Throughout the 20th century, it was a common and largely uncontested practice for refugees to be placed in camps when they arrived in their country of asylum.
The advantages of this arrangement appeared to be self-evident. For aid agencies, concentrating refugees in a single location made it logistically easier to provide them with the shelter, food, water, sanitation and the other forms of emergency relief they required. Refugee-hosting countries believed that there would be fewer security problems if refugees were kept in camps where their activities could be closely monitored. And there was a general sense that by accommodating refugees in large and highly visible settlements, it was easier to raise the donor state funds required for them to be sustained.
Over the past 15 years, such assumptions have come under growing critical scrutiny. Aid agencies such as UNHCR have increasingly looked for alternatives to camps, enabling refugees to live in urban centers or among host populations in rural areas. This major – and in the author’s opinion very positive policy change – has come about as the result of several considerations.
First, while camps might possibly be an appropriate response at the height of an emergency, it has become increasingly clear that refugee situations usually last for years or even decades on end. And throughout that time, camp-based refugees and their offspring are often denied basic rights, such as freedom of movement, access to land and the labor market, and the ability to establish a livelihood. Refugee camps are often located in remote, isolated and inhospitable areas, making it impossible for refugees to grow their own food and contribute to the local economy.
Second, even a well-resourced refugee camp provides an unnatural and often dangerous environment for its inhabitants, especially women and children. Camps are frequently characterized by high levels of sexual violence, the forced recruitment of adults and minors into militia groups, as well as attacks from hostile external forces. Encampment is also known to generate trauma, psycho-social problems and inter-generational conflict, making it difficult for individuals and communities to prepare for a peaceful and productive future.
Third, even in countries where refugees are officially obliged to live in camps (Kenya being one example), growing numbers of refugees chose to vote with their feet, moving to urban centers such as the capital city of Nairobi, where they have a better opportunity to find work and live a more normal way of life. At the same time, a growing proportion of the world’s refugees over the past 15 years moved to countries where, for a variety of reasons, camps were not established at all or only used to a limited extent: Egypt, India, Jordan, Lebanon, South Africa and Turkey, for example.
Finally, camps represent a lost opportunity. They make it more difficult for refugees to integrate with the local population and prevent them from acquiring the skills they will need if they are eventually to return and contribute to the rebuilding of their own country. They absorb a huge amount of scarce donor funding without offering their inhabitants the opportunity to become self-reliant and to find a solution to their plight.
In some situations, there might be little alternative to establish refugee camps, especially in the initial stage of an emergency. But this is no excuse for them to be perpetuated for years on end, progressively losing the interest and resources of the international community. As UNHCR has recently recognized, alternatives to camps must be pursued as a global principle, while the provision of appropriate support to refugees in urban centers and rural host communities must be guaranteed.
About the author: Jeff Crisp is an honorary adviser to Refugees International and holds fellowships at Chatham House in London and the Refugee Studies Center in Oxford. Previously, he served as Head of the Policy Development and Evaluation Service at the headquarters of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Geneva. Jeff has first-hand experience of refugee situations and humanitarian operations in more than 60 countries around the world.