A refugee camp is a temporary settlement built to receive refugees and people in refugee-like situations. Refugee camps usually accommodate displaced persons who have fled their home country, but there are also camps for internally displaced persons. Usually refugees seek asylum after they've escaped war in their home countries, but some camps also house environmental- and economic migrants. Camps with over a hundred thousand people are common, but as of 2012, the average-sized camp housed around 11,400. They are usually built and run by a government, the United Nations, international organizations (such as the International Committee of the Red Cross), or NGOs. There are also unofficial refugee camps, like Idomeni in Greece or the Calais jungle in France, where refugees are largely left without support of governments or international organizations.
Refugee camps generally develop in an impromptu fashion with the aim of meeting basic human needs for only a short time. Facilities that make a camp look or feel more permanent are often prohibited by host country governments. If the return of refugees is prevented (often by civil war), a humanitarian crisis can result or continue.
According to UNHCR, the majority of refugees worldwide do not live in refugee camps. At the end of 2015, some 67 percent of refugees around the world lived in individual, private accommodations. This can be partly explained by the high number of Syrian refugees renting apartments in urban agglomerations across the Middle East. Worldwide, slightly over a quarter (25.4%) of refugees were reported to be living in managed camps. At the end of 2015, about 56 percent of the total refugee population in rural locations resided in a managed camp, compared to the 2 percent who resided in individual accommodation. In urban locations, the overwhelming majority (99 percent) of refugees lived in individual accommodations, compared with less than 1 percent who lived in a managed camp. A small percentage of refugees also live in collective centers, transit camps and in self-settled camps.
In spite of the fact that 74 percent of refugees are in urban areas, the service delivery model of international humanitarian aid agencies remains focused on the establishment and operation of refugee camps.
Schools and markets may be prohibited by the host country government in order to discourage refugees from settling permanently in camps. Many refugee camps also have:
Most new arrivals travel distances of up to 500 km by foot. The journey can be dangerous, e.g. wild animals, armed bandits or militias, or landmines. Some refugees are supported by IOM, some use smugglers. Many new arrivals suffer from acute malnutrition and dehydration. There can be long queues outside the reception centres and waiting times of up to two months are possible. People outside the camp are not entitled to official support (but refugees from inside may support them). Some locals sell water or food for excessive prices and make large profits with it. It is not uncommon that some refugees die while waiting outside the reception centre. They stay in the reception centre until their refugee status is approved and the degree of vulnerability assessed. This usually takes two weeks. They are then taken, usually by bus, to the camp. New arrivals are registered, fingerprinted and interviewed by the host country government and the UNHCR. Health and nutrition screenings follow. Those who are extremely malnourished will be taken to therapeutic feeding centres and the sick to hospital. Men and women receive counselling separate from each other to determine their needs. After registration they are given food rations (until then only high energy biscuits), receive ration cards (the primary marker of refugee status), soap, jerrycans, kitchen sets, sleeping mats, plastic tarpaulins to build shelters (some receive tents or pre-fabricated shelters). Leaders from the refugee community may provide further support to the new arrivals.
Residential plots are allocated (e.g. 10m x12 m for a family of 4 to 7 people). Shelters may sometimes be built by refugees themselves with locally available materials, but aid agencies may supply materials or even prefabricated housing. Shelters are frequently very close to each other, and many families frequently share a single dwelling, rendering privacy for couples nonexistent. Camps may have communal unisex pit latrines shared by many households, but aid agencies may provide improved sanitation facilities. Household pit latrines may be built by families themselves. Latrines may not always be kept sufficiently clean and disease-free. In some areas there is limited space for new pits. Each refugee is supposed to receive around 20 liters of water a day. However, many have to survive on much less than that (some may get as little as 8 litres per day). There may be a high number of persons per usable tap stand (against a standard number of one per 80 persons). Drainage of water from bathroom and kitchen use may be poor and garbage may be disposed in a haphazard fashion. There may be few or no sanitary facilities accessible for people with disabilities. Poor sanitation may lead to outbreaks of infectious disease, and rainy season flooding of latrine pits increases the risk of infection.
