Out of Camp, Out of Mind?

“This policy calls for UNHCR to pursue alternatives to camps whenever possible. Compliance with this policy is mandatory.” Those words are taken from a policy statement prepared by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Approved by High Commissioner António Guterres on July 22, 2014, the document has curiously not been placed in the public domain, nor have UNHCR’s key partners – donor states, other UN agencies, and NGOs – been informed of its existence. But Refugees International has gained access to a leaked copy.

In many respects, the new “alternatives to camps” policy signifies a remarkable evolution in UNHCR thinking. From the time of the agency’s establishment in the early 1950s until the day that Mr. Guterres came into office in 2005, there was a widespread assumption within the humanitarian community that refugees belonged in camps. Aid providers felt that such settlements made it logistically far easier to register refugees, to monitor their well-being, to provide them with essential relief items, and to organize their repatriation when conditions returned to normal in their country of origin.

Refugee-hosting states reinforced this approach. For such countries, refugees posed less of a security threat if they were confined to camps. Organized settlements made it easier to publicize the plight of refugees and to attract funding from donor states. By providing refugees with their own health and education facilities and water supplies, they placed less pressure on the (often already overstretched) services available to nationals.

While refugee camps attracted some criticism in the 1980s and 1990s – most notably from individuals such as the academic Barbara Harrell-Bond and Merrill Smith of the U.S. Committee for Refugees – it was not until the 2000s that the notion of “alternatives to camps” began to be taken seriously. Why was this?

First, a growing proportion of the world’s refugees were leaving or bypassing the camps established for them, so as to access the livelihood opportunities and more dignified lifestyle available in urban areas. Just like rural populations everywhere, the bright lights of the city were attracting a growing number of refugees, even if they were obliged to live in overcrowded slums and shanty towns.

Second, when he arrived at the UNHCR in 2005, Mr. Guterres found it unacceptable that the agency was colluding with states in obliging refugees to live in camps, contrary to the fundamental right to freedom of movement.

Third and finally, the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crises, both of which involved massive numbers of refugees, showed the declining relevance of a camp-focused response. A good proportion of these Iraqis and Syrians came from urban backgrounds and shunned the opportunity to live in camps when it was on offer. And in certain countries it was not.

More than a million Syrian refugees have now crossed the border into Lebanon, and wishing to avoid a repeat of the country’s negative experience with Palestinian refugees, the Lebanese governmenthas chosen not to open a single camp. Instead, the refugees have taken up residence in the country’s cities and towns or have found shelter in small-scale “informal settlements” usually comprised of around 20 or 30 families.

In 2009, UNHCR issued a policy statement on “refugee protection and solutions in urban areas” which recognized these new realities and asserted the right of people in exile to choose their place of residence. According to this document, UNHCR’s objective was “to ensure that cities are recognized as legitimate places for refugees to reside andexercise the rights to which they are entitled.”

In issuing its new policy on alternatives to camps, UNHCR has gone one step further, recognizing that “millions of refugees have settled peacefully outside of camps in both rural and urban areas, living on land or in housing that they rent, own or occupy informally or in hosting arrangements within communities or families.”

The new policy may not prove easy to implement. Many refugee-hosting states continue to express a strong preference for camps. The logistical argument in favor of camps still carries some weight: it is indeed easier to count, register, and provide for the basic needs of refugees when they are gathered in a single location. And there is a risk that when they are scattered across a host country, mingled in with the host population, the most vulnerable refugees will be deprived of the social safety net that a camp can provide.

Despite these potential difficulties, UNHCR is to be congratulated on its bold new policy of seeking alternatives to camps whenever possible. But it is a mystery why the organization has been so secretive in withholding the document from the partners who fund and implement its programs. A bit more transparency please!

Print Friendly and PDF

Trying to Make Ends Meet in Beirut

Trying to Make Ends Meet in Beirut

Syrian refugees and many of their marginalized Lebanese neighbors struggle from day to day to afford rent, buy food, and pay for medical care. With such limited options, how do people actually manage to survive in Lebanon as the strain on resources continues to grow?

