Refugee camps were set up to be safe and temporary solutions for those forced from their homes during crisis. Unfortunately, too many find themselves staying far longer than they anticipated.
Lauren Hartnett is Oxfam’s humanitarian press officer based in Boston.
Today, there are more people displaced by conflict and disaster since World War II, and 65 million people are in need of humanitarian aid. With conflicts seemingly raging more fiercely and lasting longer, huge numbers of people are being forced from their homes—and to stay away for far too long.
A widely cited statistic states the average time a refugee spends in a refugee camp is 17 years. This may be a slightly outdated figure, but it certainly hasn’t changed much, and if anything it will have gotten longer. When a person fleeing conflict or persecution gains refugee status, in most cases they have found relative safety after facing critical danger and taking a dangerous and traumatic journey. Unfortunately, while these camps are often more safe than where a refugee is coming from, it is usually the site of a person’s state of limbo and of time slipping by while in survival mode—and they do present their own set of risks.
Think back 17 years to June of 1999—and quickly scan the major milestones since then. A lot happens in 17 years, which for me represents over half of my life. It feels like an eternity—and I can’t imagine having that much time, or more, spent on someone else’s terms. Seventeen years ago I had just finished my freshman year of high school. I was excited to get my learner’s permit, and to get my braces off. What a privilege for those to be my foremost thoughts at the time.
Since then, I finished high school and college. I decided to move to New York City and found my first job, working at a great, small non-profit. I was able to travel, I ran a marathon, I went to graduate school, I got another great job I loved, I got married. I moved to Boston and started working with Oxfam. I have morphed into a marginally functional adult. Of course it wasn’t all good—my mom passed away after a long illness and I’ve had other losses along the way. Throughout all of this and at each of these junctures, I always felt safe, and I was able to stop and choose from the options that lay before me. These are two of the most profound privileges; we often take them for granted.
Seventeen years in a refugee camp is the average. In some cases, generations pass without ever finding a true home and without the ability to work, attend school, or make many safe or empowered choices at all. The Sahrawi refugees in Western Sahara have been living in a desolate and vulnerable camp for over 40 years now. Dadaab, Kenya’s third largest city and the world’s largest refugee camp has been home to refugees in the region for 25 years, and may now be closing despite it still being the closest thing to home for its half million residents. Zaatari camp, which opened in 2012 for Syrian refugees who have fled to Jordan, now houses 80,000 and is transforming into a more permanent community. Oxfam does its best to provide a sense of dignity and agency for refugees in these situations, by providing cash vouchers when possible instead of predetermined aid, listening to refugees to hear their needs and priorities firsthand, and by working with local partners who have a keen understanding of how we can best contribute and collaborate. Oxfam also continues to advocate at fora like the World Humanitarian Summit for refugees’ rights which are internationally recognized but often ignored, and for them to be admitted and welcomed here in the United States.
In many refugee camps, communities, economic and social structures emerge, but if you ask almost anyone who has managed to stake out a small sense of normalcy in those acutely abnormal circumstances, they are aching for a greater set of options and for home.