The World Food Programme (WFP) provides food rations twice a month: 2,100 calories/person/day. Ideally it should be:
Diet is insensitive to cultural differences and household needs. WFP is frequently unable to provide all of these staples, thus calories are distributed through whatever commodity is available, e.g. only maize flour. Up to 80 or 90% of the refugees sell part or most of their food ration to get cash. Loss of the ration card means no entitlement to food. In 2015 the WFP introduced electronic vouchers.
Research found that if enough aid is provided, the refugees' stimulus effects can boost the host countries economy. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has a policy of helping refugees work and be productive, using their existing skills to meet their own needs and needs of the host country, to:
Ensure the right of refugees to access work and other livelihood opportunities as they are available for nationals... Match programme interventions with corresponding levels of livelihood capacity (existing livelihood assets such as skills and past work experience) and needs identified in the refugee population, and the demands of the market... Assist refugees in becoming self-reliant. Cash / food / rental assistance delivered through humanitarian agencies should be short-term and conditional and gradually lead to self-reliance activities as part of longer-term development... Convene internal and external stakeholders around the results of livelihood assessments to jointly identify livelihood support opportunities.
However, refugee hosting countries do not usually follow this policy and instead do not allow refugees to work legally. In many countries the only option is either to work for a small incentive (with NGOs based in the camp) or to work illegally with no rights and often bad conditions. In some camps it is accepted that refugees set up their own businesses. Some refugees even became rich with that. Those without a job or without relatives and friends who send remittances, need to sell parts of their food rations to get cash. As support does not usually provide cash effective demand may not be created
The main markets of bigger camps usually offer electronics, groceries, hardware, medicine, food, clothing, cosmetics, and services such as prepared food (restaurants, coffee–tea shops), laundry, internet and computer access, banking, electronic repairs and maintenance, and education. Some traders specialize in buying food rations from refugees in small quantities and selling them in large quantities to merchants outside the camp. Many refugees buy in small quantities because they don't have enough money to buy normal sizes, i.e. the goods are put in smaller packages and sold for a higher price.
Payment mechanisms used in refugee camps include:
Investment by outside private sector organizations in community-based energy solutions such as diesel generators, solar kiosks and biogas digesters has been identified as a way to promote community economic development and employment.
According to UNHCR vocabulary a refugee camp consists of: settlements, sectors, blocks, communities, and families. 16 families make up a community, 16 communities make up a block, four blocks make up a sector, and four sectors are called a settlement. A large camp may consist of several settlements. Each block elects a community leader to represent the block. Settlements and markets in bigger camps are often arranged according to nationalities, ethnicities, tribes, and clans of their inhabitants, such as at Dadaab and Kakuma.
In those camps where elections are held, elected refugee community leaders are the contact point within the community for both community members and aid agencies. They mediate and negotiate to resolve problems and liaise with refugees, UNHCR, and other aid agencies. Refugees are expected to convey their concerns, messages, or reports of crimes, etc. through their community leaders. Therefore, community leaders are considered to be part of the disciplinary machinery and many refugees mistrust them. There are allegations of aid agencies bribing them. Community leaders can decide what a crime is and thus, whether it is reported to police or other agencies. They can use their position to marginalize some refugees from minority groups. In Kakuma and Dadaab Refugee Camps in Kenya, Somali refugees have been allowed to establish their own 'court' system which is funded by charities. Elected community leaders and the elders of the communities provide an informal kind of jurisdiction in refugee camps. They preside over these courts and are allowed to pocket the fines they impose. Refugees are left without legal remedies against abuses and cannot appeal against their own 'courts'.
Security in a refugee camp is usually the responsibility of the host country and is provided by the military or local police. The UNHCR only provides refugees with legal protection, not physical protection. However, local police or the legal system of the host countries may not take responsibility for crimes that occur within camps. In many camps refugees create their own patrolling systems as police protection is insufficient. Most camps are enclosed with barbed wire fences. This is not only for the protection of the refugees, but also to prevent refugees from moving freely or interacting with local people.
