Stranded in an unwelcome land
Millions of refugees fled their homelands only to find no willing host country.
From the age of eight, when Abraham Awolich first fled with another child to escape rampaging Sudanese soldiers and built a mud hut in Ethiopia to stay alive, he believed his days as a refugee would be short-lived.
Yet after four years of moving from camp to camp, Mr. Awolich in 1992 found himself "warehoused" in a Kenyan camp where work and short-distance travel were prohibited for security reasons. As 10 more years slowly went by, food rations shrank to 1 pound per person for a week, cholera and dysentery killed masses, and neighbors often became desperate.
"There were no opportunities for smart people to show how smart they were, or for hard-working people to show how hardworking they were," recalls Awolich, who sought asylum in the United States and now studies at the University of Vermont in Burlington. "The situation makes people give up.... Some commit suicide, some turn to crime or do other things. There was lots of violence."
Some 7.4 million of the world's 11.9 million refugees have lived for 10 years or more in a warehousing situation, according to the US Committee for Refugees' World Refugee Survey 2004. With their home countries in turmoil and host countries unable or unwilling to assimilate them, refugees are languishing in permanent camps and urban ghettos long after the original newsmaking crisis has fallen off the radar.
This year, new efforts are under way to address the complex costs of warehousing. The US Committee for Refugees is insisting refugees have the right to work and travel even before political solutions come to pass. The standing committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tackled warehousing as a central issue for the first time at its June meeting in Geneva. Fresh scholarly research on solutions to warehousing will be published in coming months.
In one respect, the time might be ripe to dismantle some of the hurdles that have kept refugees warehoused. Nations sensitized to terrorist threats are increasingly concerned about fixing the hopeless refugee communities that can become breeding grounds for terrorists.
Yet in an ironic twist, experts say the border-tightening and budget-slashing policies adopted since the Sept. 11 attacks may have further diminished the options available to long-term refugees. Thus, more people may be forced into extended warehousing just as nations are waking up to the dangers it poses.
"Most countries are not keen to use their resources to protect refugees," says Karen Jacobsen, director of the refugees and forced-migration program at Tufts University. "They want to use them to protect their own people and their own borders.... But the worst thing you can do is let the funds dry up because it means these cesspools will get worse."
Monitoring organizations counted 38 warehousing situations in the world at the start of 2004. Most are in Africa (2.3 million), the Middle East (about 2 million), and Southeast Asia (600,000). Best known is the Palestinian situation, in which more than 2 million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria trace their plight back to war with Israel in 1948-49.
Most warehousing situations began with violent conflict, which set in motion mass exoduses, and gradually led to hopeless entrenchment on a border, in a remote hinterland camp, or in a metropolitan shantytown.
For Awolich, being warehoused through his teenage years meant sharing a hut with a cousin and 10 strangers who pooled food rations to make them last longer. Meals happened once a day, and always left him feeling hungry. Those who didn't ingest bacteria from food or water often breathed it in deadly dosages as Kenyan desert winds blew dried feces across the camp. Life was so restrictive that when his cousin broke his leg, police wouldn't let him leave to visit the hospital, and his joblessness meant he couldn't muster a bribe.
Aware of humanitarian needs, the United States and other developed nations continue to give millions of dollars each year to help refugees in emergencies get food, education, and healthcare through the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations. However, since the attacks of Sept. 11, Iraqi and Afghan refugees have required a larger share of the assistance, leaving less to help warehoused refugees become self-sufficient settlers in their host countries.
What's more, developed nations fearful of terrorist infiltration have heightened screening and reduced the number of refugees they absorb. The US, for instance, reduced its maximum refugee intake to 70,000 in 2002, down from 90,000 in 2000 and 142,000 in 1992. The European Union has also clamped down. Such reductions mean warehoused refugees have fewer options, even within the developing world, according to former UNHCR policy analyst Arafat Jamal.
