Not a burden: rethinking refugee camps and protracted displacement

The refugee camp status quo is unacceptable. The short-termism and managerialism ubiquitous in refugee camps have led to a perception of refugees as a burden.

A Syrian refugee camp on the outskirts of Athens, Greece. Photo by Julie Ricard/Unsplash

By Salome Ecker, Nimo Mohamed, Lucas Palumbo & Darius Zarazel

The number of forcibly displaced persons has reached 70.8 million in 2018 – the highest number ever recorded by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Out of those, 25.9 million are recognised as refugees (37%), a majority of which are living in protracted situations – defined as when 25,000 people or more of the same nationality are displaced in a specific country for five years or longer. This is clearly acknowledged by the United Nations (UN) who estimate that the average refugee crisis now lasts 17 years.

When a crisis emerges, host communities initially attempt to cope with the sudden influx of refugees on their own. However, when the increase of refugees arguably becomes too much to handle, local charity organisations and/or host governments frequently build camps, often assisted by the UNHCR. About 40% of all refugees live in camps, in most cases due to a lack of alternatives as they do not have permits to settle freely, to work, or to access education in their respective host country.

Focusing on refugee camps is crucial since they present the most blatant manifestation of the continuously detrimental consequences of protracted conflicts and rising refugee migration. Observations have increasingly acknowledged the inadequacy of current encampment practices and the consequential risk of deterioration of the overall situation of all actors involved, specifically by spurring poverty as well as violence.

In September 2020, fires destroyed Greece’s largest migrant camp, an overcrowded facility on the island of Lesbos, leaving nearly 13,000 people without shelter. Such dramatic events only worsened the already poor living conditions of the people in these camps. This is not even mentioning the fact that such densely populated camps engender a heightened risk for a localised outbreak of COVID-19.

“Protracted conflicts increasingly result in long-term camp situations resembling urban centres.”

Traditionally, refugee camps are designed as short-term solutions to emergency situations. Within camps, UNHCR typically provides all services which are necessary for survival for free. It is frequently argued that there would be no other way except encampment to organise assistance and to meet security and basic needs for so many people in such a short period of time. However, protracted conflicts increasingly result in long-term camp situations resembling urban centres.

The intrinsic issue with current practices

Refugee populations living in camps are facing several difficulties beyond the gross consequences of the crises from which they fled, including continued dependency on outside agencies, lack of access to facilities and infrastructure, as well as lack of agency and participation. These problems tend to intensify with time, which is especially critical as protracted refugee situations – i.e. lasting longer than five years – are increasing across the world. We argue that the underlying assumptions driving the operational design of refugee camps – or, what we call the ‘Operational Design Axioms’ (ODAX) – are the core problem leading to a deterioration of the overall situation for refugees. The two inadequate ODAXs are:

SHORT-TERMISM: Current short-term camp management practices prioritise the provision of immediate basic needs which results in a de facto overlooking of otherwise basic imperatives, such as longer-term feasibility, sustainability, capacity building, and human dignity. Camps designed for short-term emergencies are not adequate for longer-term situations and contradict the imperatives of increasingly frequent protracted conflict situations.

Historically there has been major hypocrisy when dealing with refugees. Host governments tend to present refugees as a burden to justify requests for greater financial support. Correct or not, the perception of refugees as a burden tends to reinforce host governments’ opposition to (perceived) permanent solutions. They condition refugee acceptance on non-permanence, i.e. that refugees return to their country of origin as soon as possible. This has resulted in some host governments insisting on hosting refugees in camps instead of allowing alternative solutions such as settling freely in cities. Their fear is that free settlement would make the refugees’ return less likely, cause tension between the refugees and the local population, create job competition, and disrupt public order while increasing security concerns.

Since executing agencies are dependent on the cooperation of host governments, they tend to use rhetoric and approaches that stress the (planned) non-permanence of refugee camps by framing assistance to refugees in protracted situations as humanitarian (short-term) instead of development assistance (long-term). This ultimately builds upon a fundamental characteristic of the aid apparatus: the rigid division between humanitarian and development assistance. The underlying rationale for this division is that longer-term development interventions are deemed irrelevant and not useful as long as people remain in a situation of crisis, as they cannot focus on building their capacities for the future when their present basic needs are not met. While there is some truth to this, protracted refugee situations in camps are the archetypal illustration of short-termism caused by the lack of a coherent combination of both types of aid.

“Camps keep refugees alive but prevent them from living.”

