Posts tagged ‘UNHCR’

October, 2013

Refugee camps

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan
Click image for source

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.

Al Azraq Refugee Camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)

Construction of al-Azraq refugee camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)
Click image for source

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.

October, 2013

Middle Eastern refugees, then and now

My current research project is on refugees and state-formation in the post-Ottoman Middle East—roughly 1918–1939. It grew out of my earlier project on minorities in French mandate Syria: I’d collected quite a bit of material on refugee communities, but realized that I wouldn’t use it in my PhD (and later book) because refugees in Syria weren’t considered ‘minorities’ but, precisely, refugees.

UN OCHA Humanitarian Snapshot, SyriaWhen I started the project, I didn’t expect that long before I’d finished it Syria would collapse into an appalling civil war, and become the crucible of a vast new refugee crisis: about 10% of the country’s entire population (roughly two million people, out of a bit over twenty million) has fled to neighbouring or nearby states, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and a much larger number of people have been displaced within Syria. Click on the map here for the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Immense—and depressing—though these numbers are, the displacement crises that afflicted the late Ottoman and interwar Middle East were comparable both in absolute terms and in proportion to population size: the flight of Muslims from the Caucasus as the Russian empire expanded in the 1860s; the expulsion of Muslims from breakaway states in the Balkans from the 1870s on; internecine expulsions and exchanges between those breakaway Christian states in the early 20th century; genocidal deportations of Ottoman Armenians (often perpetrated by people who themselves had been, or were descendants of, recent refugees) and other Christians during the first world war; the great Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923–4; and the smaller exoduses and expulsions that persisted through the twentieth century—from Assyrian Christians fleeing Iraq in the 1930s to late communist Bulgaria kicking out Muslims in the 1980s, with plenty of other examples: the Palestinian refugees are only the best-known of many. The states of the modern Middle East, like the states of modern Europe, were largely formed out of processes of population displacement.

Dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire since 1683.

Dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire since 1683. From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923.
Approximately ten million refugees not shown.
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library map collection, University of Texas at Austin (click image for link)

All this means that my historical research has led me to get more involved than I might once have expected with contemporary humanitarian issues—partly through an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research network that some colleagues are coordinating, and partly through collaboration with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London. Both sets of initiatives are premised on the idea that historical research can offer useful perspectives to humanitarian planning and interventions in the present.

But after a summer where I was more focused on the contemporary issues, I’m now returning to my research, with a paper to write for a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies next month. It’s about a small but significant instance of population displacement within this much larger history I’ve been sketching out: the exodus of at least fifty thousand Armenians from Cilicia in what is now southern Turkey at the end of a two-year period of French occupation following the first world war, and what I’m calling the ‘grudging rescue’ of perhaps twenty thousand of them, by sea and rail, in the final two weeks of 1921. I’ll post something about that tomorrow.

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