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Refugee Camps: Good For Africa Or Necessary Evil? - 2003-01-09


Where there is conflict, there are refugees. Thousands – and in some cases - millions of people looking for safe haven. Many, if not most, end up in refugee camps - sometimes for months, sometimes for many years. But are the camps good for refugees and good for Africa? Or are they, as some call them, a necessary evil?

The UN refugee agency – The UN High Commissioner for Refugees – currently cares for nearly 20-million people in 120 countries. Most refugees are in Asia, nearly nine million. Europe ranks second at almost five million, while Africa has more than four million refugees.

The UNHCR’s mandate is “to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.” It says in the last 50 years, it has helped about 50 million people.

However, the acting director of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at American University in Cairo questions the UNHCR’s methods. Barbara Harrell-Bond says camps are bad not only for refugees, but for the host countries as well.

She says, "The main concern, of course, is that people in most situations lack freedom of movement, which is a fundamental human right upon which all other rights are conditional or contingent. The second issue is the fact that UNHCR spends enormous amounts of money establishing refugee camps and setting up parallel programs of health, education and so on rather than using these resources to strengthen local institutions so they can absorb the refugees."

She says refugee camps “are often prison-like places that no one wants to live in and those who can, escape.”

She says, "Refugees are human beings and they have access to all the human rights that any other human being should have access to. They should have access to courts. They should have access to health and all the other services of a government in the same way that local people do."

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski (ya-NOFF-ski) agrees that camps are not the best solution to a refugee crisis. But he says sometimes they are the only solution.

He says, "We would agree with her very much that the refugee camps are not an ideal situation. I mean, generally, the situation we have refugees is not an ideal situation. In fact, it’s a bad situation because people are forced to flee their own country and end up in another country, which has to host them sometimes more or less enthusiastically. So refugee camps, per se, are not ideal."

Mr. Janowski says because of security concerns, refugee camps are frequently the only remedy.

"Sometimes," he says, "they are the only possibility because the host country wants the refugees corralled in a refugee camp. They don’t want them living among the population for security reasons and various other reasons. And this is primarily why we have refugee camps. It’s not that we love them so much."

However, Professor Harrell-Bond says while that may be the official UNHCR position, its actions speak otherwise.

She says, "Even though the UNHCR’s handbook says camps are not the best, never set up camps, unfortunately too often it’s because camps make refugees visible for assistance purposes. They think it is a more efficient way to deliver health services because UNHCR doesn’t have the imagination to think of other alternatives. And I think it’s very seldom that governments insist on camps."

She says refugees should be allowed to “settle among the local population, seek work to support their families and therefore contribute to the local economy. She says despite the current situation, Ivory Coast has been a good example of this. She also says this is the case in Egypt, which does not allow refugee camps within its borders.

UNHCR’s Kris Janowski says, if possible, integrating the refugee population is better.

He says, "Of course, we would prefer if asylum seekers or refugees had jobs and were able to live in the community in normal housing, sending their children to schools and so on and so forth, but often it’s not possible. And it’s not possible because the governments that host large numbers of refugees do not want it this way."

He says refugees in camps do get some basic health care and education, but admits it is not a pleasant psychological experience. He says, however, that by and large, the refugees are safer than if they were fending for themselves.

Professor Harrell-Bond of American University in Cairo says refugee camps leave behind no benefits to the local population. She says once refugees are repatriated, the camps – some containing schools or hospitals – are destroyed.

However, she doesn’t put all the blame on the UNHCR.

She says, "I think the major villain in the piece is the donors. Donors allocate money for relief programs. And that’s what UNHCR and humanitarian NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) feed upon. So, anything that looks like development doesn’t get paid for under relief budgets. So that’s the basic problem that starts it all going."

The UNHCR, like other UN agencies, is facing a budget shortfall - What it describes as “a cash flow problem that is leaving program coffers empty.”

High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers says, “While needs are growing, the agency is finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the resources necessary to attend to the missions of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced that can be found worldwide.”

It’s a problem Professor Harrell-Bond says is due in part to “donor fatigue” about refugee problems.

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