UNHCR’s new policy on alternatives to camps: a major breakthrough in refugee protection?

Published: 8 Oct 2014
By: Lucy Hovil

This blog first appeared in the Guardian development blog on 5 October 2014 (see article here)

It is rare to witness a paradigm shift in refugee protection. But such a shift has just happened with the release of UNHCR’s new Policy on Alternatives to Camps. For refugees and refugee advocates who have been shouting for years about the perils associated with refugee camps, the policy is almost too good to be true. As the policy states, “From the perspective of refugees, alternatives to camps means being able to exercise rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices regarding their lives and have the possibility to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of communities.” It makes perfect sense. But why, one has to ask, has it taken so long?

For decades, the default response to refugee crises has been to set up camps or settlements and coerce refugees into them. Camps, it was argued, were best suited to meet the social, economic and political realities in which refugees are living. Yet a significant body of research  has demonstrated the exact opposite,  pointing to the fact that those refugees who have opted out of the camp system – even when doing so means forgoing any humanitarian assistance – have established an effective alternative approach to exile. They have managed to live in areas in which they feel more secure, and have engaged in the local economy. Far from being passive victims, they have taken control of their lives, often without any additional external assistance.

Yet until recently, there has been strong resistance to modifying policy to reflect these realities and harness the potential of refugees: the settlement model has suited powerful interests of governments and UNHCR alike. In the case of the former, camps are a visible demonstration that a government is acting to respond to refugee crises. They play into the damaging narrative that refugees are outsiders, foreigners, or a security threat who import violence and therefore need to be kept under close scrutiny until such time as they can return home. In the case of the latter, camps have ensured a tangible and visible tool for raising funds and ‘managing’ humanitarian demands.

However, experience has shown these assumptions to be fundamentally flawed. Instead of generating security, camps have often created insecurity, providing fertile ground for radicalisation and recruitment of refugee populations. They have also proved inefficient with regard to humanitarian needs: although the camp structure has allowed for some effectiveness in identifying vulnerable populations and distributing assistance, it has created numerous inefficiencies, not least by creating parallel systems for delivery of services that have failed to dovetail with services for the local population, further entrenching the ‘them and us’ mentality. Camps have also significantly hindered opportunities for self-reliance, with refugees constantly hampered by restrictions on their freedom of movement. In addition, when the international community has lost interest in the plight of the refugees and funding is reduced, those in camps have been far more vulnerable than those who have found alternative livelihoods – alternatives that have been contingent upon freedom of movement and the exercise of choice.

In Uganda, for example, tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees spent over two decades living in camps, trapped between being unable to return to their homeland in the midst of a civil war, and unable to integrate into the local community with access to economic and other opportunities (see paper).  As a result, their lives were put on hold, jeopardising not only their quality of life in exile but making them more vulnerable when they returned to the new state of South Sudan with little to show for the decades they had spent in exile (see paper).  And now, following the outbreak of fighting in South Sudan that began in December 2013, those fleeing to Uganda are once more being segregated from the local population and moved into camps where a humanitarian crisis is growing by the day. Recent research showed that these refugees are living in precarious circumstances, with inadequate humanitarian assistance and afraid for their own security. Once again the perils of camps have been thrown into sharp focus.

While UNHCR has certainly come to the party several decades too late for the many refugees who have been forced to live in camps in the meantime, this new policy nevertheless is to be welcomed. Frustration aside, UNHCR is to be congratulated for formulating what is, by any standard, an outstanding document. The policy stresses the need for respect for refugee rights, inclusion, innovation and mobility; it recognises the need to work with, rather than against, local communities who are often the first humanitarian actors on the ground; and it shows an awareness of the potential for refugees to become productive members of the communities in which they live.

Before we get too carried away, though, it is important to remember that the policy is only as good as its implementation, and this is going to be a considerable challenge. As the policy acknowledges, creating effective alternatives to camps requires a permissive policy environment, and national refugee legislation in many countries continues to require encampment. Furthermore, realpolitik is going to be a major hurdle, especially in those countries where security narratives are dominant. With spaces for belonging contracting across the world and governments becoming increasingly exclusionary in their politics, convincing them to allow refugees to move freely is going to be tough. UNHCR will have its work cut out battling the camp reflex internally and externally, and is going to need all the help it can get.

However, UNHCR is a large and powerful international organisation with huge potential. A strong policy framework is an excellent start for mobilising this potential, and for now we, in the refugee rights community, will take that.

Programmes: Causes of Displacement, Statelessness, Citizenship and Right to a Nationality
Type: IRRI Blog