Most likely, when you think of refugees, you think of refugee camps. That’s the image that most people have in their head — row after row of tents flapping in the wind, starving people sitting around waiting for the emergency food relief to arrive. The camps might even seem like havens, the promised land that refugees reach after trekking for days over deserts, fleeing war or persecution. And often they are, saving thousands of lives when there is a major crisis driving refugees out of their homelands. Often, at this stage there is international press attention, beaming images of the grateful refugees arriving and receiving their first food in weeks. Then the cameras leave, but the refugees remain.
And remain. And remain. All too often, they’re still there 10 years later. In many cases, they’re stuck in exile far longer than that. There have been Burmese refugees in camps in Thailand for 20 years. Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees have been living in camps in Sudan for more than 40 years. Children have been born in those camps, grown up in them, and had children of their own.
Think about it for a minute, spending your entire life trapped in a camp. And they are trapped. Countries like Thailand, Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, and others have forbidden refugees to leave their camps. Instead, the remain stranded in some of the most barren parts of the country, unable to work, unable to leave, their lives on hold while they wait for a chance to return to their homes safely. As you might suspect, being confined, essentially imprisoned, for years at a time leads to a whole host of social problems. Domestic abuse is common. So are drug and alcohol problems. The NGO World Vision did study of children in refugee camps (pdf) in the Great Lakes region of Africa that found rates of sexual abuse of children between 50% and 87% in the camps they surveyed.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When the world convened to decide how refugees ought to be treated in the wake of World War II, they crafted a treaty that guarantees refugees a whole host of rights that ought to allow them to live normal lives. And why not? Refugees have been driven from their homes through no fault of their own. It seems to make sense that they not be punished again once they flee to safety. When the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was written, people assumed refugees would be living where they chose in their hosting countries, working whatever jobs they could find, and supporting themselves, perhaps with the assistance of their hosts, but surely not dependent entirely on international aid to survive.
Anyway, that’s the basic outline of where I’m coming from on refugees and refugee rights. I’ll be fleshing out many of these points as I go (or at least, I hope to).