The end of the refugee camp?

In this new era of the refugee, there is a need for radical thinking about the future existence of such camps.

Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders waiting to cross into Jordan, walk at a camp near the town of Ruwaished, at the Hadalat area, east of the capital Amman [REUTERS]
Syrian refugees stuck between the Jordanian and Syrian borders wait to cross into Jordan [Reuters]

The International Rescue Committee Director, David Miliband, made the headlines earlier this month with a call for a closure of refugee camps across the world. This radical shift in thinking comes at a moment of greater pressure on the humanitarian system than at any time since World War II.

There are now 60 million refugees worldwide and the average time spent as a refugee is 17 years. When the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, was launched in 1950 its annual budget was $300,000, by 2013 it had grown to $5.3bn.

Recent conflict-specific appeals continue to break records as the needs grow. The latest Syria appeal in February raised $10bn to help support a population from a country where half have been forced from their homes.

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The vulnerability of refugee camps was highlighted earlier this month when an air strike hit a camp near Sarmada in northern Syria.

Camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, whether formal or informal, have become symbolic of the “separate” status of refugees where economic and social exclusion drives down the living standards of vulnerable populations even further.

Intractability of certain conflicts

Meanwhile the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab camp in Kenya, with a population of 330,000, is a reminder of the intractability of certain conflicts. It was set up in 1992 and recent proposals for its closure have led to concerns that refugees will be forced back into war-torn Somalia.

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Miliband argued that refugee camps were “designed for yesterday’s problems, not tomorrow’s”.

How will closing refugee camps help against this backdrop of bigger, more intractable conflicts?


In this new era of the refugee, there is a need for radical thinking and for a serious debate about the future existence of such camps. This debate will surely be helped by the intervention of UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie this week.

While traditional appeals and celebrity support tends to focus on raising the issue up the agenda and much-needed cash to fund work, Jolie, who has seen her fair share of the world’s refugee camps, said that the global refugee system was “breaking down”.

Fixing it means looking seriously at whether refugee camps should exist at all in the modern day. This is not an argument for closing borders and imagining that a problem elsewhere is not one country’s issues. As Jolie said: “If your neighbour’s house is on fire you are not safe if you lock your doors. Strength lies in being unafraid.”

Yet in Europe leaders are afraid of the huge expansion in people willing to risk their lives to reach the continent. Last year saw a million people reach Europe by sea and the latest deal between the EU and Turkey to return those travelling illegally has been challenged by senior UN officials as potentially “illegal”.

So how will closing refugee camps help against this backdrop of bigger, more intractable conflicts? The contrary argument says that refugee camps can provide security and the ability to deliver humanitarian services effectively in one place.

Refugees attempt to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Evzoni, Greece [Reuters]
Refugees attempt to cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Evzoni, Greece [Reuters]

Having a bespoke area also means it is easier to manage the impact on the “host” community in terms of further pressures on security and employment in particular.

Not a long-term solution

Yet all these arguments are based on the notion that returning home is realistic and something that will happen relatively soon, and that it is best for all concerned that refugees are kept in a separate space.

Instead state collapse and the nature of modern civil conflict often render return an impossibility.

Having a long-term population denied the rights of those who are indigenous and dependent not on the fruits of their own labour but rather the generosity of the international community is not a long-term solution.

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The terrible conditions in camps, typically overburdened with people and under-resourced with services, leads to people risking their lives to move further afield as well as becoming political pawns in the games of others.


A new humanitarian architecture must take into account the nature of modern conflict and suffering. I would argue that this should be a rights-based approach that focuses far more on ensuring that host communities are incentivised to grant these empowering protections than it does on creating unsustainable bubbles within them in the form of refugee camps.

This won’t be easy, and requires political leadership and commitment to resource whatever emerges from a realisation that the old way of doing things is no longer fit for purpose. Meanwhile retrofitting a new system on old camps from Dadaab to Shatila will mean change and compromise on behalf of all involved.

The system as it stands, with its swollen refugee camps and suffering, was born out of World War II’s conflict between states. It is time the system changed to recognise that only a rights-based approach can adequately respond to the conflicts within states that exist across the world today.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.