Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis: A Tale of 3 Myths

A Rohingya refugee looks at the view from a hill at Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar

The refugee problem is universal and growing; it needs to be addressed clearly.

Facts on the ground support this analysis: Whereas refugee camps were originally meant as a stop-gap measure, the average stay for individuals in refugee camps is now an astonishing seventeen years. Palestinian refugees constitute the world’s largest and most long-lasting refugee population. Other examples include Somali refugees in Kenya, who began populating the Dadaab refugee camp in 1991, and have yet to leave; in fact, this camp is still growing. Dadaab now holds nearly 500,000 refugees—including 10,000 third-generation refugees who were born in the camp. If Dadaab was a city, it would be the fourth-largest city in Kenya. Until recently, another example could be found in Calais, France, where migrants first began arriving in 1992. Calais housed “The Jungle,” a refugee encampment in the heart of Europe that at its peak held 10,000 migrants. The Jungle was shuttered and demolished by the French government last year, in part because of the terrible living conditions of the refugees, who lived in makeshift, easily flooded shelters rife with mice and rats. Other examples of long-lasting refugee camps abound. Camps in Pakistan that were founded for Afghan refugees in 1979 have now turned into permanent slums that house almost a million people. In a similar situation, nearly 300,000 refugees from Darfur have lived in a cluster of camps in Chad since 2004. Over 100,000 Bhutanese Lhotshampas have been living in refugee camps in Nepal since 1990. And hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees fled to Tanzania in 1972, and remained in the country; 162,000 of those refugees were finally granted Tanzanian citizenship in 2008.

In view of these considerations, the assumption that refugees are temporary “guests” about to go home soon is a nonstarter. Nor are refugee camps the solution. Conditions in the camps typically are squalid and serve as a petri dish for militancy and possible radicalization. The Palestinian terror organizations (the Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad) were born in refugee camps. Kevin White, director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Uganda, recounted to the CEDAR group how bored and disgruntled youths in Ugandan refugee camps are often eager to join the fight in South Sudan as a form of gainful employment that offers respect. And our own very recent research on Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey suggests that as compared to refugees that managed to make living arrangements outside the camps, the “insiders” were significantly more frustrated, militant, and ready to engage in violence against their perceived enemies. Clearly, the presumption that the refugee situation is short term is unrealistic. Fresh thinking is required to ensure that the supreme humanistic value of assisting people in need is implemented humanely in real world conditions.

Rights versus Needs

What is considered humane treatment of refugees is typically based on the concept of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and it

Promises to all the economic, social, political, cultural and civic rights that underpin a life free from want and fear. They are not a reward for good behaviour. They are not country-specific, or particular to a certain era or social group. They are the inalienable entitlements of all people, at all times, and in all places.... Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

The UDHR served as the basis for the 1951 Refugee Convention, which constitutes the oldest text on this specific issue. It includes forty-six articles listing the rights of refugees. Among others, these include rights such as: Access to courts, Rationing of food or supplies, Public education, Freedom of movement, and Prohibition of expulsion.