What are Refugee Camps for?

Refugee camps are about control…

It’s become a standard headline that forced displacement is at a record high: 70.8 million people at the end of 2018, according to the United Nations. Of these about 26 million are formally recognized as refugees—people who have been forced to leave their homes and cross into another country due to a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Refugee camps— temporary accommodations offering immediate shelter to people fleeing violence—have become a central strategy of delivering refugee aid. There are hundreds of refugee camps globally, especially in Africa and the Middle East. And although they are constructed as temporary settlements many of them actually become long-term fixtures, developing into shantytowns and even cities with their own economies, rudimentary infrastructures, and schools for inhabitants who might be there for years or even decades.    

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—the international organization that runs most of the world’s refugee camps—doesn’t think refugee camps are a good idea. In its view, voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement in a third country are all preferable “durable solutions.” In 2014 it made this stance official, publishing a formal statement that accused camps of creating refugee dependency, distorting local economies, and harboring security threats. Henceforth, it declared, “UNHCR’s policy is to pursue alternatives to camps, whenever possible … Compliance with this policy is mandatory.” 

In other words, even the people who run them think that camps are a terrible way to deal with refugees. It is peculiar, then, that refugee camps remain one of the most common, visible, and widely accepted institutions of human migration, acknowledged as a kind of necessary evil by politicians, diplomats, humanitarian workers, and pundits from across the political spectrum. Why do 40 percent of the world’s refugees (according to UNHCR’s own figures) still live in camps? Why do the UN, the EU, the United States, and hundreds of NGOs and private humanitarian organizations all continue to support them, not just politically but practically and financially?  

Refugee camps have three main purposes, none of which has much to do with providing assistance to refugees themselves. First of all, camps are an anti-immigration strategy; they are intended to keep refugees in place – and, crucially, prevent them from being able to physically move into western Europe or North America. Second, refugee camps provide a venue for the transfer of funds between patron and client states: They allow cash and goods to be channeled from the United States and Europe to weaker client states, where refugee camps are nearly always located, through a frame of legitimate international aid. (There are vanishingly few refugee camps in the wealthy countries of western Europe and North America; most are in Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia.) Third, refugee camps operate as a reminder of the reach of international authority—and, now, sometimes, as test sites for techniques of global surveillance and marketing. Refugee camps, and the international institutions running them, constitute a venue for negotiation and exchange between the wealthy nations of the Global North who mostly finance refugee operations and their poorer clients in the Global South who mostly host them. It’s not surprising, really, that the bargains they strike so often disregard the interests of refugee camps’ actual inhabitants.   

The earliest modern refugee regimes arose in the aftermath of the First World War. (There had been displaced people before this, of course, but no international bureaucracies specifically for dealing with mass numbers of refugees.) The most prominent refugees were anti-Bolshevik “White Russians,” expelled from the new Soviet Union following the 1917 revolution, and Armenians targeted for elimination by the late Ottoman state and driven through the Syrian desert in an act of genocidal deportation in 1915-1916. Survivors of the Armenian genocide ended up in some of the world’s first refugee camps, run by American and French missionaries (and, a bit later, colonial officials) in places like Aleppo and Beirut. In the camps, refugees were carefully monitored, physically constrained, and prevented from making contact with relatives and friends outside Syria. In 1936 the French High Commissioner for Syria articulated the French approach to the camps: “With the Armenians, what one fears is that as soon as they have a little savings, they will wish to go elsewhere. This must be avoided.” So, a basic historical truth about the modern refugee regime: Refugee camps were invented, mostly, to keep people displaced.

But there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of long-term camps as a solution for what was always referred to as the “refugee problem.” The League of Nations also spearheaded a project called the Nansen Passport, an identity document issued to some refugees that allowed them to (temporarily) move to and work in countries that would accept it. But the anti-Semitism and xenophobia sweeping western Europe and the United States ushered in an era of new and draconian immigration restrictions. In the U.S., the 1924 “National Origins” Act (which would not be undone until 1965) sought to return the United States to an earlier (whiter) ethnic composition by imposing immigration quotas and banning immigration from Asia entirely. Similar immigration restrictions aimed at Eastern European Jews were introduced in Britain and France. In such an atmosphere, camps proved to be an easier way to keep tabs on refugees and ensure a lockdown of the borders. And in the Middle East, refugees confined to camps could also serve as a useful source of labor. Without other economic options, without political and social connections on the ground, Armenian refugees in Syria and Assyrian refugees in Iraq were coopted not only as workers, but as shock troops for European colonial occupation. So the camps model prevailed—not because it was good for refugees, but because camps were valuable for preventing immigration into Britain and France and useful for the imperial project abroad. 

