Refugees pose a unique problem in the international human rights regime. Refugees are people who cross international borders to flee human rights abuses and conflict, most commonly resulting from issues of persecution, deprivation of homes or livelihoods, or war. The very definition of a refugee is the result of a human rights violation. When their own government is unable or unwilling to protect them, they are forced to seek protection in the international community through a neighboring country. The international community is therefore responsible for ensuring refugees’ access to their rights and physical safety.
All the protections assured by the state to the citizen are lost when that person becomes a refugee. They are the opposite of a citizen. They are defined by what they lack: a political voice, economic opportunity, and freedom of movement (Nyers, 2006, p. 98). The rights of refugees derive from the violation of their rights as humans, establishing this differentiation between refugees and humans. Herein lies the paradox of refugee rights: they have rights precisely because they do not have rights (O’Neill, 2008, pp. 30-31). Another interpretation of the status of refugees is to see their rights or lack thereof not as the exception, but as the norm. Human rights are not natural. They are only present when acknowledged by others. As others do not recognize refugees as having the rights of citizens, then their rights do not exist (Owens, 2011, p. 133).
Refugees are not new to international discussion. The Peace of Westphalia conference in 1648 first established the identity of a refugee and codified the idea that neighboring states should accept them and care for their welfare. But their rights were not protected until the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which also created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as the agency responsible for leading and coordinating international responses to refugee crises.
To analyze the paradox of refugee rights, this paper poses the questions: “What factors best explain violence against women in the internationally sanctioned ‘safe camps’ for refugees? And how do the structures surrounding refugees violate or protect their basic human rights?” To effectively determine their effects, the different factors and structures that constitute life in refugee camps have been separated into economics, politics, the structure of the camp, culture, and emotional implications with an additional analysis on the regime focus on humanitarian aid rather than safeguarding rights.
The Peace of Westphalia of 1648 started the conversation about refugees by defining a citizen and, inversely, a non-citizen. This conference was the start of the modern European state system and refugees, defined as people fleeing political or religious persecution, were part of the state-building process (Betts & Loescher, 2011, p. 3).
The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, also called the Refugee Convention, defined who constitutes a refugee, their rights, and the obligations of states in safeguarding these rights (UNHCR, n.d.). The Refugee Convention maintained a rather limited definition of the refugee, including only political or religious causes, but later expanded it to the modern definition, which describes people in different situations who need protection and assistance. The biggest shift has been the inclusion of environmental and economic causes and internally displaced people. In short, refugees are defined as the result of a breakdown between the state and citizen. This breakdown requires the international community to step in to replace the state as the defender of rights.
Post World War II, the United Nations created the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, to manage and assist the people displaced by the war, whether that meant returning them to their countries of origin or working with their host countries to facilitate their integration. The 1951 Refugee Convention established the UNHCR as a permanent agency with the primary purpose of overseeing states’ implementation of the Convention (UNHCR, n.d.). It has become the primary organizer of different actors engaged in refugee assistance including host countries, donor countries, and international non-government organizations (NGOs).
The US and the USSR used refugees as pawns during the Cold War, supporting or providing different groups with weapons to fight proxy wars (Betts & Loescher, 2011, p. 9). This shifted the perception of refugee from victim to potential aggressor, which was further emphasized after the first Gulf War and Yugoslavia when refugees were seen as a threat to international security. The UNHCR started incorporating internally displaced people, or IDPs, into the discussion of refugee policy and rights in 1998 with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, a body of soft laws on human rights and humanitarian policies (Betts & Loescher, 2011, p. 10).
Globalization has led to easy transcontinental movement, releasing a flood of refugees from the developing world to the developed. Many developed countries have created restrictive policies and increased border control in response (Betts & Loescher, 2011, p. 10). Today, fears of terrorism and economic instability guide states to contain refugees in camps for long periods of time and make it very difficult for refugees to seek asylum.
Previous research on the topic of refugee camps generally falls into four categories: the economics of camps, the politics of the international refugee regime and political actors, societal factors, and militarization.
