In my post on Monday I wrote a bit about refugee camps. The words seem to go together naturally: where there are refugees there are also camps. But the practice of putting displaced persons in camps is historically fairly new, a twentieth-century phenomenon, and as I suggested on Monday, the camps themselves are politically and morally complex places. They may provide refugees with shelter, and make it easier for aid agencies or host states to provide food and medical assistance; but they serve other purposes, too, and they create political logics of their own. They’re not an unproblematic means of saving humans.
Most Syrian refugees today aren’t actually in camps, though camps provide most of the images of refugees we see. (The picture at the top of the post actually comes from a photo-essay entitled Beyond the camps, accompanying a fine recent piece on the refugee ‘catastrophe’ in the New York Review of Books, and most of the pictures in it are of refugees outside camps.)
Turkey has established a kind of refugee-camp archipelago in and beyond the border zone (the high quality of the camps being widely recognized), but even there refugees outside camps outnumber refugee inside them by three to two—or, more precisely, three hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. Jordan has a similar number of ‘encamped’ refugees, all concentrated in a single vast camp, Zaatari, which is said to have become Jordan’s fourth-largest city; a second vast camp is being built at al-Azraq, but Jordan also has even more refugees living outside camps than Turkey does. Lebanon, meanwhile, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees—about three quarters of a million of them—doesn’t have any camps at all.
This makes it harder to track individual refugees, and for humanitarian agencies to gather reliable and comprehensive information about refugees’ needs—let alone provide assistance to meet those needs. The flood of refugees has sent the cost of living soaring in parts of neighbouring countries and put enormous pressure on essential services. Rents in some parts of Jordan rose 300% in the six months to April 2013 alone (and have certainly risen further since). The half-million refugees there have added nearly 8% to the total population—which in one of the world’s most water-scarce countries is a serious matter. Putting refugees in camps would be one way of limiting some of these impacts, and ensuring that the international community can shoulder some of their cost.
But there are reasons why the refugees themselves may be reluctant to move into camps, and why not all governments want to establish them—and a historical perspective can help explain them.
For example, uprooted Syrians have, since 1948, lived their lives in close proximity to generations of Palestinian refugees. In Syria, Palestinians were reasonably well-integrated into the host society (the camps weren’t ‘closed’), but only up to a point: ‘Ibn al-mukhayyam [the child of the camp] will never be like ibn al-balad [the child of the country]’, as a young Palestinian from the Yarmouk camp told an interviewer a few months before the war in Syria began. And Syrians are well aware that in Lebanon, Palestinians in their camps were excluded from the host society in all sorts of ways: barred from many occupations, for example. During the civil war, Palestinian civilians in Lebanese camps were often targeted directly: the massacres at Sabra and Chatila in 1982, or later during the ‘war of the camps’. For Syrians informed by the Palestinian experience, camps may represent exclusion from the host society, the risk of massacre—and the possibility of permanent exile.
Wariness of camps exists on the side of states too, for related reasons. When Palestinian refugees housed in camps started to organize themselves politically in the 1960s, their aims and aspirations clashed with those of the host governments: ultimately they came to threatened state sovereignty. The camps, where refugees lived in isolation from the host societies and exclusion from their political institutions, became fiefdoms of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and it was difficult or impossible for host governments to control them, even when they launched attacks across the border on Israel and the occupied territories. In its conflict with PLO militants, Israel did not hesitate to target the host states. In Jordan this process led to the expulsion of the PLO leadership, after a short but bitter conflict in 1970, to Lebanon—where the same process contributed to the outbreak of the civil war, in which camps themselves became targets. It is little wonder that Jordan is uneasy about placing Syrians in camps, and Lebanon positively allergic to it.
Getting assistance to refugees—and host communities—becomes more complicated, and perhaps more costly, when the people you want to help are dispersed through towns and villages. But my own view is that it’s a necessary effort, and history can help us understand why. The UN increasingly takes the same view: “You cannot lock people into a camp”, the UNHCR’s representative in Turkey said recently, while talking about mechanisms for supporting refugees outside camps, like cash assistance programmes. So, even though the UNHCR has its own complex and not always positive history, I’ll end by linking to its current appeal on behalf of Syrian refugees. The UN’s appeals to help those displaced inside and outside the country are barely 50% funded (and their relative success may be making it harder for the UNHCR to attract support for other refugees). And the crisis isn’t going to go away.