In addition to providing a means of warehousing refugees who might attempt to enter Europe or the United States from elsewhere, the camps model proved convenient for controlling immigration between European countries. As the Nazi regime intensified its persecutions of Jews and others, a refugee emergency of unprecedented scope began to emerge across central Europe, but the Allied powers remained mostly concerned with keeping the Nazis’ victims away from their own borders. In 1938, representatives from more than 30 countries met at Evian, in southern France, where they proved totally unable to agree on relief measures for the burgeoning population of European Jewish refugees—mainly because no one wanted to allow immigration into their own countries to alleviate the crisis. In the conference’s aftermath, Franklin Roosevelt tried desperately to find somewhere to ship Jews en masse, to prevent their entrance into the US: “What I am looking for is the possibility of uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural lands to which Jewish colonies might be sent.” 

At the end of the war, prisoners liberated from the concentration camps were re-interned in a series of refugee camps scattered across Germany, Austria, and Italy. (As Hannah Arendt put it with her usual acerbity: “Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put into concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends.”) These “Displaced Persons” or “DP” camps weren’t just relief hubs; they were detention centers, explicitly intended to prevent European Jews from amassing in western Europe or the United States; the famous Harrison report on the camps, released in 1945, charged the Allies with keeping Jewish DPs in dire conditions behind barbed wire and under armed surveillance, sometimes actually in former Nazi concentration camps. When war broke out between Zionists and Arabs in Palestine, resulting in the declaration of the new state of Israel in 1948, many in the Anglo-American sphere seized on the war’s outcome as an answer to the problems of resettling DPs who nobody else wanted. In fact, many Jewish DPs were actually reluctant to settle in Israel—most of them expressed an active preference for the United States—but this meant nothing in the face of European and American determination not to open their own borders to the survivors of the Holocaust. 

The dismantling of Europe’s DP camps and the shipping of many of their inhabitants to the new state of Israel signaled the end of one refugee crisis and the beginning of another. By the end of 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had been expelled from their homes to temporary shelters in Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, as the new Israeli government closed its borders and appropriated Palestinian land, houses, farms, and businesses for redistribution to new Jewish arrivals. In 1949 the UN tacitly acknowledged that mass Palestinian return was unlikely in the face of Israeli intransigence, and established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to run new refugee camps. These camps would come to serve as a more or less permanent “solution” to the problem of Palestinian dispossession. 

UNRWA and the camps it ran were mostly funded by the United States, which paid as much as 70 percent of their costs in some years. This was not an altruistic move. American support for UNRWA was conceived as a kind of protection—not just for Israel, which obviously wanted to keep Palestinians enclosed and monitored, but also for American oil interests, which relied on political stability and could be threatened by the unchecked movement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians around the Middle East. By 1961 the State Department was defending its support for UNRWA by pointing out that at a cost of $0.09 a day, it had been “remarkably successful in keeping the potentially explosive refugee problem under control,” while also maintaining good relations with states through which oil pipelines passed. The American head of UNRWA, John Davis, summed up what the organization was doing even more succinctly: “UNRWA was one of the prices—and perhaps the cheapest—that the international community was paying for not having been able to solve with equity the political problems of the refugees.” He added, chillingly, “It was surely well worth the cost.” 

And so, just like the DP camps in Europe, refugee camps for Palestinians were built, financed, and maintained specifically to contain the political problem that the refugees represented, by physically and forcibly preventing their migration elsewhere. It’s a role the camps continue to play today; and this is why, when UNRWA funding is threatened (most recently by the Trump administration) conservative authoritarian governments in the Arab world—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar—have been willing to step in to save the institution. UNRWA may be a lot of trouble and expense to maintain; but it keeps Palestinians, who have historically been heavily involved in labor and pro-democracy movements across the region, confined and out of the way. 

