Refugee Camps

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Refugee Camps

A refugee camp is a place where people who flee their country to escape persecution, armed conflict, or political violence, can (in principle) live in safety. Over thirty-nine million people worldwide live as refugees or internally displaced persons (IDP). Not all of them gather in camps. Some are settled among the local population, and some try to seek asylum in other countries. However, the majority of the world's refugee population finds an immediate, if temporary, protection in camps.

Refugee camps are usually close to borders of the country in which the refugees originate and are established by host countries or an international organization, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Some camps are carefully planned, but others emerge spontaneously, out of necessity, despair, and destitution, without taking fundamental considerations such as geography, resources, policy, or economy into account.

Camps are an essential element of the humanitarian response to refugees. They are a temporary solution to a crisis, and they allow most refugees to remain in safety until it is possible for them to go back to their homes or move on to more permanent resettlement. Unfortunately, certain camps take on a permanent character, and some refugee populations are born, live out their lives, and die in their camp. This is the case of Palestinian refugees.

The creation of a refugee camp frequently results from an armed conflict in which the civilian populations suffered and feared for their lives. It is not rare that such persecutions constitute crimes against humanity or crimes of genocide. Refugee camps give rise to complex situations, especially when their residents are still confronted with danger. Because of the coexistence of enemy combatants, or of people from different ethnic groups who have a stake in the conflict, violence is a frequent occurrence in the camps. The conditions of containment are also favorable to the development of organized crime.

Furthermore, camps are not always protected from external attacks, which may constitute the continuation of the crimes against humanity or the genocide they were fleeing. Because refugee camps are temporary in nature, host countries are often eager to close them as quickly as possible. This raises the possibility that refugees may be forced to repatriate to places where they are still in danger and where they fear falling victim to crimes against humanity or of genocide.

Camps May Protect Against Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide

The causes of refugee flows are as diverse as they are numerous. At times, however, those causes may, in themselves, constitute a crime of genocide or a crime against humanity. In such cases, the establishment of a camp presents new and complex challenges. Such camps tend to be quantitatively larger and are likely to result in a dangerous exposure for the residents. The post–cold war era has given many tragic examples of this.

Between 1988 and 1996, nearly three million Iraqi Shiites and Kurds streamed toward the borders of Iran and Turkey, piling up in camps. Hundreds of thousands of ex-Yugoslavs were expelled from their homes and persecuted as a result of ethnic cleansing conducted in the region between 1992 and 1995. The phenomena repeated itself with the Albanian Kosovars in 1999. In 1994 more than two million Rwandans also fled a genocide that killed over 800,000 people, seeking shelter in camps in Zaire, Tanzania, and Burundi. Protracted political situations have led to the creation of permanent refugee residents in other countries: the Palestinians, for example, make up half of Jordan's population.

Camps and Insecurity

Camps are often cities built of mud, wood, corrugated iron, and plastic sheeting. The weak, poor, sick, old, young, or female are often very vulnerable to stronger, more predatory camp residents. Host countries are reluctant to police the camps, so protection is rarely available. Refugees who are already fragile, or who become weak because of the living conditions of the camp, may easily be targeted. Rape, assassination, forced prostitution, beatings, and overall intimidation inside the camp are commonplace, as is hunger.

International aid is very much a part of the camps' organization. Despite the hard work of relief agencies, however, the people living in a camp often lack nearly everything they need to create a semblance of normal life. Sometimes, when camps become permanent, they no longer receive a full share of international emergency relief. Food shortages and water deficiencies put refugees' survival into question. Because there are no employment program or agricultural opportunities, camp residents are often forced into complete idleness, which can have devastating consequences on their mental health.

Often refugees bring the seeds of the conflict they are fleeing with them into the camps. When camps contain combatants, they have been targeted by enemy forces, who believe the camp is providing their foes with assistance and protection. In addition, local populations may resent the foreign aid offered to refugees, who often receive more than they ever will. Almost everywhere, refugee camps are likely to be run by resistance factions, which can forcibly recruit refugees into guerrilla armed forces, as well as for sex or labor purposes. Furthermore, they often divert international assistance, including food, water, and medical supplies, to their own uses.

