The twentieth century’s most brutal war of decolonization, the three-way French-settler-Algerian struggle of 1954 – 1962, displaced between a third and a half of Algeria’s population and in so doing created a new opportunity to constitute and define North Africa’s postcolonial borders under the rubric of a newly constituted form of internationalist humanitarian aid. Beginning in 1957, Tunisia and Morocco both appealed to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) for assistance with the huge numbers of Algerian refugees streaming into their territories. As the UNHCR began to provide supplies and build camps for displaced Algerians in the Tunisian and Moroccan border zones, it became a key external partner for these newly independent North African governments trying to constitute the political and physical parameters of their state – and for the increasingly beleaguered French colonial state in Algeria as well, whose military interests the UNHCR committed to protecting in return for a show of institutional support.
From the late 1950s, the UNHCR moved towards a policy (supported by the Tunisian, Moroccan, and French governments alike) of physically containing refugees in border areas where they would be provided with material aid while also prevented from providing the FLN with aid, information, or men. This purportedly humanitarian presence had the effect of producing border areas defined by military-style encampment making developmentalist claims, alongside new regimes of documentation for displaced and local populations alike that situated both as clearly defined national citizens of a single postcolonial state. When in 1962 the agency took on the task of mass “repatriation,” it was therefore positioned to assign national identities and physical destinations not just to its refugee charges but also to any number of local residents, as well as to previously nomadic border inhabitants whose prewar nationalities could not easily be defined but who were forcibly remade as citizens of a postcolonial Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco through this internationalized border management process. During the course of the war, then, this new form of refugee assistance created a clearly defined border regime marked equally by practices of developmentalist aid and techniques of internment, combined with a new regime of documentation designed actively to produce specific postcolonial forms of national belonging.