Room for Debate: Should refugee camps be operated as permanent cities?

Zaatari Refugee Camp

Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Photo Credit: dezeen magazine

With an estimated 15.1 million refugees around the world, refugee camps have been and have become a fact of life for many. History reveals that refugee camps are rarely if ever truly temporary. Statistics show that the average stay of refugees is now roughly seventeen years – almost two decades that can hardly be thought of as a temporary solution. It is now more than ever time to rethink how refugee camps are built and managed. Kilian Kleinschmidt and Paul Currion offer their differing perspectives and opinions in two recent articles for consideration.

Use Existing Abandoned Cities for Resettlement

A former manager for the Zaatari camp in Jordan, Kilian Kleinschmidt believes the world must move away from thinking of refugee camps as temporary. He suggests that refugees can be resettled and empowered; as many local people have migrated to more urbanized cities for work, why not use those deserted cities as housing for refugees? Kleinschmidt argues these mostly deserted cities could be “development zones” where refugees learn to become self-sustaining.

Urbanize Existing Refugee Camps for Resettlement

Paul Currion takes a different view; making the point that if refugees are unwilling to stay in impoverished or ghost towns in their own countries, what makes anyone think they will want to do the same thing in another country? He argues that these cities would ultimately become benign dictatorships. He argues that ultimately, the issue of the growth of refugee camps is not one of migration, but one of urbanization. As refugee camps grow, they must be managed and governed more as actual cities, not just refugee camps.

The Reality

The refugee camps in Calais, known to many as “The Jungle” are a prime example of camps that were meant to be temporary, but are now showing signs of permanency. The collection of informal settlements developed in 2002 as a staging post for those attempting entry into the United Kingdom, but the camps have now become semi-permanent dwelling places due to the dangers of border crossing and lack of other viable options for settlement. The camps, which are located on an old landfill, house approximately 6,000 refugees. The camps are marked by makeshift tents, overcrowding, and a lack of basic services. Dr. Lynne Jones, Co-Director of the IIHA Mental Health in Complex Emergencies course, recently volunteered in Calais and the IIHA highlighted her experience in a blog post in late November 2015. Dr. Alexander van Tulleken, IIHA Helen Hamlyn Senior Fellow, also recently spoke about his time in the Calais Jungle in his documentary, Frontline Doctors: Winter Migrant Crisis and reflected upon the experience in the article, What Should We Do? Contradictions and Complicity in the European Refugee Crisis. As the IIHA continues its Spring 2016 Event Series, Challenges and Opportunities: Migration in the 21st Century, we encourage you to comment on this pressing issue, and engage with the questions below.


  • What should the role of the French government be in The Jungle?

  • How can they reconcile the fact that many inhabitants of The Jungle do not want to become part of the French system?

  • Are governments responsible for governing and providing basic infrastructure to people who arrive at their shores?

Please feel free to comment below, or share with your colleagues and networks to start a conversation!


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