The European Union is now carrying on the long tradition of using refugee camps to prevent immigration. In 2015 the European Council opened negotiations with the Erdogan government in Turkey to incentivize the country to act as a gatekeeper, making sure Syrian refugees stayed in camps in Turkey rather than entering the EU through Greece. The following year, the two parties reached an agreement aimed at “stopping the flow of irregular migration via Turkey to Europe,” by ensuring that all migrants who reached Greece from Turkey or were intercepted in international waters would be returned to Turkey, and that the Turkish government would undertake new policing to prevent migrants from crossing to Europe. The price of this scheme: €3 billion paid directly to Turkey to build camps and provide services (with the possibility of another €3 billion if things went well), and the speeding up of the “visa liberalization roadmap” that would lift visa requirements for Turkish citizens traveling in Europe.  

In the media, this was mostly presented as a victory: both for Europeans, who wouldn’t have to worry about huge numbers of Syrians landing in their countries, and for Turkey, whose souring relationship with Europe could be salvaged through this kind of cooperation. In some particularly disgraceful coverage, it was even presented as a victory for the refugees themselves. The New York Times has long been enamored with this “solution” to the Syrian refugee question, running articles with titles like “How to Build a Perfect Refugee Camp” (about the Kilis camp on the Turkish-Syrian border) and “How to Treat Refugees with Dignity: A Lesson from Turkey” (about Syrian refugees in Gaziantep). “It was inspiring,” the author of this last article raves, “to see hope alive for an otherwise humiliated people.” Apparently, paying off authoritarian governments to use their militaries to keep destitute refugees ensconced in camps far from Europe—and away from the possibility of claiming asylum and citizenship rights—can be represented in the neoliberal press as a humanitarian triumph. 


This brings us to an important point: Wealthy, developed countries are not the only beneficiaries of refugee camps. Weak, impoverished, and politically beleaguered governments see them as opportunities too.

Refugee aid, especially for camps, is usually channeled through the “host state” government, with that administration having a lot of leeway in terms of what they can do with it. This is a useful source of relatively unrestricted cash for host administrations, who will typically use some of the money for direct aid but reserve some of it for services that can benefit both refugees and local populations, or sometimes just the government itself. When Turkey is taking €3 billion for the “Facility for Refugees in Turkey,” some of that money is being used to build schools and clinics for refugees; but it’s also being used, just to cite a few publicly available examples, to fund improvements in the “operational capacities” of the Turkish Coast Guard; to provide job training and placement programs to Turkish citizens as well as Syrian refugees in refugee-heavy areas; and to improve municipal infrastructures. Turkish control over this money is an important part of the deal. 

Allowing host countries to control the use of funds is, of course, arguably preferable to the usual scenario of an army of international bureaucrats and professional humanitarians descending on an area struck by disaster, with the goal of ordering the lives of the unfortunates they find there. And distributing some relief benefits across the general population in the host country can serve an important social function: It’s not unusual, globally, for refugees to face serious hostility from local communities, who may be just as impoverished but are not eligible for this kind of international assistance. But it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that the money being sent to Turkey under the refugee deal is being used to prop up an increasingly authoritarian government. The cash can be spent to buy public quiescence not only over the issue of the refugee flow, but also over crucial questions of domestic governance, popular representation, and democratic process. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees an opportunity here, not just to improve relations with Europe—which he may or may not care much about, at this point—but to access a kind of slush fund that can be doled out, to some extent, for his own purposes, even propping up an arm of the military (the Coast Guard), which of course can always be deployed elsewhere. 

The same thing is happening next door in Jordan, which has taken in an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees since the war began—a number that constitutes some 10 percent of the country’s total population. Most refugees in Jordan don’t live in camps, but camps remain the focus of most international attention and funding. Jordan has become famous for its Zaatari camp, constructed in 2012 just east of Mafraq, about 10 miles from the Syrian border, and currently housing nearly 80,000 people—which is actually down from the 150,000 it held in 2013. (If it were a city, at its height it would have counted as Jordan’s fourth largest urban area.) UNHCR, which built it and continues to run it in cooperation with the Jordanian government, describes it like this: “Occupants of Zaatari are served by nine schools, two hospitals, and some 3,000 refugee-owned shops lining the camp’s thoroughfares. The camp also offers several recreational outlets, including a soccer league and a circus academy.”

