Blog post by Musambya Mutambala, currently undertaking a PhD in Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam.


Throughout the history of nations, violent conflicts, persecution, and wars have forcibly displaced people, causing them to flee their homes and countries. Host countries provide settlement in which, on average, refugees stay longer than expected. UNHCR reports that a vast majority of the world refugees are urban (about 78 percent live in cities) and only a few are settled in camps. However, African camps alone account for more than 78.5 percent of the global proportion of the camps (p.65), making Africa what Michel Agier calls a “continent of camps”. However, scholars, activists and humanitarians lack unanimity of opinions when it comes to the question of either abolishing or maintaining refugee camps. This blog post discusses the contradicting scholarly opinions on the refugee camp dilemma in Africa. It draws a position from the two opposing arguments by taking the position for the need to abolish camps. Beyond the provision of immediate protection and assistance, refugee camps are blamed for abusing the freedom of the refugees. Using the experience of Nyarugusu, Kalobeyei and Bidi Bidi refugee camps in East Africa, this piece argues that the infringements to freedom and the lack of opportunities to build self-reliance reduces the magnitude of the protection to refugees.

Understanding refugee camps

A refugee camp entails a vast settlement that accommodates people who were forced to flee their countries. From an anthropological view point, we recognize a refugee camp based on spatial, temporal, categorical, and legal elements. A spatial element of refugee camps emphasizes the geographical location, with clear boundaries that separate refugees from the surrounding local communities. This reduces the level of integration and consequently keeps culture and identity from either side. Depending on the number of refugees, camps are of different sizes, and according to the UNHCR reports, the largest camps in the world are Kutupalong-Balukhali in Bangladesh, Bidi Bidi in Uganda, Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya, Azraq and Zaatari in Jordan, Nyarugusu and Nduta in Tanzania, and Kerbribeyah, Aw-Barre and Sheder in Ethiopia. Actually, the average length of time that refugees spend in camps varies depending on the crisis (ibid); that explains why refugee camps last many years, even decades, and it is common to have entire generations growing up and stuck in a protracted situation in the camps. Despite the differences in terms of longevity, camps are not set to be permanent since they have a temporal element, while offering a safe place and meeting refugees’ basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, and medical treatment. Camps also provide basic services, such as education and livelihood conditions to rebuild refugees’ lives. The camps are specifically for refugees, although one may in practice find local and foreign citizens in the camp. This marks the categorical element in defining camps. Lastly, legal elements guide the operationalisation of refugee camps. Camps are often placed in different juridical order and governed by different laws and rules, which make them what Giorgio Agamben called “a state of exception”. The above-mentioned elements instil the uniqueness of refugee camps to the extent of stimulating debates whether it is a good idea for refugees to settle in camps or not.

Advantages of refugee camps

More importantly, camps serve as an important emergency protection function. Being forced to flee the threat of persecution, refugees need secure and safe places. The host countries have such a responsibility to ensure protection that offers respect and dignity under the established laws and regulations. While offering protection to refugees, camps also preserve security for the host countries. In situation where African countries largely register refugees on a “prima facie”, camps help allay security concerns by confirming people’s movements and ensuring security for host countries.

Provision of humanitarian assistance is also worth considering, as it logistically makes sense to serve refugees while inside than being outside the camps. It may appear problematic that assistance has to be centralized through a specific location. However, considering that refugees’ inflow in large numbers is a burden to developing countries, such as the African countries. Arafat Jamal reveals that Africa alone locates about 170 camps. It is easier for these countries to provide assistance to refugees concentrated in identified locations. Camps settlement therefore eases the humanitarian assistance and ensures that developing countries handle the refugee situation through responsibility sharing and burden sharing.

Disadvantages of refugee camps

Despite the relevance and attention given to refugee camps as providers of protection and humanitarian assistance, camps restrict rights to movement and undermine the dignity of refugees. Kenya, for example, enacted the encampment policy since 1990s. Since then, aid interventions to refugees have shaped politics, social dynamics and economic life. Such a policy restricted rights and freedom of movement of refugees located in Kakuma camp, before enacting the 2015 integrated settlement model based on self-reliance designed to manage Kalobeyei camp. The aspect of confinement embedded in camps reduces the level of human dignity and limits the level of choice and right to privacy. Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, for example, is located in a remote and inhospitable area of Kigoma region, where livelihood mechanisms are hardly accessible. While basic needs are sufficiently provided, sometimes refugees are denied access to market inside and outside the refugee camps. There, refugees are encamped and face threat of imprisonment once found outside the camps. Camps regulations require the refugees to seek permits to trade or to leave, which often have unpredictable conditions. As Hanno Brankamp points out, “while camps may not be punitive by design, they are typically underpinned by ‘carceral micro-geographies’ of jail, militarized policing, permit regimes, and checkpoints”. These aspects may not be a threat in terms of facilitating humanitarian aid as a means of supporting refugees’ lives in the camps and thus evoking compassion aspects that accompany camps services. However, under the encampment aspects, refugees “cede freedom of movement to access assistance from aid agencies, non-profits, and states”, and so, relying on humanitarian assistance, generations of refugees lack the opportunity for self-reliance. UNHCR’s concept of self-reliance involves the ability to meet essential needs in a sustainable manner with programs that strengthen livelihoods and resilience, reduce dependence on humanitarian aid, and involve the exploration of opportunities to economic freedom.