"Nations that absorb the most refugees in Africa will often cite the EU or US tightening their policies as a rationale for them to tighten their own policies," Mr. Jamal said via phone late last month from Khartoum, Sudan, where Sudanese refugees from Ethiopia and Uganda were returning to a state still mired in war and persecution. "They sit in these meetings and hear the Americans and Europeans and say, 'Why should we keep our borders open [to new refugee arrivals] if they don't?' "
Similarly, some nations are tightening their grip on warehoused refugees to keep a closer eye on them in an age of rising terrorism. Kenya, for instance, has increased security around its Somali refugee camps, and Israel last month led terrorist-seeking incursions into Palestinian camps in Gaza.
In some cases, experts say, host countries see benefits in keeping a refugee population warehoused.
For example, a number of African nations - including Uganda, Algeria, and Kenya - have kept refugees near a border in order to keep up a standing, hostile presence against neighbors who made them refugees in the first place, says Merrill Smith, editor of World Refugee Survey 2004. This same phenomenon happened repeatedly during the cold war as anti-Communist nations funded militant refugees in Pakistan, Thailand, and Nicaragua, according to international security scholars Gilbert Loescher and James Milner.
In cases of collapsed states or warlord governments, "refugee camps are used as a base for guerrilla, insurgent, or terrorist activities," scholars Loescher and Milner write in the London-based journal "Conflict, Security and Development." "Armed groups hide behind the humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements, and use these camps as an opportunity to recruit among the disaffected, displaced populations."
In other cases, host nations retain political influence by keeping custody of warehoused refugees.
"What they say [to neighbors] is: 'Do X or I will unleash a massive outflow of refugees,' " says Kelly Greenhill, a Stanford University political scientist who studies political and military uses of refugees. "It's more common than people recognize," she adds, noting that Fidel Castro in Cuba and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia have each used the technique of threatening a flood of refugees.
In the short term, Dr. Greenhill says, warehousing seems to provide security for wary host countries as well as for potential asylum-granting nations who fear an influx of dangerous individuals. But in the long term, she suspects warehousing might actually destabilize situations as "it breeds support for the insurgents."
At this point, the challenge for refugee advocates is to persuade donor nations and host countries that less warehousing would not only improve refugee lives but also enhance international security. Mr. Smith points to instances where refugees have settled among local populations, who often need an economic boost, and enabled those around them to prosper.
In Syria, for instance, 240,000 Palestinian refugees are allowed to move about and work, creating both value and markets for local economies. By assimilating Palestinians into the society, in Smith's view, Syria has improved the nation's economic standing without compromising its political goals. "Nobody is more militant toward Israel than Syria, yet they let the Palestinians have their rights," Smith says.
Ms. Jacobsen argues that international aid funds should go not only to sustain camps but also to help governments who host refugees, on condition that they give them rights and help them assimilate. Locals might cry foul, she says, but some might also see an opportunity.
"You can say migrants are creating more problems, or you can say migrants are boosting the economy," Jacobsen says. "It all depends on which data you use. There's plenty of data to support each side."
As this year's efforts to address warehousing roll on, advocates are keeping one eye on the welfare of refugees and one on the complex political realities that make an end to warehousing more easily said than done. But for nations that link less warehousing with more security and prosperity, solutions might not be so far off.
"If the West continues to ignore chronic and long-lasting refugee populations," says Loescher, a refugee and security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "there will not only be greater insecurity in the already unstable regions of refugee origin, but also greater risk of these problems spilling over into the Western countries."
• Top destinations for immigrants (1970-1995):
1) United States (16.7 million)
2) Russian Federation (4.1 million)
3) Saudi Arabia (3.4 million)
• Leading emigrant nations (1970-1995):
1) Mexico (6 million)
2) Bangladesh (4.1 million)
3) Afghanistan (4.1 million)
• Countries with largest migrant remittances from the US (2001):
1) India ($10 billion)
2) Mexico ($9.9 billion)
3) Philippines ($7 billion)
SOURCE: International Organization for Migration