Let’s take a closer look at this cooperative effort between the Jordanian government and its refugee aid providers. Jordan is an authoritarian monarchy whose political legitimacy and governmental funding has always, since its inception, come from outside: specifically, from Britain and the United States. The monarchy has little in the way of military capacity and has routinely appealed to its foreign backers to protect it against perceived threats, including ongoing internal challengers like pro-democracy activists and Palestinian militias. Mostly, the U.S. and Britain have been willing to supply Jordanian autocrats with the money (and, occasionally, the military support) they need to maintain themselves, as a way of preserving the political status quo.  

The Syrian refugee crisis has opened up a new channel, and some new sources, for this kind of financial help. The European Commission has now routed €584 million into Jordan to support refugee efforts there—but not only for direct refugee aid. The commission’s own breakdown goes like this: “more than €198 million from the humanitarian budget, €180 million from the Macro Financial Assistance Instrument, over €170 million from the European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument and more than €30 million from Instrument for Stability… This support comes on top of the over €500 million in regular programmed bilateral cooperation for Jordan under the European Neighbourhood policy, which brings the overall number to €108 billion.” Once other donors are included, the numbers rise further; Jordan has received something like $6 billion in refugee-related money since 2015, a higher level than any other country. 

Jordan has made the case that it needs to spend this money on development projects that will make it possible to sustain refugee populations over the long term. So the camps, like Zaatari, serve as the public face of a larger and more comprehensive economic development plan: building infrastructure in cities, improving electricity grids, modernizing water distribution plants, constructing and running schools. All of these things help to bolster the case that Jordan’s monarchy perpetually has to make to a restive public: that it is better off under authoritarianism. UNHCR has made its cooperation with Jordan and the modernity and functionality of its camps a centerpiece of its own PR; and it’s certainly true that a lot of desperate people have found succor of sorts there. But this money is also serving to mask the many economic, political, and social failures of a longstanding authoritarian regime and helping it to remain viable. The UN, the United States, and the EU alike, with the aid of fawning media coverage of Zaatari’s solar panels and circus academy, are managing to present direct international financing of an authoritarian government as a humanitarian success story. 

Finally, let’s think just a little about the camps themselves and what’s actually going on in them. Zaatari is a good example here. It does, indeed, offer food, water, shelter, health care, and schooling to refugees. It also directs their labor, makes them into a captive market, limits their physical mobility and political expression, and subjects them to a regime of surveillance, tracking, and data collection for the benefit not only of the Jordanian government, but also of private corporate interests abroad. 

There have been a lot of efforts, focused especially on the Zaatari and Azraq camps, to make Syrian refugees in Jordan productive members of a capitalist economy and reimagine them as a useful source of cheap labor. The “Jordan Compact,” a 2016 agreement between the EU, the UN, and the Jordanian government, allocated $700 million to the regime in grants and $1.9 billion in “concessional loans” in return for Jordan’s issuing 200,000 work permits to Syrians and providing schooling for all Syrian refugee children. Goods made in 18 “Special Economic Zones” by Jordanian companies employing at least 15% Syrians would be eligible for a number of trade concessions: the relaxation of the EU’s “rule of origin” restrictions, tax exemptions, subsidized transport and electricity, less restrictive licensing and permitting procedures, and substantial administrative assistance. The World Bank’s Middle East director was effusive in his praise for this scheme: “Jordan is shifting from a purely humanitarian approach to a forward looking development drive. The Jordanian government is to be commended for its foresight and vision and for leading the way for the international community on what still today are unchartered territories.” In other words: Here’s to Jordan for advancing the view that refugees can represent not a burden, but a commodity. 

Special Economic Zones exist elsewhere: in China, in India, in the Caymans, in Nigeria, and in Mexico, to name just a few. The World Bank defines them as “geographically delimited areas administered by a single body, offering certain incentives (generally duty-free importing and streamlined customs procedures, for instance) to businesses which physically locate within the zone,”  adding that “Perhaps the most notable trend over the past 15 years has been the growing number of privately owned, developed, and operated zones worldwide.” In other words, SEZs are places where cheap, often migrant labor can be deployed at minimal cost to mass-produce goods that are not subject to territorially-based legal requirements or tariffs. The Jordanian version is no different. Jordan’s SEZs focus on low-skill, low-wage work like garment production; they are located far from most of the country’s urban areas; and labor conditions are poor, marked especially by long working hours. 

