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!