This short-termism leads to dependency, as the capacities of refugees to self-sustain themselves are not promoted. Current short-term refugee camp management practices, such as handing out goods for free, are furthermore unsustainable as they do not account for the increasing length of time that this type of support will have to be made available, which is problematic given funding unpredictability and the increasing funding gap. Short-term approaches also profoundly deny the humanity of the refugees living in a camp since the sole aim is to meet their basic needs, disregarding their long-term needs, rights, and ambitions. Ultimately, camps keep refugees alive but prevent them from living.

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MANAGERIALISM: Managerialism refers to the practice of technocratic, hierarchical, and impersonal approaches to problem-solving. In humanitarianism, this is manifested in the unilateral and unidirectional discourses from agencies onto the refugees. Bureaucratic rational management strives for and prioritises a perceived efficiency through Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) instead of providing for the actual, real needs of the served community.

In order to meet basic needs in an adverse environment such as a refugee camp, efficiency is deemed to be more important than anything else, hence an efficiency imperative develops. This imperative is reinforced by agencies’ accountability towards taxpayers and donors that demand an efficient use of their funding as well as clear and measurable evidence of results. This culminates in a distortion of well-intended initiatives such as Result-Based Management and a ‘technical’ framing of the issue and the subsequent application of a rational bureaucratic organisational framework, which resorts to standardised, technocratic, impersonal, and hierarchical approaches. These factors tend to result in the opinion of external ‘experts’ being valued over that of the people most affected.

Ultimately, all these dynamics converge to developing and legitimising a top-down, hegemonic approach to governance which is prevalent throughout refugee camps. Camps operating in such a way are “sites of neo-colonial power relations where refugees are counted, their movements monitored and mapped, their daily routines disciplined and routinized by the institutional machinery of refugee relief agencies”[i]. The hierarchies in these spaces of exception have often been characterised as external and abusive. Camps are distinguished by their parameters of control: the restrictions on socio-economic, political, and cultural freedoms far exceed those existing for local populations.

Hegemonic governance is most evident in the lack of participation of refugees themselves, particularly in decision-making processes. Although relief practitioners, NGO workers, and governmental organisations advocate the use of participatory tools that ‘provide’ multivocality and cultural texture to their efforts, they often fail to apply the latter in regard to the overall organisational and management procedures. This lack of participation – combined with dehumanisation through the reduction of refugees to ‘bare life’ – contributes to framing refugees as victims instead of actors with wills and potential to develop. This strips refugees of what little agency they have left leading to an inadequate assessment of refugees’ needs, which, in turn, increases dependency and spurs tensions between refugees and agencies.

Overall, these inadequate ODAX create dependency as well as unsustainability and facilitate the denial of self-determination. This triggers a feedback loop of increasing tensions leading to the decline of peace and stability. Matched with the declining quality and quantity of provided services over time due to waning financial assistance from the international community, this inevitably results in more severe poverty and violence. Consequently, the circumstances of refugees degenerate.

An integrated solution to protracted displacement

The problems identified above are not new. Already, we can see localised attempts to address them that follow a turn to what has come to be called ‘resilience humanitarianism ’. Such approaches tend to recognise the increasing blurriness between disaster and subsequent, longer-term crises while also acknowledging that crisis has largely become the new normality. However, they have also been criticised for overemphasising the individuals’ (refugees’) ability to cope with the situation on their own.

We hence suggest an approach that fits between resilience humanitarianism and the more traditional forms of classical humanitarianism, attempting to reach an equilibrium between total dependence on outside sources and a totally laissez-faire standoffish approach. Resilience humanitarianism has also been critiqued for depoliticising refugees and converting them into placated subjects. However, through enabling participation – an explicitly political act – we hope the positive aspects of resilience humanitarianism can be embraced without adopting its pernicious trappings.

This year, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) launched a new project – ‘Integrated Solutions to Protracted Displacement’ – aiming at articulating a ‘theory of change for country-level interventions of UNDP and UNHCR based on the Humanitarian- Development-Peace Nexus approach’. As a response, we developed a proposal for a pilot project for self-sufficient and participatory long-term camp management. While outlining the entire proposal would overstrain the limits of this article, we consider it crucial to share its principle components.

We are convinced a fundamental and multidimensional shift in mentality and practice must take place. This shift (1) aims to transform the perception that refugees are passive victims and a burden towards both seeing and enabling their potential and (2) seeks to evolve the short -term crisis approach into one of sustainable empowerment.