As a consequence, the Jordan Compact has been largely unsuccessful at attracting Syrian refugees to work in the SEZs. They can quite often earn higher wages and work fewer hours, closer to their families, in the informal economy. (And notably, high-skill Syrians with postsecondary educational qualifications can’t access work permits for professional positions through this program; it limits holders to low-skill, low-paid jobs.) Two years after the implementation of the compact, the UN estimated that only about 13 percent of working-age Syrian refugees have work permits. Still, this refugee reluctance hasn’t stopped the Jordanian government, or the UN, or the EU, from trying to force the issue, particularly in the camps. In early 2018 the UNHCR partnered with the International Labor Organization and the Jordanian monarchy to open a new employment center in the Azraq refugee camp, trying to get more Syrians to apply for work permits. “Once issued,” the ILO reported, “UNHCR will record the work permit in a database linked to the Jordanian authorities, facilitating movement in and out of the camp. Refugees who obtain these work permits will be able to leave the camp for up to one month at a time.” 

And here we come to a final reason that camps remain so central to refugee policy: They offer unparalleled opportunities for surveillance, tracking, and data collection of populations who might otherwise slip under the radar of both governmental authorities and global corporations. In 2017 the UN World Food Program piloted a new program at the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps called Building Blocks, in which all camp residents must access their food supplies through a biometric tracking system using privately developed blockchain technology. “Now,” the WFP declares, “over 100,000 people living in the camps can purchase groceries by scanning an iris at checkout. Built on a private, permissioned blockchain, and integrated with UNHCR’s existing biometric authentication technology—WFP has a record of every transaction.” There are plans to expand this system to cover more than half a million Syrians in Jordan, and to use it for purposes beyond food distribution: to track refugees’ citizenship, education, movements, work authorization, and credit histories, among other things. Refugee camps thus simultaneously offer a venue for experimenting with such tracking technologies and actively incorporating more and more people—who can’t opt out, if they want to eat—into a globally sourced public-private data web.  

So, camps are indeed useful, valuable, beneficial, and profitable—just not for the people who live in them. Refugee camps are an industry: one that focuses on keeping refugees contained, partly for the purposes of defending Western borders from onslaught, but also for the purposes of creating new cheap labor pools, commercial markets, and forms of territorial control. 

But, you might ask, what could we do instead? Don’t refugees need the food and water and shelter that humanitarian organizations provide through camps? What would happen to them otherwise? Aren’t camps better than nothing? Isn’t that why I donated money to the UNHCR that one time and now I constantly get all these glossy brochures and pleading emails about tents and water and microloans? 

Here’s the thing. As it stands, international refugee aid regimes are a cornerstone of a deeply rooted system of rights restrictions for migrants. Refugee regimes broadly, and camps in particular, channel money to authoritarian regimes, force refugee populations to serve as sources of cheap labor and experimental data collection, and —above all—reduce political pressure on wealthy countries to liberalize their asylum practices. In other words, they are built specifically to dilute support for the one thing that would help refugees most: the unrestricted right to move where they want to go. 

Refugees themselves understand this exceptionally well. That’s why they generally don’t want to live in camps, why they prefer to work in the black market rather than sign on as cheap labor in “Special Economic Zones,” why so many of them refuse to register as refugees with the UNHCR or UNRWA. This isn’t obstinacy; it’s self-protection. UNHCR and UNRWA can’t offer political alternatives to refugee camps, however much their officials might like to, because they were built as institutional manifestations of a world of radically unequal states. And if we want to really advocate for refugees, we need to stop enabling the kinds of international agreements that repeatedly, consistently, and deliberately deploy them as tools—and sometimes weapons—of imperialism, authoritarianism, and the most brutal forms of global capitalism. 

So instead of donating money for more tents, more water, and more barbed wire fences, we need to be advocating within our own states: for immigration policies that allow refugees into wealthy countries without restriction, and for revisions to asylum law that will allow asylum seeking from war, violence, and natural disaster as well as the current standard of “fear of persecution.” We also need to press for serious labor regulation at a supranational level to prevent the mass global exploitation of workers on the move—removing camps from the equation won’t mean much if all these people become more fodder for the global trade in unprotected migrant labor. The so-called refugee problem isn’t a stand-alone question of effective humanitarian assistance. It’s an aspect, and a reflection, of the much broader issue of global inequality; and camps have become a go-to “solution” partly because they render invisible the deep links between refugee crises and the other profound inequities and injustices of our age. 

Illustration by Mike Freiheit

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