Prison or Safe Haven?

Since the establishment of the Geneva Convention in 1949, persons fleeing conflict zones have had the ability to seek refuge in any of the 196 nations that signed the treaty. Since then, with modern technologies facilitating cross-border travel, the escalation of violence in the Middle East, Venezuela, and the Horn of Africa, and the emergence of human smugglers, the number of refugees has risen dramatically. As a response, the international community has turned to build refugee camps to mitigate the effects of the refugee crisis and offer adequate living conditions to individuals fleeing from war. However, in practice, these facilities have proven to lack the necessary infrastructure, services, and frameworks to be considered a long-term solution to the ongoing refugee crisis.

In truth, host countries have regarded refugee camps as a low-cost, short-term solution to a problem that seems to be gaining traction. After all, host governments and international organizations fail to acknowledge that, in the vast majority of cases, refugees are leaving their home country permanently and requesting complete relocation aid. As a result of downplaying the issue and suggesting solutions that do not fit the extremity of the situation, host nations are confining refugees in underfunded, underfurnished, and understaffed camps. Indeed, the majority of refugee areas do not even provide refugees with the basic amenities and public spaces required to maintain a healthy and sustainable daily routine.

These camps not only lack schools and universities, but also overlook the significance of providing people with places of worship, stores, commercial zones, and green spaces. Consequently, these individuals are exposed to situations that promote unemployment and, thus, criminality. The lack of basic facilities, leisure areas, and professional guidance within the camps demonstrates that refugee mistreatment is systemic. They are trapped in a cycle of poverty, uncertainty, and homelessness in which neither their home nation nor the host country can offer them a secure and beneficial environment in which to live.

Furthermore, the present design and foundations underlying refugee camps just serve to gather migrants together and expose them to direct violence. Consider the United Nations refugee camp constructed in Srebrenica in the 1990s, when a refugee camp of Bosnian Muslims was surrounded and massacred by Serb nationalists. Refugee camps concentrate immigrants in one location, rendering them vulnerable to targeted hate crimes or genocide attempts.

The confinement of migrants behind prison-like barriers has also resulted in several documented incidences of violence inflicted by officials within the refugee camps. After all, the international community's indifference and lack of oversight have permitted security forces to commit sexual, physical, and emotional harm to refugees. Unfortunately, even under such dire circumstances, refugees lack a legal mechanism to defend their rights. Instead, they live in a foreign land with no opportunities, no voice, and no power to demand more. They have been incarcerated behind walls that not only encourage crime but also violence, and worse, politicians and international organizations have dared to term these facilities a "humanitarian deed."

Moving on, although refugee camps provide the basics for survival, no procedures or instruments are in place to assist refugees in reintegrating into society. Not only are refugee camps based on the mistaken assumption that they should provide short-term aid, but they are also located in host nations that are strongly opposed to illegal immigration. Indeed, anti-immigration rhetoric has gained traction in political discourse, prompting refugee hotspots in Europe, such as Italy and Spain, to seek stricter restrictions on migrant inflows. This narrative has also led to host nations' lack of incentive to consider integration and inclusion as part of their responsibilities to refugees. As a result, in most camps, refugees do not receive language instruction in order to communicate in the host nation, nor do they receive assistance in obtaining refugee status, visas, or work. Worse, in some circumstances, refugees are not even permitted to leave the camps, demonstrating how the existing camp system resembles more of a prison than a safe haven.

It is critical to note that the responsibility does not fully lie with the host countries that house these facilities. The reality is that many of these nations lack the economic resources to support such a large inflow of people, let alone completely integrate them into society in such a short period of time. What we are witnessing now with the refugee situation is unprecedented. Few countries have the infrastructure in place to embrace an "open-door" migration policy, considering that no government could have predicted the transcendental rises in migration.

Nonetheless, it is essential that we understand that the present structures underlying refugee camps are wasting the international community's money while also depriving refugees of a humane quality of life. To do this, international institutions must first acknowledge the failure that refugee camps have proven to be. Second, it is evident that nations prone to migrant influxes require access to funding collected by signatory governments to the Geneva Convention, i.e., members of the United Nations. Perhaps one answer is to divert part of the assets designated for peacekeeping, which nations are legally bound to pay, to low-income housing projects aimed at refugees, or support for legal migrant employees. They could even invest part of these assets into financial and economic research to develop economic models that consider the influx of refugees.

Whatever the solution is, we must realize that the refugee crisis will persist regardless of whether governments provide safe havens for these individuals. Essentially, we are dealing with long-term migratory patterns destined to question our understanding of what citizenship is, how it can be acquired, and what it entails.


Illustration by Madison Wright

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