Jun 6, 2024

Blog post by Jeff Crisp



Refugee camps have become synonymous with the phenomenon of human displacement, and have been the subject of numerous books, academic articles and aid agency reports. In this blog, the author examines some of the key issues and questions associated with refugee camps, based on the existing literature and, more specifically, on his personal experience of such settlements throughout Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe and the Middle East.


The refugee camp concept

The notion of a ‘refugee camp’ is currently used to denote almost any situation where a group of refugees is accommodated or have congregated in a defined geographical location. These include ‘traditional’ camps of the type found at Kakuma in Kenya, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and Zaatari in Jordan; rural settlements of the such as those found in the West Nile District of Uganda and Meheba in Zambia; reception/detention centres such as those established in Greece; informal tented campsites of the type recently witnessed on the streets of Paris and Dublin; and neighbourhoods of urban areas populated by Palestinians refugees in the Middle East.

The notion of a camp is also commonly used in relation to populations of internally displaced people, asylum seekers, former refugees who have returned to their country of origin and ‘integrated settlements’ such as Kalobeiyi in Kenya, which house both refugees and members of the local population.

Given these different uses, does the concept of ‘refugee camp’ still have any descriptive or analytical value? Should the notion of a refugee camp be more clearly defined, or a typology of camps and other settlement options be established? To what extent is it possible to undertake comparative research in relation to these many different types of camp? And how useful is the distinction traditionally made between camp residents and the ‘host community’?


The dynamics and demographics of refugee camps

Refugee camps have often been regarded as rather static entities, especially in protracted situations where a refugee population has lived in exile for years or even decades on end, without being able to find a solution to their plight. In fact, evidence and experience demonstrates that refugee camps are much more dynamic than they might first appear to be. People come and go from camps. They die and give birth. They receive new forms of education and training. Their livelihoods activities change over time, depending on the opportunities that arise or that are closed off. Gender relations, intergenerational relations, household and social structures also shift over time, as does the refugee population’s relationship with the authorities and people of the state in which they have settled.

What implications do these dynamics and changing demographics have for the way in which camps are managed and administered? To what extent are decision-makers in national and local government, UNHCR and its operational partners, aware of these trends and take them into account in the design of their protection, assistance and solutions strategies? And what is the most effective way of gathering data and other evidence on the changing dynamics and demographics of refugee camps?


The administration of justice in refugee camps

Questions of justice, the rule of law, redress, punishment and compensation inevitably arise in any situation where a group of people are living together in a specific location. While complex in any setting, such issues become especially challenging in refugee camp situations where multiple forms of authority, judicial procedures and social norms co-exist. That is particularly the case when a camp accommodates refugees from several different countries or ethnic/religious  groups, and where responsibility for the administration of justice is unclearly divided between the host state, its local representatives, UNHCR, refugee camp committees and ‘traditional’ authorities such as elders and clan leaders.

What role do these different actors play in the administration of justice and, more generally, the governance and administration of camps? How do they interact with each other? Are some forms of judicial process more effective and equitable than others? Can the administration of justice in refugee camps be expected to conform to international human rights standards? Is it legitimate, for example, for refugee camps to have their own detention and prison facilities, managed by community leaders, or should camp residents who have committed crimes be tried and punished by the host state, even when its judicial procedures are inadequate?


Refugee participation in camps

The last five years have witnessed an upsurge of interest and activism in relation to the questions of refugee participation, consultation and engagement, the principle issue being to what extent and in which ways refugees themselves can play a role in making decisions that affect their daily lives. While this challenge has been addressed in the past by the creation of refugee camp committees, often under the supervision and guidance of UNHCR, such mechanisms have in recent years been complemented by the establishment of Refugee-Led Organizations (RLOs), demanding a greater say in the way that camps are managed.

These developments raise numerous questions in relation to the issue of representation. How are refugees selected or elected to serve on camp committees, and why have such bodies been subject to so little research and evaluation? To what extent are RLOs and their leaders representative of the refugee population as a whole? What happens in situations where more than one RLO claims to represent the whole or part of a refugee population? And how will states and UNHCR respond to the growing number, visibility and voice of RLOs, especially those of a more radical nature?


Self-reliance in refugee camps

Since the 1960s, the key actors in the international refugee regime – UNHCR, other international organizations, host and donor states – have pursued the objective of promoting refugee livelihoods, in the hope of making camp residents ‘self-reliant’ and able to live without (or with reduced levels) of international aid.

Such hopes have usually been dashed. Refugee camps are frequently located in remote and arid areas, with limited access to markets and little developmental potential. It is common for their residents to be deprived of freedom of movement, access to land and the local labour market. When given the opportunity to farm, the plots allocated to them are too small and the soil insufficiently productive for them to produce a surplus that can be sold to generate an income. While refugee camps invariably have active economies in which a wide variety of goods and services are traded, they have generally not become the hubs of development that it was once hoped they could be.

This bleak scenario raises a number of questions. Can host states be persuaded to remove the restrictions imposed on refugee camp residents and which make self-reliance so difficult to attain? Can the small-scale entrepreneurial activities witnessed in all refugee camps be expanded and made sustainable? To what extent can camp-based refugees participate in and make a living from the global digital economy? Arnd will integrated settlements of the type mentioned earlier in this blog prove to be more economically successful than the traditional refugee camp?


