguing that refugee camps should be recognized as spaces where social capital can not only survive, but thrive.

This book examines camp management and the administration of justice in refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border. Emphasising the work of refugees themselves in coping with and adapting to encampment, it considers themes of agency, sovereignty and legal pluralism in an analysis of local governance and the production of order beyond the state.

Governing Refugees will appeal to anyone with relevant interests in law, anthropology and criminology, as well as those working in the area of refugee studies.


‘There is much discussion in academic life these days about the importance of interdisciplinary research. This book is the real deal. Using the Karen refugee camps on the Thai Burma Border as a focus, Kirsten McConnachie moves effortlessly from law, criminology, through to anthropology with stops along the way in refugee studies, development and human rights. The result is a beautifully written book, theoretically rigorous, clear, unpretentious and morally compelling. A brilliant piece of socio-legal scholarship.'

Kieran McEvoy, Professor of Law and Transitional Justice, Queens University Belfast

'At last, recognition of the unique community-based refugee camp management model developed on the Thailand border. McConnachie's insightful research challenges common perceptions of refugees as powerless victims and of refugee camps as dangerous places lacking normal social structures. It also shows that on this border, trust well-placed has built strong community structures with potentially crucial roles to play in refugee return, reintegration and reconciliation in Burma. Academically rigorous, the analysis nevertheless displays deep understanding of the practical challenges of humanitarian responses in politically complex situations. This book makes an important contribution to refugee assistance and camp management policy debates.'

Jack Dunford MBE, Executive Director, The Border Consortium 1984 to 2013

'Governing Refugees develops a compelling and stylish argument about how multiple forms of justice and governance intersect and overlap to regulate life in a Karen refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. Its analysis of the interrelationships among state law, local cultural practice, religious values and international human rights and refugee law is both novel and inspiring and is set to establish Kirsten McConnachie as an outstanding figure in the field of law, justice and refugee studies.'

Hastings Donnan, Director of the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Queen’s University Belfast

‘Kirsten McConnachie's remarkable research among the Karen in Burma has found law and order where there was thought to be none, and as such is a remarkable lesson in the nature of governance. Governing Refugees clearly establishes McConnachie as one of the most important new voices in the field of law, development and globalization studies.’

Shadd Maruna, Professor of Law, Queen's University Belfast

‘Contemporary legal and political theory tells us that the refugee camp is one of the most important and representative political spaces of the present age. Now, for the first time, Kirsten McConnachie has given us a stunning empirical account of how refugees are governed’

Professor Jonathan Simon, University of California Berkeley

'Governing Refugees is one of the first books to be entirely devoted to the governance and administration of justice in refugee camps. As such it contributes greatly to a burgeoning field of inquiry that in turn has the potential to substantially affect refugee-assistance policy and practice. Amid the discussions of institutions, authority, and power dynamics, Governing Refugees is ultimately about something very basic: the inherent dignity of the human person and the capability and right of refugees to be agents of their own destiny.'

Anna Purkey, Quebec Bar Association for Refuge (Vol 30, No 2, 2014)

'According to its publishers, “Governing Refugees: Justice, Order and Legal Pluralism” is a book that “will appeal to anyone with relevant interests in law, anthropology, and criminology, as well as those working in the area of Refugee Studies.”

That makes it sound as if it is mostly of academic interest, but in fact, it is much more than that. It should be a must-read for Burma watchers, for all who have been engaged in the 30-year saga of refugees on the Thai-Burmese border, and especially for those involved in refugee policymaking, including state agencies, the UN and donors.'

Jack Dunford, executive director of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium from 1984 - 2012 for The Irrawaddy (

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Governing Refugees Chapter 2. The Karen In Burma: Conflict And Displacement Chapter 3. The Camp Community Chapter 4. The Governance Palimpsest: Order Maintenance In Eastern Burma Chapter 5. Sovereigns And Denizens: Camp Governance And ‘The Refugee’ Chapter 6. The Struggle For Ownership Of Justice Chapter 8. Enacting Interlegality: Human Rights And Local Justice Chapter 8. Beyond Encampment

About the Author

Kirsten McConnachie is Joyce Pearce Junior Research Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall and the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Her research continues to study self-reliance and self-governance strategies among refugees from Burma.

About the Series

Law, Development and Globalization

During the past two decades, a substantial transformation of law and legal institutions in developing and transition countries has taken place. Whether prompted by the policy prescriptions of the so-called Washington consensus, the wave of  democratization, the international human rights movement or the emergence of new social movements, no area of law has been left untouched. This massive transformation is attracting the attention of legal scholars, as well as scholars from other disciplines, such as politics, economics, sociology, anthropology and history. This diversity is valuable because it promotes cross-disciplinary dialogue and cooperation. It is also important because today the study of law cannot ignore the process of globalization, which is multifaceted and thus calls for inter-disciplinary skills and perspectives. Indeed, as globalization deepens, legal institutions at the national level are influenced and shaped by rules, practices and ideas drawn, imposed or borrowed from abroad.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
LAW / General
LAW / Civil Rights
LAW / Emigration & Immigration
LAW / International
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Emigration & Immigration
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Disasters & Disaster Relief
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Developing Countries


Why not download our FreeBook Law and Society: A Routledge Sampler? This resource contains a chapter from Governing Refugees, along with a selection of excerpts from our other titles in the field of sociolegal studies.

Click here for more information, and to access this FreeBook.