Anyone who thinks refugee camps are a good idea has never lived in one: The importance of recognising refugees’ right to freedom of movement

Freedom of movement is a critically important refugee right, and nearly all others are contingent upon it. Without freedom of movement, rights to employment, education, legal access, identity papers, travel documents, naturalisation, and many other fundamental entitlements are severely curtailed, if not completely blocked. This right is repeatedly articulated in international law, reiterated in domestic interpretation, and appears in numerous national constitutions. The failure to uphold this right is the “single most important obstacle” to refugees regularising their lives in the aftermath of flight. Yet nearly half of the world’s refugees are still confined to camps as a default.

The fact that camps actively restrict refugee movement may not be widely known, but the fact that encampment violates rights is no secret – as the New York Times has reported, “[c]amps not only routinely violate refugees’ rights, the whole system is based on their violation”. The European Court of Human Rights has even gone so far as to rule that subjecting people to the conditions in Kenya’s Dadaab camp – the largest refugee camp in the world – amounts to a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights: the prohibition of torture.

The importance of freedom of movement was recognised at the very inception of the modern international refugee protection movement. In 1921, Fritjof Nansen, the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, began the most ambitious refugee programme the world had ever seen: ensuring that over one million Russian refugees had the ability to move. Nansen believed that no “solution” to displacement would be found without legal recognition of the necessity to travel – whether that be to return to Russia, relocate within a host country, or move onwards. Nansen realised early on that facilitating movement, rather than restricting it, capitalised on the positive effects of popular movement and mitigated the negative consequences of forced displacement. Nansen won the Nobel Prize for his efforts, and the “Nansen Passport” – the travel document he instituted – is the first official documentation recognising legal status as a refugee.

Building on Nansen’s work, the 1938 Convention concerning the Status of Refugees Coming from Germany, stressed that, “a refugee shall be entitled to move about freely, to sojourn or reside in the territory to which the present Convention applies, in accordance with the laws and internal regulations applying therein” and impressed upon signatories the obligation to facilitate travel documentation.

Like its 1938 predecessor, the current cornerstone of international refugee law, the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951 Convention), ensures a right to freedom of movement in Article 26. The article is explicit: “Each Contracting State shall accord to refugees lawfully in its territory the right to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory, subject to any regulations applicable to aliens generally in the same circumstances.” This right is underscored in a number of subsequent international and regional legal instruments, including the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which reaffirms the right, using the key word “everyone” in Article 12: “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence.” It goes on to broaden the right – “Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own”—and to prohibit restriction, except in order to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.

Camps, on the other hand, established by state mandate, but often maintained by the UNHCR and funded by international donors, ensure the opposite. Considerable research has shown that camps instill refugee dependence on assistance provision, obstruct effective integration, undercut livelihoods, sustain stigma, undermine security, and, despite rhetoric to the contrary, block long-term resolution of displacement-related problems – for both refugees and their hosts. Research, including in a 2003 paper by UNHCR’s own policy evaluator, Jeff Crisp challenging the “logic” of refugee encampment stretches as far back as encampment policies have existed. The logic itself is often based in rhetoric around the “temporary” nature of displacement, effective service provision and security; but rarely around ensuring refugee rights.

Although challenging to carry out, not least because refugees that live outside of camps often do so in hiding, research contrasting “self-settlement” to encampment repeatedly reaches the same conclusion: refugees who are free to move employ their own survival strategies and capitalise on their own capacities and preferences. As a result they are more successful in reaching long-term integration, developing sustainable self-reliance systems, reducing psychological and economic risks, and contributing to local communities – both economically and culturally. This was first demonstrated through research by Barbara Harrell-Bond, and has been reiterated in multiple studies since.

Researchers are not the only ones to decry encampment. Refugees themselves have also long protested. In 1987, for example, El Salvadoran refugees staged a massive walk-out in Honduras due to camp-related risks including militarisation. In 2002, asylum-seekers attempted suicide in protest of detention at Australia’s infamous Woomera facility. Last year, 30,000 refugees marched in Israel to protest requirements that they reside in the Holot centre. The Kakuma News Reflector, a refugee publication produced in Kakuma Camp, Kenya, regularly features pieces about the violation of refugee rights in the camp. Each of these actions – and hundreds more – should be considered in the context of the precariousness of refugee life: to draw attention to negative aspects of host state protection could be seen as a political action which could in turn justify refoulement – the return of a person to a risk of persecution and potential death. With the stakes so high, why are refugees prepared to take the risk?