Can refugee camps become cities?

In recent years, a number of commentators have suggested that many refugee camps are fundamentally changing in nature, and that they are effectively becoming cities. Such observations have especially been made in relation to large and long-established camos such as Kakuma in Kenya and Zaatari in Jordan, where the original tents have been replaced by more durable housing, and where a wide range of shopping, trading, manufacturing, recreational and sports activities have been established.

On what conceptual and evidential basis are such ‘camp to city’ claims made? What indicators can be employed to monitor and measure the transitions from the former to the latter? Is there a danger that this notion will normalize and even romanticize the refugee camp, obscuring the fact that refugees are systematically denied the rights and opportunities that are available to citizens living in urban areas of the host country? And if refugee camps really are becoming cities, then what are the implications for the way in which they are managed and administered?


Alternatives to refugee camps

Confronted with growing evidence of the negative consequences of camps for their residents, as well as the mounting tendency of refugees to leave or by-pass the camps established for them, in 2009 and 2014 respectively, UNHCR published a policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas and a policy on alternatives to camps. The founding principle of both documents was that refugees should not be confined to organized and segregated settlements,  but should be able to take up residence in the place of their choice, even in situations where host states had a preference for them to remain in camps.

Over the past decade, little effort has been made to ascertain whether these progressive policies have proven to be viable in practice. What have been the most important achievements and obstacles in the implementation of these ‘out of camp’ approaches? To what extent have host states revised their own policies in response to them? Is it really possible to avoid the establishment of camps when large numbers of refugees arrive in an area in a short period of time? And once a camp has been established, what challenges arise in enabling refugees to pursue other settlement options?


Refugee camps and solutions

It has often been said that host states prefer to accommodate refugees in camps because this makes it easier for them to hasten, organize and if necessary impose the return of the refugees to their country of origin. But Is there any evidence to support this contention? And if so, what tactics do such states have at their disposal in inducing camp-based refugees to repatriate, especially in situations where they would not do so in a fully voluntary manner?

In situations where local integration becomes an option, are refugees living outside of camps, alongside the host community, better placed to take advantage of this opportunity than those who have remained in camps? Is it true to suggest, as is often alleged, that some refugees choose to go to and remain in a camp because it enhances their prospects for resettlement to a third country? And when refugees go back to their country of origin, what outcomes can be expected when those people are initially accommodated in returnee camps? Is there a danger that they will be stuck there, reliant on aid and unable to reintegrate in their own society?


The strategic use of refugee camps

There is a large volume of literature documenting the adverse consequences of camps for refugees and the apparent preference of many to settle outside camps in urban areas or amongst the host community. But is this always or necessarily the case? To what extent and in what ways do refugees make strategic use of camps, by, for example, leaving some household members in such settlements while others look for and take up livelihoods opportunities elsewhere in the host country?

Is there evidence to suggest that refugees prefer to remain in camps to take advantage of the educational, health and other facilities there, even when peace and stability has returned to their country of origin? And to what extent do refugees who are in transit through a country, often making long overland journeys, make strategic use of camps by stopping there on a temporary basis, so as to benefit from some rest and recuperation? And finally, is encampment preferred and even required by political and military leaders purporting to represent the refugee population, as it facilitates their strategic objective of recruiting, training and imposing discipline on the members of their movements?


Camp connections

In recent years, refugee camps have become increasingly less isolated than they were previously, their residents establishing multiple different types of connection with the outside world. Refugees are more mobile than they used to be, travelling within their country of asylum or to their country of origin. They have far better access to information, ideas and resources emanating from outside their camp, especially as a result of innovations in information technology. Many refugees now receive remittances from relatives in the diaspora who are located elsewhere in the world. Refugee camp residents who have been able to establish successful livelihoods might send money back to family remembers who have remained in their country of origin.

What have these developments meant for the character, organization and dynamics of refugee camps? How is the growing connectivity of camp residents perceived by actors such as the host state and UNHCR – as an opportunity, a threat, or a combination of the two? What forms of control have these actors sought to exercise over such camp connections, and with what outcomes?


The afterlife of refugee camps

In many situations around the world, refugee camps have been closed down, usually as a result of repatriation movements to the country of origin and less frequently as a consequence of large-scale resettlement programmes. But almost nothing has been written about the sites where refugee camps were once located, and what happens to them after their closure.

What use is made, for example, of the assets and infrastructure of former camps, and to what extent is there competition for access to and ownership of them? Do the sites of former refugee camps revert to their original title holders, or are they appropriated by the state, the private sector or other actors? In situations where most refugees have left as a result of repatriation and resettlement, what proportion of the refugee population chooses to remain at the sites of their former camps, and what legal status do such ‘residual populations’ have?

Do the sites of former refugee camps have a developmental potential that remains to be explored? And in situations where the presence of refugee camps has led to serious environmental degradation (the felling of trees for firewood, for example), what steps have been taken, under whose authority and with what funding, to support the process of regeneration?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.

Source:  https://rli.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2024/06/06/refugee-camps-some-key-issues-and-questions/

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