Research on economic rights in refugee camps is largely based on individual case studies, such as the paper on Burundian refugees in Tanzania written by a joint commission. Other papers, such as Sarah Martin’s, concentrate on women’s economic opportunities in camps. Both focus on the policy implications of providing jobs or access to employment. Martin’s concentration on women leads into a discussion on prostitution and the vulnerability of women formed by the lack of economic opportunity.
Benz and Hasenclever focus on the politics of refugee conflicts and rights with their examination of the responsibility of the global world through the context of universal human rights by detailing the historic growth of multilateral approaches to solve the complex problems of forced migration that cannot be solved unilaterally. They go on to discuss different scholarly predictions on the potential emergence of governance structures that include private actors. O’Neill contributes to this discussion in his paper on the responsibilities of international actors and the realities of their effectiveness with a focus on camp management and interstate cooperation. Nyers’ book, Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency, provides a critical view of some of the prevailing notions on refugee rights and reveals how refugees are stripped of their rights in the international system and in many humanitarian practices. He looks at the role of the UNHCR, the relationship between NGOs and a system ruled by states, the power imbalance between the North and the South in who carries the burden of refugees, and the techniques and consequences of state policy regarding refugees.
Societal factors include the implications of customs from origin countries and how they change when people enter refugee camps. There exists a considerable amount of literature on the effects of joblessness and loss of status in masculinity and gender roles, which Nowrojee uses as a lens to view sexual violence. Feyissa discusses the psychological and emotional effects of long-term camp life.
The other major contribution to refugee research is the concept of militarization, or organized refugee violence either against their states of origin or locals in the host country. Refugee situations are analyzed in Lischer’s book, Dangerous Sanctuaries, for their likelihood of militarization. She also discusses the political incentives for aiding in the escalating violence and the effects of violent refugees in sparking or spreading civil war. O’Neill discusses militarization through a lens of cause and effect of conflict and the cyclical nature of refugee violence. He creates a model to isolate the conditions under which militarization occurs. Muggah’s book, No Refuge, is a compilation of essays on the topic of militarization to systemically analyze how militarization occurs, the failure of the international refugee regime to prevent the occurrence, and the effects on camps, host countries, and origin countries using case studies in Guinea, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda. This body of research is less relevant to the current topic because while militarization is a type of violence, it is generally a conflict between the refugees in the camp and outside forces, while this paper is focused on internal violence and the structure of the camp.
For the most part, the literature maintains a separation between failures and successes in the international rights regime and realities of security in camps, which is how this research fits into the discussion. At its core, this paper analyzes the relationship between safeguarding rights and humanitarian aid effectiveness with an emphasis on violence and women.
Presentation of Data
Structure of a Refugee Camp
Refugee camps are a space where human rights are suspended: it is the place where the state of exception becomes the state of normality. The UNHCR aims to create greater autonomy through the formation of refugee committees on everything from women’s rights to security to anti-rape but these committees have no power and their opinions are rarely included in policy discussion (Crisp, 2000, p. 614).
The UNHCR has fromed basic rules for establishing refugee camps to decrease the likelihood of violence. Traditionally, the refugee regime has believed that overcrowding and distance from the border makes the camp more susceptible to violence which has led to policies encouraging camps to be built at least 50 kilometers from the border and contain no more than 20,000 refugees (U.N. UNHCR, 2001, p. 63). However, recent studies show that these two factors have little effect in deterring violence. The more relevant factors in terms of how the UNHCR structures and governs the camp are the age of the camp and previous crime statistics in the area. Data suggests the longer-lasting camps are more inclined to support rebel groups, perhaps because they feel they are not receiving real long-term help from the host government or international community (Song, 2012, p. 131). If there were previously high rates of crime in the region, it will become more concentrated and elevated near the refugee camp, as there are “more items to steal, more people to rob and more women to rape,” (Crisp, 2000, p. 619).