Enrollment in armed militias or organized crime, as well as random crime and violence, are easily increased by the circumstances of the refugee camps. People living in the camp are uprooted and destabilized. The majority of them are women and children, many have little education, and most have lost all their possessions. Many have lost family members, and they frequently suffer psychological ailments due to stress and grief. These conditions are extremely favorable to clashes, abuse, wrongdoings, and violent and criminal behaviors.

In Afghanistan, warlords began arming refugee camps as soon as the international peacekeepers arrived in Kabul in 2001, in order to fill the power vacuum and keep their profits from drug trafficking and smuggling. In Morocco, the Polisario (a political movement) has used a refugee camp in southwest Algeria—fully equipped and supplied by international assistance—as military headquarters and a detention center for their prisoners of war. Sometimes, though not always, host countries, assisted by international agencies, will relocate camps farther away from their borderlands, in order to separate genuine refugees from combatants.

Attacks on the Camps

Given the right circumstances, military attacks on refugee camps are very easy to mount. Target populations are all gathered in one place and are in an extremely vulnerable situation because the camps are generally not protected by police or military forces. In September 1982, for instance, the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila were destroyed, and more than 2,000 Palestinians, including children and women, were tortured, raped, and killed by the Lebanese Phalangist militia allied to Israel, after Lebanon had been invaded by Israel.

In 1995 and 1996, in eastern Zaire, the Rwandan Patriotic Front and President Kabila's forces mounted successive attacks on Hutu refugee camps. Hutu militias were using their own camps as a staging ground for attacks against nearby Tutsi communities. The attacks on the Hutu refugee camps resulted in their dismantling. As many as 700,000 Rwandese returned from their camps to Rwanda; others went west into the forest and often died of disease or hunger.

After the Camps: The Issue of Return

Among the durable solutions promoted by UNHCR, repatriation is often considered best. According to UN policy, refugees are uprooted people whose ties to their birthplace, culture or identity, have been broken, so whenever it is possible to do so in safety and dignity, they should be repatriated. Despite the voluntary repatriation standard set by UNHCR, humanitarian agencies and refugees often have to deal with forced repatriations, as occurred in the camps that harbored Rwandan refugees. The UNHCR participating in the dismantlement of the Rwanda refugee camps, which constituted a forced repatriation. It has been severely criticized for its role in this action.

The Russian intervention in Chechnya caused human rights violations of an exceptional gravity. The ensuing destruction of villages, military attacks on marketplaces, and the bombing of refugee corridors probably amount to crimes against humanity. Strong pressures were applied to force Chechens out of their refugee camps, including beatings, aggressions, murders, vanishing bodies, arrests, repeated military interventions, blocked humanitarian aid, and degrading living conditions. Since April 2002, the stress has grown and some of the camps are being closed. One such camp is called Bart, which is one of three tented camps for Chechens in Ingushetia, and which was officially closed on March 1, 2004. The residents have no choice but to return to their home communities, where they still fear persecution and where no protection is available. The UNHCR does not operate in Chechnya, as Russian authorities consider this conflict to be a domestic matter.

Most of the time, refugee camps provide at least a basic degree of protection against crimes against humanity and genocide. However, their residents are extremely vulnerable, due to their location, their over-crowding, the scarcity of resources available, and the continuing political troubles of their country of origin, not to mention those of the host country. They also are essentially a temporary emergency measure that must lead to more permanent solutions, such as voluntary repatriation, integration in the host country, or resettlement in a new country. If the residents are forced to wait too long, the refugee camps may come to represent the worst of the political situation that the refugees were fleeing. Protracted refugee situations result in camps remaining in place for years or even decades. Sometimes, when repatriation becomes possible, refugees return to a place that is very different from the one they once left.

SEE ALSO Refugees


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François Crépeau
Caroline Lantero