Refugee Camps are anything but temporary

More than 600,000 refugees have flooded into Europe this year. However, more than 58 million displaced people remain, mostly in the developing world. Millions are stuck in refugee camps, housed in row after row of tents, enduring the cold and blistering heat and dust that blows in from every direction.

There is a spirit of technological optimism in the humanitarian community that sees refugees’ problems as logistical issues amenable to high-tech solutions. In Turkey refugees use debit cards provided by the World Food Program to shop in stores rather than waiting for food packages. In Jordan, refugees get texts from UNHCR when aid money is deposited and then use an iris scanner to withdraw cash at an ATM. Facebook just announced it will bring the Internet to camps around the world.

Refugee camps are meant for short-term emergencies. They are supposed to be temporary way stations where displaced people can get medical care, food supplies, and shelter until they can either return home or be resettled elsewhere.

But although camps are designed to be temporary, the average length of stay is now more than 17 years. More than half of the world’s displaced people are in what UNHCR calls “protracted displacement.” In Nepal’s Beldangi Camp, refugees have waited 18 years to resettle or return to Bhutan. In the Republic of Georgia, people displaced from Abkhazia 23 years ago are still crammed into decaying Soviet hotels that have become vertical refugee camps. Many Palestinian camps, some almost 70 years old, are now outright slums.

In order to pursue the explicit goal of keeping displaced people from being stuck in poverty and violence or to achieve the implicit goal of preventing an even more massive influx of migration into Europe, donor countries must find a way to turn camps into places where people can rebuild their lives.

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