The most significant weakness in camp management that leads to violence is the system of justice. Perpetrators are rarely held accountable or punished due to a variety of reasons. The first is a result of social organization and culture. Refugees may feel the law does not apply to them since they already live in a state of suspension from because of intimidation, a serious threat due to the inadequate witness protection system, or societal reasons, such as a sexual assault bringing shame upon the victim’s family (Crisp, 2000, p. 619-21).
Secondly, the police force is often incompetent. They may have been pulled from their distant homes and forced to serve at the camp. Often, governments will send the young and inexperienced officers to camps because there is a high risk of police fatalities and hosts do not want to lose their more trained and valuable police. There are many reports that show the police arriving to the scene of a crime too late and their investigations rarely end in arrests or convictions (Crisp, 2000, p. 621). On the occasions when people are arrested, the prisons can be grooming grounds for criminal organizations. This has been the case in multiple Kenyan refugee camps (Crisp, 2000, p. 620).
Justice in camps is technically subject to the rule of law in the host country, but in practice indigenous refugee institutions implement arrest, trial, and punishment. This is particularly detrimental for female victims of sexual assault in Somali refugee camps, who can be forced into marriage with her aggressor or watch her attacker pay livestock compensation to her father without receiving any recompense herself (Crisp, 2000, p. 604).
The irony of the justice system is that the refugee camps are too dangerous for the courts to work well. The inadequate justice system in conjunction with the age of the camp and the regional crime rates are the most influential factors in terms of camp management and organization.
Economic and Resource Factors
The economies of refugee camps are guided by the same principles as the economies of any city, except residents usually cannot leave the camp for work and the largest supplier of goods and services is the UNHCR and its partners. There is an overwhelming lack of resources that drives refugees to rely almost entirely on the UNHCR for basic supplies such as food, water, and housing. Humanitarian organizations in the past have believed and argued that a greater lack of supplies fosters greater violence, but recent research has shown the two factors to be either unrelated or positively correlated: more resources increases the likelihood of violence, specifically robberies from both refugees inside the camp and locals or migrants living outside the camp (Lischer, 2005, p. 110). This implies that it is not the supplies or humanitarian aid that fosters an environment with higher rates of violence but the structure and security of the camp.
The Za’atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan provides an interesting case study in the analysis of resource allotment and violence. Though this camp is regarded as a well-organized and innovative camp due to the long-term planning of the UNHCR, it has an underlying issue of organized criminal activity in the form of a mafia-like man named al-Hariri who steals electricity from a hospital and manipulates aid workers and their organizations to obtain the resources he needs for himself and those in his district of the camp. There are rumors he has had people killed but he denies them. The UNHCR works alongside him for the present because he can control the more violent residents and maintain peace (Amos & Breslow, 2013, p. 1). Street lords and local organization are often utilized by the UNHCR as an easier and less costly method of delivering aid but men like al-Hariri can also incentivize violence if he feels it necessary (Lischer, 2005, p. 99). A camp built on a platform of a criminal organization that can explode at any moment is not a camp built with a focus on peace or safety.
Women walk long distances to access water and firewood, which are not provided by aid organizations, often venturing outside the safety of the camp for these essential resources. They are vulnerable to assault when alone or sexual demands when they need to pass through someone’s land or checkpoints (Joint Commission for Refugees of the Burundi and Tanzania Episcopal Conferences, 2008, p. 61). In a Kenyan camp in the early 90s, 192 cases of sexual assault were reported in 7 months, mostly when women were collecting firewood during the day (Crisp, 2000, p. 605). Host country policies meant to curb the flow of refugees that restrict access to material assistance, employment, and health services put women at further risk of sexual exploitation and prostitution (Martin, 2008, p. 147). While a lack of resources may be cited as a reason for escalating violence, the data points to the types of resources not delivered and the methods of dispersing them as the relevant factors in analyzing conflict in camps.
Political factors that instigate or mitigate violence take shape most clearly in friction between refugees and their host or sending countries. Local people of the host country living in the land around the camp can cause a significant amount of violence due to their resentfulness of the aid refugees receive, which can generate a standard of living higher than locals (Crisp, 2000, p. 618). The UNHCR tries to minimize this in some cases. In Kenya, the agency built water catchments, primary school classrooms and other amenities to appease local Kenyans. But the local Turkana believe they have a right to all livestock and will rob refugees and NGOs alike (Crisp, 2000, pp. 610-11).
