On Refugee Camps



Call them irregular migrants, not refugees. Call them reception centres, not camps. And it’s true that a problem out of sight is a problem out of mind.  But more money for camps – whether in Turkey and Lebanon or on the north shores of Africa – is not a problem solved. It is responsibility abdicated.

On Monday, Europe’s leaders failed – yet again – to agree on a formula to relocate 120,000 refugees from the borders of Greece, Italy and Hungary, prolonging a refugee crisis of their own making. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron toured refugee camps in Lebanon, explaining how £1 billion in development aid is the right way for Britain to show it cares about Syrians.

Such words may have been cloaked in humanitarian concern, but it was with a veil so transparently thin that even Cameron could hardly disguise that £1 billion was really a price worth paying to make sure refugees stay put, as ‘part of our comprehensive approach to tackle migration from the region’.

The UK is not alone. Canada – another country with a government apparently intent on dismantling any humanitarian legacy – has recently promised $75 million in lieu of any additional resettlement places. Too many states now appear to believe that more money is an effective substitute for asylum, and that solving their immediate crisis – refugees arriving at their border begging for sanctuary – is equivalent to solving the refugee crisis.

More money will make things better. It is clear that there is an urgent need for more humanitarian funding in the Syrian region – a multi-billion dollar shortfall has led to refugees’ monthly food budgets being halved. Beyond Syria and the newspaper headlines, other crises are suffering acute neglect, and still worse funding cuts. So let us not fool ourselves that we are generous with our cash, when it is past failures to respond adequately that let politicians ride to the rescue in a blaze of PR glory to fix humanitarian crises once more of their own making.

But in the end, money is a salve: it is not a cure. For containment is not an answer. It is never an answer. At best, it offers a temporary pause. At worst, it facilitates a dangerous political amnesia. For good, orderly, well-run camps let us reframe the refugee story in familiar and comforting terms: a distant tragedy, where poor victims are ministered to by white heroes. Yet even in the best camps, refugees’ lives are left in limbo – unless there are real solutions on offer.

We know this. We have known this for sixty years. In 1955, the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He chose to speak not of UNHCR’s humanitarian accomplishments, but the global community’s political failings. Ten years after World War II had ended, 100,000 refugees were still living in camps: ‘black-spots on the map of Europe [that] should burn holes in the consciences of those who are privileged to live in better conditions. Everything possible must be done to close them.’

Five years later, the camps had closed. States opened their borders to admit the last of the “hard core” – in so doing establishing the modern refugee resettlement programme over which today’s political leaders squabble.

Now, eyes wide open, we talk of building new camps. And as a logistical response to emergency, camps have their place. But it is a temporary place. Stretch a camp into a city, and unless you can also make refugees into citizens, you are simply administering human misery.

Caught up in the drama and the urgency of immediate crisis, we cannot afford to forget that many of Syria’s refugees will not go “home”. Even were peace to come tomorrow, Syria is in ruins. So pinning our hopes on return alone offers no solution. Return – when the time is right – must be accompanied with opportunities for safe and legal migration, both to fund reconstruction and to offer those families brave enough to return in the first days of peace a safety net.

It is an unwelcome, inconvenient truth. But it is a truth none the less. Sixty years on from Goedhart’s refugee camps, and refugee camps still don’t work.

So where now? Well, in the past two weeks I’ve found myself turning back to read about responses to refugee crises in other kinder and more optimistic ages. In 1955, Goedhart urged the international community to be creative — “[we] should not be afraid of a bold experiment. It is better to develop one new method through a number of failures than at all times to follow the beaten track.” And creativity worked. So we also need to think beyond tired calls for more aid, more resettlement. We need to bring in new actors – entrepreneurs, civil society, private citizens – to remake a better humanitarian protection.

And we need to start now. For Goedhart also offered his audience a warning: “if we wait too long, the uprooted are bound to become easy prey for political adventurers, from whom the world has suffered too much already.” These portentous words – echoing sixty years into the future – are still a call to replace moral cowardice with courage. Europe’s leaders should not be building refugee camps. They should be welcoming refugees. We must persuade them to do so.