Infringement of freedom of movement negatively impacts on refugees. Camps deny refugees the freedoms that would enable refugees to lead productive lives. In a study in refugee camps in Uganda, Alexander Betts and colleagues found that refugees had the capacity and potential to help themselves and their communities if given freedom. Unfortunately, the refugee camps serve the purpose of registering, controlling and monitoring a person in a way that takes away their possibility to lead an autonomous life over a period of many months or years. Heike Becker has a similar indication that women refugees in Berlin camps faced challenges that resulted from not being able to live a self-determined life.

The duration of camp settlement is long on average; this implies that refugees should no longer live in an emergency, but rather work to build capabilities that freedom would offer. However, camps present devastating consequences when it comes to the socio-economic conditions of refugees. These consequences go against the 1951 Refugee Convention and its subsequent legal instruments that promulgate that refugees should enjoy a range of freedom and rights regarding the choice of the place of residence and free movement within the host territory (Article 26 of the 1951 convention). Abolishing camps would help reduce dependence syndrome and increase the sense of responsibility in refugees and their opportunity to thrive.

True protection in the situation of camp abolishment: key considerations

Both the relevance of refugee camps and their infringement of freedom provides the opportunity to ask what true protection for refugees might look like should camps be abolished? In finding true protection outside the restrictions of camps, refugees’ integration into host communities is one of the key considerations. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) defines local integration as “a two-way process of adaptation of refugees and host communities and consideration of the rights and obligation of refugees and host society, of access to different kind of services and the labour market, and of identification and respects to a core set of values that bind migrant and host societies in a common purpose”. Accordingly, this piece considers local integration as the process through which refugees feel accepted as part of the communities that host them and enjoy rights that advance them to the dimensions of self-reliance.

Successful local integration is more focused on legal, economic, and social-cultural dimensions. The legal dimension of local integration is highlighted by Article 14 of the 1951 Convention that urges signatory states to facilitate naturalization processes of refugees. This recognition is the power to extend rights to refugees toward eventual permanent residence and citizenship (Article 15 of the 1951 Convention). Being foundational to the integration process, host states should consider extending the legal procedures to ensure local integration for the betterment of both refugees and host communities. The legal dimension translates a need for refugees’ access to opportunities, resources (including social), and knowledge that the moral obligation of the host states should grant under established legal frameworks. A wider access to opportunities and resources translates the true meaning of protection by instilling in “refugees the courage to survive beyond the humanitarian aid scheme, confidence to start anew, and capacity to address the challenges they confront in the search for durable solutions” (p. iv).

The second dimension of refugee integration is economic. This is a process that reflects the meaning of self-reliance. It involves a wide range of rights and entitlements for refugees to establish sustainable livelihoods, to attain a growing degree of self-reliance, and to become less reliant on state aid or humanitarian assistance. This is a dimension through which refugees acquire, and improve their potential. However, often the economic dimension faces challenges of the level of education and skills development. In addition, it translates to free movement of goods and services for businesses. Local integration process requires refugees to improve their potentials to benefit from the wide range of rights and entitlements. Yet, preparations are needed, such as strengthening and extending capacity building programmes to improve refugees’ capabilities. According to many studies, refugees have vast potential to contribute to and benefit from the market economy. Similarly, identification is important to facilitate economic processes, such as banking system and insurance. 

Lastly, the social dimension is important in engaging refugees in local integration. The dimension entails a harmonious life of refugees and host communities, without discrimination and abuse. This dimension is usually more effective when language and culture do not act as serious barriers in the integration process. The experience from Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, for example, shows that the majority of the refugees that these countries host are from neighbouring countries that have overlapping languages and historical cultural similarities. This gives refugees the confidence not only of feeling to be part of the communities that host them without fear or discrimination, but also the possibility to adapt to the education system in host countries. Nonetheless, obstacles, such as property ownership, need to be illuminated and overcome to achieve full integration.   


Camps infringe freedom and self-reliance behavior that reduces the sense of protection to refugees. Camps have a mandate to provide protection from persecution. However, it is not just immediate humanitarian concerns that need to be in focus, but fundamental medium and long-term impacts on encampment also need consideration. In conditions where camps infringe economic and social security to the extent of restricting refugees’ enjoyment of freedom and self-reliance, the protection function of the camps is likely painful to those intended to benefit from it. Especially, a shift of perception is required from the temporal aspect of camps since refugees stay longer in host countries than expected; this change of perception influences a move from the focus on the provision of humanitarian assistance – immediate needs in emergency situations – to development aid programs that enhance self-reliance and integration with host communities. This calls for rethinking beyond how Bulent Diken and Carsten Laustsen perceived camps as “an exceptional site situated on the margins of society that confines, controls, and filters” (p. 5). Host countries should therefore abolish camps and provide refugees greater freedom, ensure dignity, and enable refugees to become responsible for their lives. As a process, camp abolition should go beyond reforms that usually fail to ensure freedom, rather promote integration with host communities and greater access to work under the 1951 Refugee Convention framework.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.