Host governments also may resent or even fear refugees for the economic burden and security risk their presence poses, allowing militarization and an increase in violence by being unwilling or unable to stop it (Lischer, 2005, p. 32). A systemic flaw in the refugee regime allows the level of protection afforded the camps to be left entirely up to the host country (Nowrojee, 2008, p. 129) while the host government sees refugees as the UNIHCR’s problem, not theirs (Crisp, 2000, p. 617).
Refugees can also provoke conflict with their host countries, especially if they flee as a result of ethnic violence. Lischer theorizes that their origins and reason for fleeing the country determines the likelihood refugees will become militarized (2005, p. 19). The ethnic conflict that began in the sender country carries over into the refugee camp, particularly if different ethnic groups are put together in a camp. The Sudanese refugee camps in Kenya have seen over 100 injuries and unknown numbers of deaths due to conflict between Dinkas and Nuers. In some camps, such as the Somali camps in Kenya, men and boys may be required to return to their host countries to fight for different factions, whether that is by recruitment or conscription (Crisp, 2000, p. 603). It is unclear if this is forced or voluntary. The continued conflict between two factions is particularly dangerous for women, as rape is used as a tool to degrade other ethnic, religious, or political groups (Nowrojee, 2008, p. 126). Friction between refugees and locals and opposing factions from their host countries are the most influential politically motivated factors in inciting violence.
When refugees flee their native land and enter the life of the camp, the traditional framework of family, community, and nation is torn away. This can result in the loss of their historical means of crime control, particularly when many refugees come from rural areas governed by a system of elders or local leaders. Being separated from family and neighbors is also a loss of protection of village and kin (Crisp, 2000, p. 625).
In many cases, men are farmers, hunters or caretakers of livestock. All of these roles are stripped when they enter the camp, resulting in a loss of power and status. Many scholars point to this factor when explaining increased rates of domestic abuse. They explain this connection by inferring that the loss of power in their career transfers over to a need to feel dominant in their homes (Nowrojee, 2008, p. 126).
The UNHCR places an emphasis on supporting women and increasing their autonomy in the camp. This, supplemented by the loss of traditional societal framework, results in the changing roles of women. These can be both positive and negative. They may have access to employment in ways they would not have had in their origin country, giving them greater autonomy and control over the household. They also usually retain their traditional roles as caretakers of children, cooks, and cleaners. This may compound the frustrations of men who have lost their roles and not gained any new ones, further inciting domestic violence (Martin, 2008, p. 138). The UNHCR tries to strike a careful balance between women’s rights and cultural relativism to strive towards gender equality without further risking the safety of women.
Emotional and Psychological factors
Life in a camp takes a significant toll on the mental and emotional health of refugees. The lack of knowledge about the future and perpetual state of not working and not having decision-making abilities fosters impulsiveness, anxiety, and desperation as reported by social workers (Feyissa, 2008, pp. 16-18). Even if their physical needs are met, there are reports of nervous depression, dependency, high stress, and trauma (Crisp, 2000, p. 624). The feelings of insecurity are self-perpetuating. People in the camps feel threatened and unsafe, so they are more prone to act in violent and unpredictable manners.
Male youths who experience beatings and detention, whether in their origin countries, their journeys, or in the camp itself, make sense of this violence by interpreting it as a rite of passage. This politicized and violent form of masculinity reaffirms traditional gender hierarchies and can lead to gendered violence (Nyers, 2006, p. 113).
Humanitarian aid versus human rights
The high rates of violence and desperate lack of resources have led to an emphasis on aid and security instead of a focus on re-establishing human dignity and autonomy.