Refugee camps may sometimes serve as headquarters for the recruitment, support and training of guerrilla organizations engaged in fighting in the refugees' area of origin; such organizations often use humanitarian aid to supply their troops. Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand and Rwandan refugee camps in Zaire supported armed groups until their destruction by military forces.
Refugee camps are also places where terror attacks, bombings, militia attacks, stabbings and shootings take place and abductions of aid workers are not unheard of. The police can also play a role in attacks on refugees.
Due to crowding and lack of infrastructure, refugee camps are often unhygienic, leading to a high incidence of infectious diseases and epidemics. Sick or injured refugees rely on free health care provided by aid agencies in camps, and may not have access to health services outside of a camp setting. Some aid agencies employ outreach workers who make visits from tent to tent to offer medical assistance to ill and malnourished refugees, but resources are often scarce. Vulnerable persons who have difficulties accessing services may be supported through individual case management. Common infectious diseases include diarrhea from various causes, malaria, viral hepatitis, measles, meningitis, respiratory infections such as influenza, and urinary/reproductive tract infections. These are exacerbated by malnutrition. In some camps, guards exchange food and money for sex with young girls and women, in what is called "survival sex".
The UNHCR is responsible for providing reproductive heath services to refugee populations and in camps. This includes educating refugees on reproductive health, family planning, giving them access to healthcare professionals for their reproductive needs and providing necessary supplies such as feminine hygiene products.
Refugees experience a wide range of traumas in their home country and during their journey to other countries. However, the mental health problems resulting from violent conflicts, such as PTSD and disaster-induced depression, can be compounded by problems induced by the conditions of refugee camps. Mental health concerns within humanitarian aid programs include stress about one's home country, isolation from support structures, and loss of personal identity and agency.
These consequences are increased by the daily stresses of displacement and life within camps, including ongoing risks of violence, lack of basic services, and uncertainty about the future. Women and girls in camps often fear being alone, especially at night, because of the risk of trafficking and sexual violence. The most prevalent clinical problems among Syrian refugees are depression, prolonged grief disorder, PTSD, and anxiety disorders. However, the perception of mental health is affected by cultural and religious values that result in different modes of expressing distress or making sense of psychological symptoms. In addition, refugees who have experienced torture often endure somatic symptoms in which emotional distress from torture is expressed in physical forms.
Unique conditions for the mental health of refugees within camps has led to the development of alternative psychological interventions and approaches. Some mental health services address the effects of negative discourses about migrants and the way that traumatic experiences affect and fragment identity. A therapeutic support project in the Calais refugee camp focused on building spaces of collectivity and community, such as youth groups, to challenge the individualization of distress and trauma. This project encouraged discussion of refugees' small acts of resistance to difficult situations and promoted activities from migrants' cultural roots to develop a positive conception of identity. Other mental health approaches acknowledge core cultural tenets and work to structure the camp itself around these values. For example, in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, Pakistani policy prioritized the centrality of personal dignity and collective honor in the cultural traditions of Afghan migrants, and constructed "refugee tented villages" that grouped people within their own ethnolinguistic, tribal, or regional communities.
Once admitted to a camp, refugees usually do not have freedom to move about the country but are required to obtain Movement Passes from the UNHCR and the host country government. Yet informally many refugees are mobile and travel between cities and the camps, or otherwise make use of networks or technology in maintaining these links. Due to widespread corruption in public service there is a grey area that creates space for refugees to manoeuvre. Many refugees in the camps, given the opportunity, try to make their way to cities. Some refugee elites even rotate between the camp and the city, or rotate periods in the camp with periods elsewhere in the country in family networks, sometimes with another relative in a Western country that contributes financially. Refugee camps may serve as a safety net for people who go to cities or who attempt to return to their countries of origin. Some refugees marry nationals so that they can bypass the police rules regarding movements out of the camps. It is a lucrative side-business for many police officers working the area around the camps to have many unofficial roadblocks and to target refugees travelling outside the camps who must pay bribes to avoid deportation.
