It was a tweet about the average period that refugees stay in refugee camps that made me think again about this thorny issue. It gave the shocking figure of 17 years - one that is often quoted but just as often challenged. That average changes every year, depending on what is driving the flow of refugees that year– war, famine or some other catastrophe. But the sad fact is that for many refugees, it is not an overstatement, and it highlights a flaw in our system of acting toward refugees.
Until fairly recently, like many people I suspect, I have thought of refugee camps as a temporary solution, caring for refugees until the next step could be identified. A short course on Migration issues and several of the films in GRAMNet series in Glasgow, presented me with the unpalatable facts.
Some refugee camps have been open for decades, and refugees have died in them, been born in them, lived most of their lives in them. For example, most Palestinian refugee camps have been open since 1948 and are now in their third or fourth generation of inhabitants. Dadaab camp in Kenya opened in 1992 and is home to around 250,000 people. in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, the Dzaleka camp has existed since 1994.
The long-term solutions for refugees are meant to return people to their countries of origin when possible, resettle them in another country willing to accept them, or integrate them into the host country. There are, however, no time limits on the relevant international authorities for achieving these solutions.
For Palestinian refugees, the likelihood of return is bleak and has been a major sticking point in peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives. We have all seen the lack of enthusiasm on the part of Western countries to accept refugees for resettlement. Integration would in many cases cause major problems for host nations who fear security or political problems or resource issues. For instance, in Lebanon, one in four of the population is now a refugee, putting great pressures on the delicate political and religious balance of the country. So the refugees are stuck or, to use the insider terminology, “warehoused” in the camps. Problem solved!?
Then there is the reality of life in the refugee camps. Many camps are in inhospitable arid border areas. Many host countries do not permit the refugees to leave or work outside the camps. So the refugees are trapped and dependent. Often the local population is hostile, fearing the refugees will take their jobs or use up services.
Many camps have major security problems: different ethnic groups and religions in the same camp; no internal protection for inhabitants; some camps becoming recruiting grounds for terrorists and militias. Children may not have access to education, resulting in a lost generation.
At best, life for many refugees in the camps is on hold for an unforeseeable length of time. At worst, they will see no future for themselves or their children.
Unsurprisingly, one outcome is that many refugees avoid registering in the camps if possible. There are currently 22 million refugees, and perhaps as many as half live in informal camps or rent rooms in towns until their cash runs out.
Perhaps our politicians should look at these realities before criticising those refugees who have not waited in the camps for the possibility of selection for resettlement. Perhaps they should also stop ignoring the causes of refugee flows and their part in them.
There is one sign of hope on the horizon. In September 2016, the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. It intends that a Global Compact to be signed this year should address many of the issues. We must watch this development and keep pressure on our governments to ensure that refugees are treated with dignity and respect - and not left to waste their lives in limbo.