The 1951 Refugee Convention laid out the basic underlying principles that govern how states and international actors protect and care for refugees. The most fundamental one is that of non-refoulement, which prohibits host states from returning refugees to a place where they would be at risk (U.N. UNHCR, 2001, p. 10). The other principle that seems well enforced is that of establishing camps a “reasonable distance” from their origin countries, which has come to be generally understood as fifty kilometers. Although the UNHCR website states that they seek to give refugees the option of integrating locally (“About Us,” n.d.), states resist integrating refugees into their economies and societies (Crisp, 2000, p. 617).
Despite the good intentions of the Convention, in practice, ‘humanitarian governments’ become police forces that concentrate on management instead of a rights-based support system and, in the end, deprive refugees of citizenship (Hackl, 2013, p. 1). These humanitarian governance structures fail by distancing aid from refugees, not including their voices, and evaluating success in terms of resource capacity.
Aid workers are often separated from the refugees for their own protection, maintaining a distance from the violence of daily camp life and establishing inadequate access to aid workers, leaving women in particular vulnerable to violent elements inside the camp (Feyissa, 2008, pp. 16, 24).
As discussed in the section on camp structure, the UNHCR has established committees to include refugees’ voices in camp management. But these voices are used mostly in promotional materials to gain donations; there are no processes for addressing the concerns raised in these committees (Nyers, 2006, p. 127-30). Refugees may be elected as representatives in camp governance, but are forbidden to assist in the distribution of aid, which is only done by international staff or the military (Nyers, 2006, p. 116).
The UNHCR has criticized donor states for evaluating the success or failure of refugee camps by their capacity to deliver emergency relief rather than their “ability to empower marginalized populations and to bring a degree of dignity to their lives,” (Nyers, 2006, p. 114). The Refugee Agency expresses its frustration that states will fund organizations to provide the basics to sustain life but not community or social services programs, which would advance the autonomy and dignity of refugees. Despite the verbal acknowledgement that the international refugee regime emphasizes aid over rights, the UNHCR does not concede its own failures in preventing refugee sovereignty by greater inclusion in political processes.
The very existence of refugees proves the need for stronger human rights protections within countries. They reveal the breakdown in the relationship between government and citizen and the ensuing loss of state protection of rights. What happens after they become refugees in a foreign state, i.e. life in a refugee camp, reveals the breakdown in the wider international refugee and human rights regime.
The rights of a refugee beget the question of who constitutes a human being. If human rights are applicable to all persons, but refugees are only accorded a limited version of these rights, are they not considered human? Placing them in this suspended state of a humanitarian ‘problem’ creates a life more comparable to that of an animal than a dignified human. They are corralled in a limited space and given the necessities to survival and little else. When benign, they are speechless and invisible. When they try to gain their voice and political presence through the only means left to them, militarization, they lose their status as refugee and become a rebel militant. Refugees are defined by their lack of human rights. How can the refugee regime safeguard their rights if, by definition, they cannot have them?
This paradox constructs a difficult world in which to build a space that protects rights of the inherently right-less, but a policy recommendation is not impossible. The first and perhaps simplest to implement would be to allow for greater autonomy by loosening restrictions on movement and economic opportunities. The second would require a more comprehensive reframing of the refugee regime by shifting focus from a needs-based to a rights-based perspective. This would include the attitude of aid organizations, donor countries, the host country, and the UNHCR. The first step in this process would be the establishment of a political structure with greater refugee autonomy and involvement.
The third policy recommendation would be to abolish camps lasting more than two years, either assimilating refugees into their host countries or returning them to the country of origin. Each presents a major obstacle. Host countries would offer huge resistance to assimilation due to the economic and societal risks involved in accepting large numbers of people with no job prospects who may be uneducated or do not speak the host language. Returning them to the origin country may break the policy of non-refoulement, which does not allow refugees to return to a place where they would be at risk. The UNHCR is addressing these issues in Jordan with an opposite policy: they are planning the camp to be a permanent city.
Refugees are an interesting and complex paradox in the discussion of human rights for both the challenges they present in their very existence and in the methods of safeguarding their rights, as limited as they may be. This is not a human rights problem with easy solutions, but one that will continue to challenge policy makers and human rights workers around the world.
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