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Ultimately, such a shift would acknowledge the overlapping nature of emergency and development assistance – as opposed to the stricter linear progression between emergency relief and development – and include elements of both classical and resilience humanitarianism. Furthermore, we are convinced that any progressive refugee camp development ought to take a transformative approach rather than being implemented in a camp’s initial stages.

We propose taking a two-pillared approach:

PILLAR 1 should seek to establish a participatory cycle between the refugees and humanitarian agencies in response to the top-down managerial distortion. It aims to identify refugees’ priorities, provide an outlet to voice their most pressing grievances, and facilitate their participation in creating solutions. Hence, this Pillar seeks to address the problems stemming from managerialism.

Rather than falling into the trap of ‘speaking for others’, it is crucial to hear the refugees’ concerns because any project in a refugee camp will inevitably affect them the most. Involving refugees in a project’s initial research and planning stage is not sufficient, therefore we aim for Pillar 1 to include ‘transformative participation’ by involving refugees in decision-making, execution, and evaluation processes. Participation in such a way provides them with an element of empowerment. Thus, our purpose of involving the refugees is to avoid the ominous victimisation, dehumanisation, and dependency which occur when capable people become mere receivers.

PILLAR 2 should aim at building human capital to foster long-term development for refugees in protracted situations while utilising refugees’ existing and already developed skills – thus, making refugee camps a more sustainable and self-sufficient place. This Pillar therefore challenges the short- termism discussed earlier.

It has been claimed that ‘capacity-building’ approaches originated within colonial practices due to the implicit underlying assumption that there are “deficiencies in the abilities of the group in question”, rather than considering “the possibility that the system or structure may be dysfunctional” [ii]. Pillar 2 seeks to circumvent this pitfall by focusing on the identification and utilisation of existing human capital as well as only supporting the building of human capacity that is explicitly desired by the refugees. In this way Pillar 2 attempts to contribute to the decolonising of‘capacity development’.

Building upon the premise that large numbers of refugees in protracted situations have skills and ambitions, we advocate for a more systematic identification of refugees’ potential and existing skills to use them within the camp as well as to train fellow refugees. In short, to enable them to use or pursue skills and ambitions. The main benefits of such an intervention would be twofold: (1) The transformation of the camp itself into a platform for long-term growth and work opportunities for refugees instead of a place of mere survival. (2) Engendering greater self -sufficiency of the camp, expressed through its reduced reliance on external inputs and staff. Such an intervention would link humanitarian and development assistance, as it reduces refugees’ dependency in the case of protracted displacement but simultaneously benefits them if they can return to their home country or resettle outside of the camp.

Concluding remarks

Clearly, the refugee camp status quo is unacceptable. The short-termism and managerialism that has become essentially ubiquitous in refugee camps has led, and continues to lead, to a perception of refugees as a burden. As protracted refugee situations continue to proliferate, now occurring with rather uncomfortable regularity, these ODAX need to be addressed.

By explicitly politicising the refugee camp space, facilitating a growth of agency and self – determination, as well as promoting human capital development and its investment in the camp, this perception can be proven to be erroneous. Refugees are only a burden if you treat them as such.


[i] Hyndman, J. (1997). Refugee Self-Management and the Question of Governance.

[ii] Refugee, 16(2), 16-22.ii Bockstael, E. (2017). Critical Capacity Development: An Action Research Approach in Costal Brazil. World Development, 94, 336 –345.

(Notes on contributors: The four authors met in the course of their M.Sc. in International Development and Emerging Economies at King’s College London, from which they have recently graduated. The authors share a common interest in advocating for displaced persons which was shaped by their lives and professional journeys as descendants of displaced persons from Somalia and Iran as well as through their experiences as researchers among refugees from Africa’s Great Lakes area and Palestine. After several months of research supervised by Dr Nithya Natarajan, the authors developed a complete project proposal that attempts to tackle some of the challenges that refugees face after fleeing the Syrian civil war, who at that time, and still to this day, have no realistic prospect of returning home. It is the protracted nature of many refugee situations that inspired the authors to develop this piece.)


  1. A very well written and thought out article, which should be implemented by the UN or other organisations. Maybe they could employ these students to oversee it.

  2. Enjoy reading this article, though it was written in an academic tone. The ideas they put forward are interesting. Refugees are valuable assets, and not a burden, and we need right policies for that.

  3. This is an excellent and well thought out article. I agree wholeheartedly that refugees should not be treated as a burden. If there was any way at all that i could help, i would willingly do so.

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