50 million reasons for some fresh thinking on refugees


Judith Collins photobombs Brad Pitt at refugee talkfest

The terrible fact that the number of refugees in the world has topped 50 million has been given widespread media coverage this week. Almost pro forma, coverage of this statistical milestone has been accompanied by statements from world leaders and United Nations spokespeople for the world to do something about this. Sadly, suggestions on what do have focused on the status quo, namely: the international community needs to do more to prevent violent conflict, humanitarian organizations need more funding to meet the needs of increasing numbers of refugees, rich countries need to accept more refugees for resettlement, blah, blah, blah. I’m sorry, but these pleas have been made so many times that I can barely listen to them anymore.

The suggestion that global leaders should do more to reduce violent conflict looks particularly lame, occurring in the same week as the world is confronted with the new crisis in Iraq. The international response to this has revealed (in case we did not already know) that the global security community has not a single clue how to prevent another refugee crisis from emerging and that this is, in any case, of secondary importance to rich country geo-political interests and politicians finger pointing about who is to blame for the Iraq mess.

Prevention is always better than a cure. But, if nothing can be done to prevent violent conflicts, attention must instead focus on better coping with the resultant refugees. Here, though, I think there is more scope for fresh thinking to succeed.

First it’s important to understand the refugee context a little better. The prevailing narrative is that the world is becoming an increasingly violent place and this is leading to an increasing number of refugees. The fact is, though, that the numbers of refugees are growing not only because of new violence, but because of failure to resolve long term refugee situations. 2013 was a terrible year for new refugees, with around six million new people displaced, mainly from or within Syria. But, the majority of the world’s refugees were displaced much earlier, including 2.5 million Afghan refugees who fled prior to 2002 and the two million displaced in Darfur the majority since 2003/04. Going even further back, large proportion of Colombia’s estimated five million internally displaced people fled their homes in the 1980s and around five million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, Lebanon and the West Bank since they (or their parents and grandparents) took shelter there in 1948.

Since World War II, aid agencies under the general leadership of the United Nations, have developed high capacity in responding to refugees in crisis situations. They have, without question, been successful in saving millions of lives. However, despite the sophistication of the logistics involved in achieving this, the actual strategy behind the approach remains alarmingly simple: you a) provide life-saving services to people in refugee camps, then b) wait until the conflict is resolved and hope that the people return home. Implicit in this is the theory that refugee camps are a short-term solution and this thinking guides virtually all policy governing the operation of refugee camps, most obviously the quality of the camp infrastructure. The obvious problem is the camps are anything but short-term on reality.

The desire for refugee camps to be temporary is natural for all parties concerned. Host countries understandably do not want the long-term burden of hosting thousands, sometimes millions, of refugees competing for jobs, government services and natural resources. Aid donors understandably do not want the financial burden of supporting long-term refugees when there are so many other legitimate demands on their budgets. Most importantly, refugees themselves want to go home. This collective will for refugee life to be a short-term phase means that millions of people live their lives in a kind of holding pattern, without access to permanent housing, without access to employment or other livelihood opportunities, without a host of citizenship rights, often with heavy restrictions on their freedom of movement; in sum, without any viable basis from which to plan to build a better life.

For many, the only hope of a real future is an escape route; the most common of which is to independently, often illegally and at considerable risk, abandon your refugee status in hope of finding employment and a better life in a neighbouring country or city (where you most likely have no legal status, may not speak the language and may be part of an ethnic group that is actively disliked). Reliable statistics on the numbers leaving refugee camps by such informal routes are hard to come by, but it is likely to be several hundred thousand per year.

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There is, of course, a preferable escape route, which is to be accepted for resettlement in a rich country through legitimate channels. But, this opportunity is open to far fewer. In 2012, Western countries accepted just 89,000 refugees via the United Nations’ Refugee Agency’s resettlement programme. 23 countries contributed to this figure, some (e.g. the United States and Canada) drastically more than others (e.g. most of Europe). The rich-world must, for sure, do more to assist. At the very least, the number of resettlements should be keeping pace with the growing number of refugees. New Zealand’s annual quota of 750 resettlements (which places it about mid-way on the league table of resettlements per capita) has remained fixed for over a decade despite significant growth in the global number of refugees (and New Zealand’s population as well for that matter). But, the proportion of refugees who are resettled is so tiny that even a tripling of resettlements (which is miles away from political reality anywhere in the rich world) would not even make up 5% of the numbers of new refugees generated in 2013 alone. Rich-world resettlement, in short, is of little importance as a tool to resolve the global refugee crisis.

Rather, what is needed is a different way of dealing with refugee camps; something that would require a paradigm shift for virtually everyone involved. A variety of different approaches would be needed.

The best would be to avoid the formation of refugee camps in the first place. The moment a camp gains a critical mass, it becomes a magnet to others seeking shelter. That people are able to seek shelter is, of course, a good thing. But, the magnet effect can lead to camps becoming very large, very quickly, placing a huge burden on local natural resources, creating enormous management problems and becoming very difficult to wind down. Particularly in cases where people are seeking refuge from famine as opposed to violence, more should be done to bring relief (or other, more sustainable forms of support) to people where they are, rather than people moving to where the aid is. In Dabbab camp in Kenya, an estimated 400,000 people sought refuge during the drought of 2011. For a variety of reasons, the majority are still in those camps despite the passing of the drought. It would have been better for all concerned, if these people were supported to remain at home in the first place.

