Refugee camps, meant to be temporary, transitional spaces, emergency places of shelter, have become cities. Their populations have grown, and have remained, nowhere else for them to go.
For Refugee Week 2013, I wrote about the camp in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The refugee camp is a liminal space. Like a border or no-man’s land, it is a place through which people pass, but not a place where they should live. It is a between-space – between the place from which the refugees fled and the place of safety which they hope to reach (which may, of course, be the place from which they fled, if conditions and circumstances have changed). The camp’s inhabitants are uncitizens, marginalised and separated both from their former home and from the country in which the camp sits. It’s a waiting zone where nothing can be fully brought to fruition, a place of quarantine. Is it purgatory – a place of temporary suffering, though without the promise of paradise to come? Or limbo – the first circle of Dante’s Hell?
Goma is, arguably, a particularly grim example, given the circumstances in which it arose. The refugees from Rwanda which it housed included many who had participated in the genocide of 1994, as well as those who had tried to escape it. The humanitarian efforts to feed and support the people in the camps thus ran into controversy – were our charitable donations feeding murderers, or their victims? Certainly the camps were used as a base for Hutu militia to attack Tutsis and make forays into Rwanda. Today the continuing volatility and violence endemic in DRC continue to make Goma a dangerous place for its inhabitants, especially the children. But a return home is fraught with difficulties and dangers too.
In Ghana, the Buduburam refugee camp has been in place since the start of the first Liberian Civil War in 1989, and accommodates refugees from this conflict, from the second Liberian Civil War, and the civil war in Sierra Leone. Both of those countries are now peaceful and stable, and there is pressure to encourage residents to return home, or seek permanent settlement elsewhere. Some parts of the camp have been closed, and residents displaced, amid claims that many living there are not part of the original refugee communities and/or do not meet the criteria for refugee status. For those who have lived here since the beginning, who have grown up here, raised families here, the future may look uncertain, but it would seem there are options and possibilities.
If there is a camp that embodies the current refugee crisis, it is Za’atari, in Jordan.
Home to 80,000 people. Intended as a temporary, transitory place, but evolving in to a long-term home for so many displaced by war. It’s Jordan’s fourth biggest city. Seen from above, as it is often is, to emphasise its sprawling scale, it’s easy to forget that in that city, as in any city, people are living their lives.
We use the refugee camp as a symbol of the challenge of mass migration, and of the desperate needs of those who live there. The people who did, once, lead lives very much like our own, until war drove them out. They were farmers, teachers, lawyers, engineers, nurses and builders. They still can be.
Within the camp, babies are born, children grow up, people get sick, women have periods, all of the normal events of life take place here too. All of these things present greater challenges when you’re living in a place that wasn’t intended to be a city, that was only meant to house you for a short time, until you could safely go home, or until some other place was found for you to move on to.
If Goma represents despair and Buduburam uncertainty, Za’atari can be a place of hope and of inspiration. It’s a place where the inhabitants put to use not only the limited physical resources available to them but the abundance of creativity, ingenuity and energy to solve the day to day problems, to provide for themselves not just today but in the longer term.
Most people in refugee camps would rather be at home. But if the place they called home is still a war zone, the street they lived on is rubble, the schools and hospitals and infrastructure of their city destroyed, going home is a dream for the future, not an option for now. So meantime people make new communities in these temporary places. They use their skills and knowledge to make the place better, safer, more comfortable, to make limited resources go further. It’s not home, but it can be a home.
UNHCR wants to find alternatives to camps.
The possible alternatives are diverse and affected by factors such as culture, legislation and national policies. Refugees might live on land or housing which they rent, own or occupy informally, or they may have private hosting arrangements. Such alternatives typically allow refugees to exercise their rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices about issues affecting their lives, contribute to their community and live with greater dignity and independence.
UNHCR recognizes that enabling refugees to live in communities lawfully, peacefully and without harassment – in urban or rural areas – supports their ability to take responsibility for their lives and communities. Refugees bring personal skills and assets which can benefit the communities where they are living. They also bring the qualities of perseverance, flexibility and adaptability. Refugees who maintain their spirit of independence, use their skills and develop sustainable livelihoods during displacement, will be more resilient and better able to overcome future challenges.
So our shared responsibility, as citizens of the world, is to seek a future where people do not have to leave their homes in fear of their lives, but at the same time to recognise that war, famine and oppression will continue to force migration of peoples and to find better solutions than we have at present for enabling those people to build a future.