September 28: The starvation and disease stalking the refugee camps near the Darfur region of Sudan are a reminder that for many refugees, conditions where they land are not much better than the conditions they flee. The world has 12 million refugees, and 7.4 million of them have been living in camps or settlements for more than 10 years. Many are prohibited from traveling or working, confined to crowded, squalid tents, at the mercy of marauding gangs, and utterly dependent on handouts of food insufficient to ward off hunger and on health care that does not prevent cholera and dysentery. Some people have lived in such camps for generations.
Half a million refugees from Myanmar, for example, have lived in camps in neighboring countries for 20 years, with no right to work or travel. The same is true of about 140,000 Somalis, who have lived since 1991 in closed camps in northern Kenya.
The camps are often established quickly to deal with refugee emergencies and never get dismantled. The original goal — allowing refugees to return home when conditions improve — has had the perverse effect of preventing them from establishing new lives in a new country. Countries like Pakistan, Zambia and Chad, which end up accepting the vast majority of refugees from troubled countries on their borders, would rather quarantine them than integrate them into their societies.
It is time to rethink warehousing, and refugee groups and the United Nations high commissioner for refugees have recently begun to explore how to help refugees become more self-reliant. Refugees who learn skills or earn money can be an asset to their war-torn homelands when they return.
Moreover, there are ways to open up refugee camps without angering host populations. Zambia, for example, has given Angolan refugees land to farm. The food they grow has turned sleepy villages into trading centers, fueling local commerce.
Wealthy countries need to absorb more people for permanent resettlement. Europe, shamefully, accepts only a handful. The United States has become far less welcoming over the last 10 years, and particularly since the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001. In 1992, the United States accepted
132,531 refugees; last year it was 28,422, although this year that number will almost double.
The security concerns about accepting refugees from the camps are unfounded. No terrorist would want to spend years in squalid camps and then undergo a long and uncertain vetting process simply to infiltrate the United States.
Indeed, the security threat comes from the camps’ concentration of idle, frustrated, resentful young men. Warehousing itself can breed terrorism; Afghanistan’s Taliban movement was born in the refugee camps of Pakistan.
Initially, reducing warehousing will require commitment from wealthy countries with the wherewithal to provide land, training and microcredit. That will cost more than doling out a weekly ration of rice and cooking oil. But it could reduce costs later, and it is a way to create a more promising future for millions.