There is no doubt that the international community provides critical help during a crisis. However, we may need to examine the approaches we use to assist those in need to make sure each effort is effective.
One of these approaches in need of review is refugee camps. Whenever people flee their homes and cross borders due to war, natural disaster, or dictatorial policies that turn normal lives upside down, the UN sets up temporary camps for them, housing families in tents that offer barely any protection or privacy. UN agencies provide basic life necessities to keep refugees alive until they are able to return to their home countries. Because decision-makers have the mindset that refugee camps are only temporary, education is rarely provided in refugee camps. When it is provided, it does not exceed elementary grade levels.
Yet in reality, many refugee camps cannot be described as temporary. Some camps are over 60 years old, such as the Palestinian refugee camps that originated in the 1948 war. Others, like the Eritrean refugee camps in Sudan, have been around for over 45 years. Even Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp (with over half a million people), has already been housing people for 25 years. It’s not unlikely to find two generations born and raised entirely within these camps. But the serious lack of high schools or vocational training centers available to refugees means they never have a chance to learn a craft and become productive members of society. These refugees thus become dependent on the food rations they receive monthly or regularly. They forgot what it means to live on their own earnings.
They are not to be blamed; they have been set up to fail. How can they succeed if they are put in an isolated area and not allowed to own property, train for a profession, or pursue higher education? They are not even allowed to move outside these camps without a permit from the host country. Consequently, millions of people within these generations go without educations, jobs, or skills, fully dependent on foreign aid to survive.
With each political conflict, war, and crisis around the world, the international aid community opens up new camps with same “temporary” mindset, hosting thousands of new families that will be fully dependent on the aid provided by relief organizations.
As the load of refugee camps becomes increasingly heavy and unbearable, UN agencies and NGOs find themselves unable to afford the ongoing costs. As the media spotlight fades from these old camps, and new crises get the attention, refugees find themselves left behind.
Therefore, we need to reconsider our approach to refugee camps. Currently, we are not only setting up millions of people to fail in their lives; we are also making it difficult for donors and funders to help, and for the UN and NGOs to cope with any new refugees. We need a new approach that promotes policies for refugees to sustain themselves and be able to return to normal life within a certain period of time. We need a path that enables refugees to stand on their own two feet and live with the dignity they deserve.