In cases of violent conflict, this is not possible. But, a better scenario is for refugees to be absorbed into local communities, rather than forming large, separate camps on the peripheries. This gives refugees the status of guests who are directly supported by hosts, rather than being regarded by host populations as an uninvited drain on local resources. Host communities are not, of course, always in a position to offer such support. So aid agencies need to become more adept at supporting communities to do so, rather than setting up entirely independent support structures for refugees with little regard to host communities’ interests and cut across time honoured local traditions for dealing with migrants. Successful examples of this abound, for example in the Blue Nile state of Sudan where government restrictions on camp formation (imposed for purely non-humanitarian reasons) have encouraged high levels of responsiveness by host communities for new refugees, including the sharing of scarce agricultural land to allow refugees to continue farming.

Large congregations of refugees will, nonetheless, be unavoidable. Rather than being treated as isolated camps, however, refugee settlements should become integrated into local communities as quickly as possible. Many camps are basically urban fringe ghettos formed not because refugees are incapable or unwilling to blend into the local society and economy, but because they are directly restricted from doing so. The lifting of those restrictions, through giving refugees freedom of movement and granting them the right to work is essential. Investments in infrastructure and services by aid agencies will still be required as local communities are normally unable to meet the demands of their own populations much less the influx of refugees. But, such inputs should be integrated into existing community services, rather than being created separately for refugees only.

Achieving this would not only require aid agencies to work smarter and more flexibly, but would also require a massive shift in thinking by many host governments who are often restrictive on refugees precisely because they don’t want them there. This attitude is, however, somewhat futile. Being unable to return home for fear of your life creates a stubbornness in people that makes them resilient to all sorts of abuse and with escape routes available to only a tiny few, the refugee problem will remain no matter how much host governments resist it. In fact, the evidence suggests that the more restrictions imposed on refugee camps the more problems they create for their hosts. Compare, for example, Palestinian refugees in Jordan, where many have obtained citizenship rights, enjoy a good quality of life and make a contribution to society comparable, to those in Lebanon where decades-old refugee camps have become hotbeds or criminal and terrorist activity representing a constant burden for the Lebanese government and local populations.

Improvements in the way refugee crises are handled would not resolve the underlying problem that people are unable to return home. It would, however, give them the opportunity to build meaningful lives whilst they are displaced. A potential criticism of this is that it will create incentives to remain displaced. But, I do not buy this. For many people, the concept of home remains very strong and it is because of this factor alone that we should have little fear of creating an unnecessary volume of refugees. The impulse to return home is perhaps most vividly seen in Palestinians living in the West Bank. Life is tough for most people in the West Bank, whether refugees or not. But, refugees there are far more integrated into local society and economy than in any other refugee context I know of. And yet their yearning for home remains so strong that many Palestinians are known to still carry around the keys to the houses they fled from more than 60 years ago.

The suggestions I’m making are undoubtedly not perfect. Better ideas from people smarter than me are welcomed. But, the status quo cannot remain. 50 million refugees is an unacceptable number and with violent conflicts likely to increase rather than reverse in the coming decade, a fresh approach to refugee crises is sorely needed.


  1. Fantastic piece. Refugees accessing rights in the country of asylum leads to better protection outcomes for that population and the host society as well. Marginalising refugees only leads to negative outcomes. Keep up the excellent writing.

    • Cassie, whilst there may be some truth in that article, I wanted to make sure you were aware that its source is a state-owned Iranian media company; hardly the most credible source of critique on US foreign policy.

  2. 50 million people is a whole lot of people. You can’t help wondering why more refugees are not accepted in countries like this one, considering that there are whole empty towns all over the place. (Raetehi springs to mind as an example.)

  3. The settling of refugees in New Zealand at the moment is an act of mere tokenism. 750 people is not even a dent in the problem but the acceptance of refugees however small, does have an impact on our communities.

    I have to say I am not sympathetic. We are not talking about helping a few persecuted dissidents. Refugees as they present themselves overseas are whole peoples, many of them with no cultural empathy for New Zealand values or systems. The countries generating refugees have problems often that are thousands of years old and I regrettably believe that they should should solve their own problems with the help of those in their own region. We should continue to give aid or assistance, in situ.

    In the meantime, I’ll settle for tokenism.

    • Whilst you have a valid, not rocking the boat kind of point, the humanitarian crisis involved in a situation where you have around fifty Glastonbury festivals, minus the music, food and alcohol, ongoing on a permanent basis, simply saying close the doors and scuttle the boats is verging on the mean.
      To hint on importing a crime wave, well, there are other unscrupulous people who take advantage of refugees by trafficking them so there is that crime wave already happening.
      Oh but not in my back yard may be a luxury of the past when the true scale of the problems are revealed.

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