Dispelling the myth of the humane refugee camp

I've visited camps on three continents, and at best they tend to be soul-destroying

The young mother told me her horror story as we sat drinking tea near the Syrian border. Sadly, it felt all too familiar as she went through her litany of despair: home destroyed, life disrupted, family devastated. Five relatives were killed in the carnage of conflict; she showed me pictures on her phone of one cousin’s corpse that was disembowelled in a state prison. “I feel like my head will explode when I remember what life was like before war,” she said.

Yet this woman was certain of one thing: she would rather return to Syria despite the savagery on all sides than go back to the refugee camp she fled a few days before we met. It was like prison, she said – echoing words I heard earlier from others. There was no work, no electricity and nothing to do all day, while stores over-charged for food and clothing behind the barbed wire. Her family left their last few possessions to escape. “Here we have nothing but at least we have our freedom.”

Her story should be heeded as European and Turkish leaders meet for the latest summit over the migration crisis. As our continent reels in response to refugees such as that woman along with migrants seeking the sort of life we take for granted, the tone of debate is becoming nastier. And the myths are growing: that Europe is being swamped, that we live in times of unprecedented migration, that walls stop desperate people, that refugees steal jobs, that migrants move for benefits, that evil people smugglers are the primary cause of all the problems.

Europe’s panicking politicians are preparing to throw more money at Turkey to persuade it to police its borders better. They want the Turks to restrain 2.75m Syrians inside their country – which is, incidentally, 137 times the pathetic number Britain plans to accept over five years. One myth in particular needs to be nailed fast: the concept that refugee camps are humane and workable solutions to such crises. Politicians and pundits keep suggesting that we pour cash into these holding pens. Yet as that young mother in Jordan showed, this approach is wrong both morally and practically.

I have visited refugee camps on three continents. At best they tend to be soul-destroying – places that keep people alive but stop them from living, as one academic put it so succinctly. There may be food, schools and health clinics in many. But they can also be grim centres of incarceration, designed to herd traumatised people into places that make it easier to control them, either for host governments or aid agencies trying to help. They are seen as short-term solutions yet drift into permanence – just look at Palestinian camps going back 68 years – while gangs, guns, violence and sexual abuse can be rampant.

The benevolent image of refugee camps has been shattered by a brilliant new book by journalist Ben Rawlence, whom I met during his five-year stint investigating life in Dadaab, northern Kenya. This sprawling camp is the world’s biggest, created 25 years ago to hold 90,000 Somalians but now home to half a million people from several nations. Rawlence exposes how impoverished refugees are raped, ripped off and remorselessly exploited while well-paid officials stay in secure compounds. It is a damning indictment - yet there have been worse examples. After the Rwandan genocide Hutu ringleaders ran official camps, received relief and used them to regroup.

These centres are routinely placed in remote areas by governments to segregate refugees. This is one reason for the failure of the showcase Azraq camp in Jordan, currently holding 32,866 people although intended for almost 100,000 more. It was designed by the United Nations (and part-funded by Britain) and supposed to reflect the lessons of the past. Yet most Syrians and Iraqis prefer poverty to this dismal outpost in the desert; thousands more risk lethal boats to Europe rather than a supposed place of sanctuary. Several people told me they saw it as a prison - an uncomfortable comparison Rawlence also makes in his Dadaab expose.

Western politicians love going to camps to cuddle children and parade compassion, even as they do their damnedest to stop asylum-seekers arriving anywhere near their own doorsteps. But clearly these institutions do not stop people coming to Europe; the numbers at Za’atari, the biggest camp in Jordan, have also fallen sharply. Since the Syrian crisis erupted five years ago, however, they have received hugely disproportionate levels of aid since it is so much easier to administer inside them. Two years ago Sir Alan Duncan, then minister of state for International Development, admitted to a House of Commons inquiry that: “You know where they are when they are in camps. They are more difficult to disentangle … if they are in the community.”

Let us focus less on camps in this crisis. They are one more fig leaf for politicians, one more pretend solution put forward by armchair experts. The key is to let refugees work legitimately, so they can build a fresh start - wherever they are. After all, what human being wants life trapped in limbo, dependent on others for everything from feeding their family to passing armed guards at the gate? Refugees may have escaped hell, but that does not mean we force them into purgatory. “It is better to die in Syria than to live in your camp,” as one young refugee told me.