Although camps are intended to be a temporary solution, some of them exist for decades. Some Palestinian refugee camps have existed since 1948, camps for Eritreans in Sudan (such as the Shagarab camp) have existed since 1968, the Sahrawi refugee camps in Algeria have existed since 1975, camps for Burmese in Thailand (such as the Mae La refugee camp) have existed since 1986, Buduburam in Ghana since 1990, or Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya since 1991 and 1992, respectively. In fact, over half of refugees as of the end of 2017 are in "protracted refugee situations", defined as situations where at least 25,000 people from a particular country are refugees in another particular country for 5 or more years (though this might not be representative of refugees who are specifically in camps). The longer a camp exist the lower tends to be the annual international funding and the bigger the implications for human rights. Some camps grow into permanent settlements and even merge with nearby older communities, such as Ain al-Hilweh, Lebanon and Deir al-Balah, Palestine.
People may stay in these camps, receiving emergency food and medical aid, for many years and possibly even for their whole life. To prevent this the UNHCR promotes three alternatives to that:
|Country||Camp||2006 ||2007 ||2008 ||2009 ||2010 ||2011 ||2012 ||2013 ||2014 |
|Thailand||Mae La Oon||14,366||13,450||13,478||13,811||11,991||10,204||9,611||8,675||12,245|
|Thailand||Mae Ra Ma Luang||12,840||11,578||11,304||13,571||11,749||10,269||9,414||8,421||13,825|
|South Sudan||Yusuf Batil||-||-||-||-||-||-||36,754||39,033||40,240|
|Thailand||Mai Nai Soi||-||19,103||19,311||-||12,252||12,244||11,730||9,725||12,414|
|South Sudan||Ajuong Thok||-||-||-||-||-||-||-||6,691||15,015|
|Ethiopia||Awbarre / Teferiber||-||8,581||11,045||12,293||13,120||13,426||13,331||13,752||12,965|
|Nepal||Beldangi 1 & 2||52,997||52,967||50,350||42,122||36,761||33,855||31,976||24,377||18,379|
|Kenya||Ifo 2, Dadaab||-||-||-||-||-||64,945||69,269||65,693||52,310|
As head of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband has advocated for abolishing refugee camps and the accompanying material aid altogether. He argues that given the long duration of many ongoing conflicts, refugees and local economies would be better off if refugees were settled in conventional housing and given work permits, with international financial support both for refugees and local government infrastructure and educational services.
Within countries experiencing large refugee in-migrations, citizen volunteers, non-governmental organizations, and refugees themselves have developed short- and long-term alternatives to official refugee camps established by governments or the UNHCR. Informal camps provide physical shelter and direct service provision but also function as a form of political activism. Alternative forms of migrant settlement include squats, occupations and unofficial camps.
Asylum seekers who have been rejected and refugees without access to state services in Amsterdam worked with other migrants to create the "We are here" movement in 2012. The group set up tents on empty land and occupied empty buildings including a church, office spaces, a garage, and a former hospital. The purpose of these occupations was both for physical housing and to create space for political, cultural, and social community and events.
In Brussels, Belgium, the speed of refugee processing and lack of shelters in 2015 resulted in a large number of refugees sleeping in the streets. In response, a group of Belgian citizens and collective of undocumented migrants built an informal camp in the Maximiliaan park in front of the Foreign Office and provided food, shelter, medical care, schooling, and activities such as a mobile cinema. This camp also functioned as a form of protest through its claims to space and visible location in front of government agencies.
The "Jungle" in Calais, France was an unofficial refugee camp, not legally approved by local or national French authorities. Because the camp did not receive support from the state government or international aid agencies, grassroots organizations developed to manage food, donations, temporary shelters and toilets, and recreational activities within the camp. Most of the volunteers had not previously been involved in refugee aid work and were not professionals in humanitarian aid. Although filling a need for service provision, the volunteer nature of aid in informal camps resulted in a lack of accountability, reports of volunteers taking advantage of refugees, risks of violence towards volunteers, and a lack of capacity to handle complex situations within the camps such as trafficking, exploitation, and violence. However, volunteer work in the Calais Jungle also functioned as a form of civil disobedience, because working within the camp fell within the definition of Article L622-1 of the French Penal Code, known as the "délit de solidarité" ("crime of solidarity"), which made it illegal to assist the "arrival, movement or residence of persons irregularly present on the French territory".
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