By Karen Jacobsen and Jeff Crisp. Forced Migration Review. December 1998. (Vol. 3, pp. 27-31.)
The August 1998 edition of Forced Migration Review (FMR) has played a valuable role in refocusing the attention of researchers and practitioners on the issue of refugee camps.
During the 1970s and 1980s, camps were a common topic of research amongst those involved in the expanding field of refugee studies. In the first half of the 1990s, however, forced migration specialists increasingly turned their attention to issues arising in countries of origin: the situation of internally displaced people; the establishment of safe areas and other forms of in-country protection; the return and reintegration of displaced populations; and the prevention of future refugee movements.
While such topics are still high on the humanitarian, intellectual and political agenda, the past few years have witnessed a discernible revival of interest in the question of refugee camps. This trend can be ascribed in very large part to the crisis in the Great Lakes region of Africa. For as indicated by Richard Black’s article in the last edition of FMR, the settlements established for Rwandan refugees in Tanzania and Zaire between 1994 and 1996 were camps of the very worst kind: large, overcrowded, inaccessible, insecure and controlled by people who were responsible for genocide.(1) It would be wrong, however, to generalise too much from recent experience in the Great Lakes region. The concept of a refugee camp is used to describe human settlements which vary enormously in size, socio-economic structure and political character. To focus only on the worst-case scenario in order to construct a general case against the establishment of refugee camps is not a very helpful approach to the issue.
As the article by Edith Bowles in the same edition of FMR demonstrates, refugee camps can assume a far more benign form than those found in the Great Lakes region.(2) Organised settlements such as those established on the Thailand-Burma border until 1995 – modest in size, village-like in atmosphere and enabling refugees to retain a substantial degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency – are clearly more acceptable than those established in Tanzania or Zaire. The real question, therefore, is not whether or not there should be camps, but how to ensure that camps meet the highest possible standards and provide refugees with optimal living conditions in situations where their establishment is unavoidable. And unavoidable they may be. For the argument advanced by some commentators – that camps are unnecessary and that viable alternatives to organised settlements can always be found – is simply not a sustainable one.