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Refuge: The Rise and Fall of Camp Life

A popular image of refugee life involves large camps run by the United Nations. Such camps are a relatively new phenomenon, however.

1951 Convention

During the 1951 Convention, signatory nations envisioned that refugees would quickly find homes in a variety of welcoming host nations.


The UNHCR began using camps in the early 1980s as means of housing the masses of refugees fleeing Vietnam and Cambodia.


By the early 1990s, refugee camps were the UN’s primary method for housing exiles from such nations as Rwanda, Iraq and Somalia. Today, 10 million of the world’s refugees live in camps. But camp facilities are often so poor that even desperate people eventually leave.

Many refugees, therefore, find themselves living marginal existences in big cities in neighboring nations. Syrians, for example, typically wind up in cities such as Beirut and Amman. Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangkok and Sao Paulo also have large populations of refugees.

These refugees are cut loose from any type of social safety net. They have no ability to work legally in the formal economy, and they have no access to international assistance programs.

“Refugee protection is a global public good: all countries benefit to some degree from the human rights and security outcomes it yields, irrespective of whether they contribute.”

“The Headless Heart and the Heartless Head”

“The European policies that have shaped the Syrian refugee disaster have lurched between the headless heart and the heartless head.”

For two decades, the world ignored the inadequacies of the UN’s camp system. The international community was forced to confront the issue, however, as Syrians, Libyans and others began to arrive on European shores.

News footage of immigrants arriving in tiny raft after a treacherous sea crossing spurred the Italian navy to rescue refugees in the Mediterranean. The unintended consequence was that smugglers simply had to tow a dinghy near the Italian coast and flee while the Italian government did the rest.

During 2014, Italy rescued 100,000 refugees on the high seas. Because the Schengen Agreement abolished internal border checks, once refugees entered Italy they could gain access to all of Europe. 

“Crossing the Mediterranean in small boats is dangerous, and so the first and most appalling consequence of the new exodus was that thousands drowned.”

The influx of refugees into a nation still reeling from the economic crisis didn’t play well in Italy. Per capita incomes had fallen 11% from 2007 to 2015, and Italy was in no position to accommodate an influx of new workers.

Young Italians were leaving their home country for stronger job prospects in the north, and the new arrivals meant Italy was trading native Italians for North Africans. Thus, in late 2014, Italy quickly moved from its old “headless heart” to new “heartless head” policies: turning away nearly anyone seeking safety.

Unlike in the United States, where a strong federal state patrols the external borders, European states are free to set their own rules on refugees. In one dramatic example, in Portugal, anyone who invests 500,000 euros in Portuguese property can gain permission to live in the European Union.

In 2015, this slew of incoherent refugee policies and their unintended consequences provoked waves of panicked backlash. Many nations which had initially accepted refugees, abruptly shifted positions. Sweden, for instance, offered an open door, then, after a sharp political shift to the right, slashed its aid budget and stopped admitting refugees. Poland also turned a cold shoulder to Syrian refugees, both out of fear of an influx of Muslims and also from a reflexive suspicion of German leadership.

“Refugees, being international, become an international responsibility.”

The disconnect between the refugee policies implemented by Germany which, decades on, is still trying to make amends for the atrocities of World War II and Hungary and Austria which see themselves as “Europe’s bulwark against Islamic conquest” was particularly acute. 

While Hungary refused to take in any Syrian refugees, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed them. As she said in one speech, “Germany is a strong country, we will manage.” An unanticipated effect of this generosity was that Germany encouraged foolhardy journeys across the Mediterranean. Families everywhere started sending their unaccompanied children abroad. Some 73,000 children arrived in Germany, many of them 16- and 17-year-old boys. Clearly, these boys’ parents hoped their offspring could benefit from Germany’s strong labor market and begin earning wages to send back home.

Unfortunately many of the boys were poorly educated and otherwise ill-equipped to fend for themselves. 

based on my notes from Refuge.

Categories: Book Review, Reading Notes

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