The reasons are numerous but to address a few:

Encampment often forces refugees to reside in the most remote and least hospitable regions of a country, without access to basic livelihoods or mechanisms to ensure basic rights. Examining state rationale behind encampment, internment might be a better term. Forcible relocation to camps, often under threat of expulsion or imprisonment, is nearly always justified though a “national security” rhetoric as seen in the recent restrictions in Bulgaria, Kenya, and Turkey.

Camps are not uniform, and approaches to restricting refugees’ right to free movement are geographically diverse and evolving. In Europe, Australia, and North Africa, “administrative detention” (read: imprisonment) of asylum-seeker populations has grown steeply in recent years. Many detention facilities are component parts of larger prisons and run by private prison firms. In Israel, detention is mandatory for refugees who enter the country seeking protection and refuse to return “voluntarily” to their country of origin.

In Africa and Asia, the broad term “settlements” is often used to describe the sites where refugees are expected to live, but refugees are required to seek permission from authorities to leave, even in the event that they are at high risk within the “settlement”. If granted, permissions are often conditional and time-limited. When refugees are caught outside without permission they may be imprisoned.

Some camps do allow for limited freedom of movement – refugees may be allowed to leave the camp between certain curfew hours every day, or travel within a certain, often limited, geographical area – in Tanzania, for example, this limitation was set at four kilometres. Other camps allow refugees to come and go, but require “residence” in the camp, to be checked through ID renewals, ration records, or similar monitoring systems.

Across the world, informal settlements, outside of state mandated structures, also exist for those refugees who are able to evade authorities pushing them into camps or other restrictive settlements. While these settlements may allow for the physical freedom to move, these refugees are often at risk of exploitation or police action. They also often have to forego any assistance.

It has been 64 years since the 1951 Convention, guaranteeing freedom of movement, came into force and the origins of the right stretch back further. So, why are nearly half of the world’s refugees still interned in camps?

They might not be for much longer if advocacy organisations, refugee researchers, and UNHCR can gain traction with states that confine refugees. Two years ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres declared that “[a]nyone who thinks refugee camps are a good idea has never lived in one” at the annual meeting of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioners Programme in Geneva. Then, less than a year ago, UNHCR finally issued a policy on alternatives to camps, ostensibly bringing itself in line with its mandate to uphold the principles of the 1951 Convention, recognising that the “defining characteristic of a camp … is typically some degree of limitation on the rights and freedoms of refugees and their ability to make meaningful choices about their lives.” The policy has immediately been welcomed by refugee rights advocates, including the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), which presented the case against encampment at the policy launch during Executive Committee meetings in 2014. UNHCR’s policy came at a time when IRRI launched its own campaign for freedom of movement.

The UNHCR policy should certainly be lauded – even if it is absent of a rights-based approach. It publicly recognises a number of concerns regarding encampment:

UNHCR’s experience has been that camps can have significant negative impacts over the longer term for all concerned. Living in camps can engender dependency and weaken the ability of refugees to manage their own lives, which perpetuates the trauma of displacement and creates barriers to solutions, whatever form they take. Camps can also distort local economies and development planning, while also causing negative environmental impacts in the surrounding area. In some contexts, camps may increase critical protection risks, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), child protection concerns and human trafficking. Camps may not either contribute to security, where they become venue for the forced recruitment or indoctrination of refugees.

The policy commends host governments that have “concluded that the disadvantages of camps outweigh the justifications. [And] have decided not to establish camps” and declares UNHCR’s intention to “build upon and expand such good practice.”

With increasing restriction on refugee movement in Kenya, the exponential growth of Za’atari camp in Jordan and encampment along the Turkish border, the re-introduction of refugee camps in Europe, and mandatory detention of refugees in Israel, the tide will be hard to turn. But refugee rights advocates now have a considerable tool in their favour: recognition from UNHCR that restricting refugee freedom of movement is failing refugees, and a policy to pursue alternatives.

Freeing states and entrenched organisational systems of “camp logic” will not be easy, and UNHCR’s policy is only as good as its implementation. Refugee rights advocates will need to maintain our focus on ensuring the principles UNHCR has put forward are pursued, and that we broaden our scope to the plethora of forms of refugee immobilization in existence, including detention and offshore processing. Camps are just one part.

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