Refugee camps and the problem of ethnic extremism
by Tony Waters May 2003

Large encampments to receive fleeing refugees facilitate reception, and save lives. Yet the long-term effects of camp life may themselves create the potential for further conflict.

Refugee camps are a way of controlling the technical, political and social problems inherent to conflict. They permit easy access to vulnerable, needy people in difficult and dangerous environments, meeting immediate needs for food, shelter and healthcare and helping to overcome the typical reluctance of host countries to receive foreigners. They also provide a convenient short-term holding place for refugees able to return after a short period. Yet is doubtful whether they are of long-term benefit, particularly when compared to the successes of some second- and third-country resettlement programmes. This is not because immediate physical needs are not met; rather, the segregation, inequality and social isolation of the refugee camp can fuel political resentments which prolong the refugee situation, and create the potential for further conflict.

The modern refugee camp

Typically, refugee camps are established in the early days of an emergency. They are sited within walking distance of a border (most refugees flee on foot), there are water sources that can be developed quickly, and there are few local people around to create political problems for the host country. Often, the host country’s military has asserted some level of control in the confined area of the camp. Confinement is usually combined with regulations restricting economic activities like farming or foraging, and social activities such as school attendance. This limits contact between refugees and the host population. Settled camp conditions are conducive to the control of mortality and morbidity rates in vulnerable refugee populations otherwise at great risk. At the same time, however, camp conditions can generate their own, less obvious problems.

Refugee populations are typically isolated and made idle by the circumstances in which they find themselves. As a result, a ‘refugee culture’ can emerge, often among young people. This culture develops its own definitions of who is part of the group, and who is not. A caste-like inequality between refugees, locals and expatriate camp staff becomes normal, and a hierarchy emerges in which refugees are defined as the recipients of international largesse, host-country nationals provide the services refugees are banned from providing for themselves, and a small group of expatriates brings in what money there is. Meanwhile, life in the home country continues, and another social stratification emerges: between the people in the camp, and the people who stayed behind. Unable to visit, refugees create mental images of what the home country is about socially and politically, interpreting what snippets of information come their way to confirm their fears, hopes and suspicions about when they might return.

The regularisation of assistance

The emergency period can pass quickly, often within weeks or months. However, by default the dependent camp situations assisted by UNHCR, and fed by WFP, are maintained because the easiest thing to do is simply to continue. Thus, humanitarian agencies typically focus on the establishment of a ‘maintenance’ policy for the continuation of the camp situation, in the hope that a quick repatriation will be organised. For the international humanitarian community, maintenance is viewed as the completion of the ‘emergency’. After all, under difficult circumstances infrastructure has been built, political relationships have been established with the host country, food pipelines set up and major purchases made with donor money. In essence, maintenance for the agencies means the regularisation of their aid programmes. The problem is that maintenance policies rigidify the principles established during the initial flight. And these maintenance policies kick in at the same time that refugee culture is being established in the context of crowded camp conditions, norms for food distribution from international supplies are established, and the other tools used to receive and sustain fleeing refugee masses developed. This is fertile ground for the legitimisation of refugee nostalgia for a vanished past.

Dreams of return

Refugee ideologies quickly emerge with the establishment of camp routines, which typically suit the more powerful actors, including the humanitarian community, the host country and ethnic nationalists whose ideology feeds on nostalgia for the homeland. In particular, an ideology is established that voluntary repatriation, sometime, eventually, sooner rather than later, is the only solution. Not coincidentally, this is a convenient policy for humanitarian actors, the host country and refugee leaders alike: humanitarian actors because they have the infrastructure, routines and resources to maintain camps to control the situation, host countries because they do not want to deal with the issues of integrating foreigners, offending local constituencies in the process, and refugee leaders because they nurture dreams of leading a liberation force back to the home country.

Promises of eventual return can become very attractive to refugees faced with frequent reminders that they are ‘different’, both from host-country nationals and from the people back home. In this kind of environment, extremism can flourish, and refugee populations, tantalised by promises of return to a mythologised ‘homeland’, can be mobilised for political purposes. Refugee camps for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza provide some of the most fertile recruiting-grounds for suicide bombers. Closed camps for Rwandans in Zaire in the late 1990s provided first a cover for the toppled, genocidal government, then a military target for the new regime. In both cases, the hundreds of thousands of refugees suffered.

Repatriation or resettlement?

Repatriation is usually seen as the best long-term solution to a refugee crisis. In certain circumstances, Mozambique in the early 1990s for instance, it can work well, but the experience of the last 30 to 40 years suggests that this is the exception. Resettlement – which often permits refugees to re-establish self-sufficiency as quickly as possible – is in fact at least as common, irrespective of the typically hostile political winds that oppose it. Resettlement also has the advantage of redirecting attention away from dreams of return, and towards lives elsewhere. Not every country wants or needs ‘their’ refugees back; this is why many refugee crises are resolved not just by mass voluntary repatriation, but by permanent relocation elsewhere.

The flight from the Indochinese countries in the 1970s and 1980s is an example of how diverting refugee attention away from camps leads to other alternatives. Whether legally or illegally, most Indochinese refugees ended up resettled in countries as varied as the US, China, Australia and Thailand. One of the unsung successes of the Indochinese refugee resettlement programmes is that there are no teeming refugee camps in the region. Similarly, Iranians after the fall of the Shah, Burundians in Tanzania, Central Americans in Mexico and the US, Russians in Israel and Eastern Europeans in Germany found new lives not dominated by food distribution lines, head counts and the dreary segregated life of the modern refugee camp.


The capacity to manage refugee camps effectively allows potential hosts to avoid difficult political questions about resettlement, while persisting in the illusion that the refugee camp itself is there only ‘temporarily’. Camps provide the veneer of respectability: people do not starve because they are there; and due to the skilled delivery of medical care, refugees often have low mortality and morbidity rates, particularly in the short run. This is of course a good thing; but in the big picture is it the most important? Predictably, the provision of high-quality health care results in high birth rates and low infant mortality. But just as predictably, refugee camps isolated from the rest of the world will produce large numbers of angry young men focused on violently righting the perceived wrongs of the past.

Tony Watersis Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, California State University, Chico, CA. Previously, he worked for the Lutheran World Federation in Tanzania and the International Rescue Committee in Thailand. He is the author of Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan: The Limitations to Humanitarian Relief Operations (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001); and Crime and Immigrant Youth (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1999). He has written widely on humanitarian relief, development and migration.

Further reading

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991).

Barbara Harrell-Bond, Imposing Aid: Emergency Assistance to Refugees (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Karen Jacobsen, ‘The Forgotten Solution: Local Integration of Refugees in Developing Countries’, in New Issues in Refugee Research, Working Paper 45 (Geneva: UNHCR, Huly 2001),

Lynelyn Long, Ban Vinai: The Refugee Camp (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

Liisa Malkki, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory and National Cosmology Among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy: Cambodia, Holocaust, and Modern Conscience (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984).