Print Friendly and PDF

Between A Rock & A Hard Place: Shrinking Asylum Space

Between A Rock & A Hard Place: Shrinking Asylum Space

For decades, Kenya has provided a safe haven to thousands of refugees from neighboring countries fleeing war, persecution, and famine. While most reside in refugee camps, a significant number have made their way to urban centers like Nairobi where they have better access to jobs, education, and medical care. But growing insecurity within Kenya, including terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab, have triggered xenophobic responses.

Print Friendly and PDF

Friends in Los Angeles Dive Into Climate Displacement

Friends in Los Angeles Dive Into Climate Displacement

On June 24, 2014, Refugees International introduced its work to a new audience in Los Angeles. The event, hosted by RI Board Member Sam Waterston and his co-star from HBO’s The Newsroom, Thomas Sadoski, was held at the United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills. The evening highlighted RI’s short film Living on the Edge of Disaster: Climate’s Human Cost and featured a presentation and Q & A by RI’s climate displacement expert Alice Thomas. 

Print Friendly and PDF

In Mexico, Hundreds of Thousands Displaced by Crime

In Mexico, Hundreds of Thousands Displaced by Crime

Although official counts vary widely, hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens are known to be internally displaced. Most of those who fled their homes left as a result of violence at the hands of organized criminal groups. The highest rates of displacement are found in Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Durango, Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero – all states hit hard by drug cartels and gangs.

 

Print Friendly and PDF

Displaced in Mexico: Stuck on the Border

Displaced in Mexico: Stuck on the Border

It's understandable to assume that Mexicans crossing the U.S. border are seeking livelihood opportunities, and many of the thousands who enter are looking for jobs. But a growing number of Mexicans are fleeing their hometowns due to violence and persecution by organized crime and other armed actors. Refugees International visited Tijuana, Mexico, in May 2014 and met some of these people: mothers who had been denied asylum in the U.S. even though their spouses were allowed in; men who were deported from the U.S. but cannot go home because their states are in turmoil. Many church-affiliated shelters in Tijuana offer free accommodation for 15 days, after which these standed Mexicans must either leave town, move into hostels, or head out onto the streets. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Life in the DRC's "Triangle of Death"

Life in the DRC's "Triangle of Death"

Katanga may be the richest province in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but it is has quickly become one of the most troubled. For more than two years, two complex conflicts have been raging in the northern region of the province, known as the “Triangle of Death”: one involving the Mai Mai Bakata Katanga, self-declared secessionist rebels; and another pitting Pygmy villagers against their Bantu neighbors. Together, these conflicts have forced roughly 500,000 people to flee their homes. Today, the humanitarian response remains weak and the threats to civilians are growing. An RI team recently visited the territory of Manono, at the northeastern edge of the Triangle, to document the situation there.

Print Friendly and PDF

Refugees International's 35th Anniversary Dinner

Refugees International's 35th Anniversary Dinner

Refugees International's 35th Anniversary Dinner took place at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium on the evening of April 30, 2014 in Washington, DC. 

Print Friendly and PDF

South Sudan: Living Conditions for Displaced at UN Tomping Site

South Sudan: Living Conditions for Displaced at UN Tomping Site

South Sudan is on the verge of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Ongoing conflict since mid-December 2013 has forced more than a million people from their homes. Tens of thousands of these displaced are seeking shelter on UN bases across the country. At one site in the capital Juba, UN Tomping, the cramped living space and flood-prone land make for a disastrous scenario.

Print Friendly and PDF

Refugees International: 35 Years of Lifesaving Advocacy

Refugees International: 35 Years of Lifesaving Advocacy

For the last 35 years, Refugees International has been providing lifesaving advocacy for displaced people around the world. This video tells the story of RI's impact over the past three decades.

Print Friendly and PDF

Central African Republic: No Time to Lose

Central African Republic: No Time to Lose

The Central African Republic is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis. Widespread internal conflict has displaced more than 600,000 people within CAR and forced another 300,000 to live as refugees in neighboring countries.

Print Friendly and PDF

Squalid Conditions for South Sudanese IDPs in UN Base

Squalid Conditions for South Sudanese IDPs in UN Base

In South Sudan, fighting between government forces and troops loyal to the former vice-president has forced more than one million people from their homes. Since December 2013, approximately 270,000 people have fled to neighboring countries. Around 800,000 more are displaced within South Sudan – including 75,000 who are sheltering in UN peacekeeping bases across the country.

Print Friendly and PDF

Bearing Witness in CAR

Bearing Witness in CAR

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been in turmoil since the Seleka rebel group overthrew the government in March 2013. Both during the coup attempt and in the months that followed, Seleka rebels (most of whom are Muslim) terrorized non-Muslim villages, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. In response to these attacks, the anti-Balaka, a primarily Christian militia, took up arms against the Seleka. Hundreds of thousands more people were displaced as a result of the fighting between the two groups, and many reprisal attacks were carried out against the country’s minority Muslim communities. An intervention by African Union and French forces is attempting to mitigate the violence. However, the country remains highly unstable, with many people still living in fear for their lives. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Living on the Edge of Disaster: Climate's Human Cost

Living on the Edge of Disaster: Climate's Human Cost

Each year, millions of people are driven from their homes by natural disasters such as floods, storms, and droughts. Most live in the world's poorest and most conflict-ridden states, and lack the resources to recover after a crisis. As climate continues to change across the globe, natural disasters will become more frequent and more severe.

This short film examines the toll that our changing climate is having on some of the world's most vulnerable people, and the efforts being made to address this growing threat.

 

Print Friendly and PDF

Philippines: Can't Stay, Can't Leave

Philippines: Can't Stay, Can't Leave

Typhoon Haiyan was one of the most powerful storms ever to make landfall. But as global climate change continues, such super-stroms could become much more common. That’s why, in addition to providing emergency relief, Philippine officials are trying to move populations away from the sea and clearing out so-called “no build zones.” Relocation may be necessary, but so far it has been a confusing and slow process. Families know they need to leave, but not where or when they will go, or whether they’ll have access to jobs and schools when they get there. It is vital that relocated families get the help they need quickly, and that the authorities respect their rights. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Chicago Supporters Reflect on Twin Tragedies: Iraq & Syria

Chicago Supporters Reflect on Twin Tragedies: Iraq & Syria

Friends of Refugees International gathered for the 3rd Annual Chicago Circle at the Arts Club of Chicago on November 14, 2013. The evening featured Kirk W. Johnson – founder of The List Project and author of To Be A Friend Is Fatal. RI staff also shared their experiences working on the crisis in Syria, with a special focus on the challenges women and girls are facing as a result of the conflict.

Print Friendly and PDF

Kiribati – Facing what may be inevitable

Many I-Kiribati (as the people of Kiribati are known) recognize that despite both their desire to stay on their sacred land and their efforts to minimize the impact of climate change on their community, relocation to another country may be inevitable. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Kiribati – Planning for the future

The I-Kiribati (as the citizens of Kiribati are known) are a strong and proud people. Their culture – the katei or traditional way of life – involves a strong sense of personal pride, respect, and openness to foreigners. The I-Kiribati also have a deep spiritual connection to their land.

Print Friendly and PDF

Kiribati – Climate change and inequity

Every day we see the effects of climate change on our environment, whether it is the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy in the northeast United States, or massive wildfires and record-breaking heat in Australia.  

Print Friendly and PDF

Rio+20: Connecting the Dots Between Disasters and Displacement

Today, world leaders are gathering in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD). They will be joined by participants from the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations, and other interested groups.

Print Friendly and PDF