Prolonged Encampments

Compiled by:
Leonellha Barreto Dillon (cewas)

Executive Summary

Although there is a common perception that refugee situations are a temporary phenomenon, it has become clear that protracted refugee situations are not exceptions, but quickly becoming the norm (HUNTER 2009). Residence in camps should never be considered a durable solution and it should constitute a temporary response to a situation of displacement (IOM, NRC and UNHCR 2015). However, many of the protracted refugee situations involve the confinement of the displaced to camps, where they have little freedom of movement and have few opportunities to establish sustainable livelihoods (RCOA 2016). Many camps for refugees and/or Internally Displaced People (IDPs) have been functioning for decades, the most notorious, among others, are the Palestinian camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria (in operation since 1948), the Shagarab camp for Eritreans in Sudan (in operation since 1968) as well as Dadaab and Kakuma in Kenya (in operation since 1991 and 1992) (UNHCR 2006). This factsheet describes the typical scenario of a prolonged encampment and its link to protracted refugee situations.

Understanding Protracted Refugee Situations

UNHCR defines a protracted refugee situation as one in which “refugees find themselves in a long-lasting and tractable state of limbo. Their lives may not be at risk, but their basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled following many years in exile. A refugee in this situation is often unable to break free from enforced reliance on external assistance” (UNHRC 2004). For monitoring purposes, a protracted refugee situation is described as one where “25’000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five or more years in a given asylum country” (UNHRC 2004). Based on this definition, it is estimated that by the end of 2015, some 6.7 million refugees were in a protracted situation, living in 27 host countries worldwide (UNHCR 2016c), with an average duration in exile of around 17 years (BETTS and OMATA 2015).
The defining characteristics of a protracted refugee situation is that the displaced communities have moved beyond the emergency phase, in which the focus lies on life-saving protection and assistance, but at the same time cannot expect a durable solution in the near future (UNHCR 2006). According to UNHCR (2016a), repatriation to the country of origin, integration in the country of asylum or resettlement to a third country are the three types of durable solutions that should be sought to end displacement, thereby enabling refugees to live their lives in dignity and peace (UNHCR 2016a). However, as the conflicts that have caused the displacement remain or even intensify over time, these options do not materialise and thus lengthen the refugee situation and pose serious challenges to the current refugee assistance policies (HUNTER 2009).

Link Between Protracted Refugee Situations and Prolonged Encampment 

Protracted refugee situations occur, when the problematic situations in the country of origin do not improve and the host country follows strict policies of non-integration. This causes the refugee situation to become stagnant or even to exacerbate (adapted from JAMAL 2003, UNHCR 2004 and SYTNIK 2012). Although Camps should always be considered a last resort solution, host governments may insist upon the establishment of camps for reasons of public order or security (UNHCR 2014). Furthermore, camps are seen as an essential part of UNHCR’s operational response, as they can facilitate the rapid provision of protection and life-saving assistance in the event of a large-scale refugee influx (UNHCR 2014). 

Characteristics of Prolonged Encampment of Displaced Communities

An increasing numbre of host states respond to protracted refugee situations by containing refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in designated, isolated and often insecure camps. These camps are frequently located in border regions or far away from the governing regime and the residents are often restricted from seeking to leave the camps for employment or education (UNHCR 2006). This trend, recently termed the ‘warehousing’ of refugees, has significant human rights and economic implications (SMITH 2004).

Just like any camp, prolonged encampments are originally initiated as a provisional solution to an emergency situation, where incoming displaced communities are provided with temporary shelter until their home country recovers from an ongoing war or natural disaster. With increased duration of the exile, many hope for repatriation or asylum status in a third country. However, such processes can take years and in the meantime, the camps develop into actual settlements with hospitals, schools, recreation centres and, at times, even municipalities and legal offices.

Once the emergency period is over and camps enter the “care and maintenance phase” (see factsheet on Camps), refugees and IDPs usually experience a decline in assistance, changes in the ration distribution and visits of dignitaries, which often creates resentment and conflicts towards the camp management and aid system (adapted from ABDI 2005). The situation is aggravated by the infringement of the refugees’ and IDPs' freedom of movement, that impedes them from seeking employment (adapted from ABDI 2005). This might isolate them from the economic system and society (SYTNIC 2012). (Nevertheless, it is important to notice that even where restricted, the displaced often find ways to leave the camps to find a job, to trade, to explore repatriation options, to visit the city or even to move there (DEADORFF 2009)).

Declining donor support for long-standing displaced populations in host countries is also a characteristic of prolonged encampment settings. “The lack of donor support has also reinforced the perception of refugees as a burden on host states, which now argue that the displaced people put additional pressure on the environment, civil services, infrastructure and the local economy” (UNHCR 2006). Furthermore, as humanitarian organisations count with less funds for the maintenance of the camps, the quality of the provision of services beyond the emergency phase often decline (ABDI 2005).

Some examples of prolonged encampment include:

Burj el- Shemali: this is a settlement located 3 km east of the city Tyre in Lebanon, established temporarily in 1948 after the First Arab-Israeli War, in order to host Palestinian refugees. According to UNRWA (2016), there are more than 19’500 registered refugees in Burj el-Shemali today, who live in houses constructed with cement, although many structures still feature zinc roofs. Thanks to the European Union, the settlement is now serviced with water supply, sewerage and drainage systems. Unemployment is very high but some men have found seasonal work in agriculture, construction and other manual labour while some women work in agriculture and as cleaners (UNRWAITALUA 2016).

  MITCHEL (2008).

Burj el-Shemali camp, Lebanon. Source: MITCHEL (2008). 

Marka Refugee Camp: this is one of the six emergency camps erected to shelter 15’000 Palestinian refugees and internally displaced people who left the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Located in the Marka District, 10 km northeast of Amman, the settlement is known as Hittin or Schneller and houses 44’879 Palestinian refugees. United Nations Relief and Works Agency runs health, education, community-based rehabilitation, relief and social services as well as programs specifically designed for women (UNRWA 2016).

   MUYENJE, H. / UNRWA (2013).

Marka Camp. Source: MUYENJE, H. / UNRWA (2013). 

Dadaab Camp (North Eastern Province of Kenya): this is the name given to a collection of three camps (Hagadera, Ifo and Dhagahley) located about 100 km from the Somali-Kenyan border. The camps were created in mid-1992 and today house a total of 321’666 registered Somali Refugees (UNHCR 2016b). “Dadaab is the biggest refugee camp in the world, the second biggest is Dollo Ado camp in Ethiopia, which also hosts mainly Somali refugees, numbering about 210’000. Dadaab was initially established as a temporary haven for some 90’000 refugees fleeing the 1991 clan-fighting in Somalia. It is now a sprawling, bustling complex of five camps, boasting makeshift cinemas and soccer leagues, thriving businesses, schools, hospitals, even a graveyard; more city than camp” (MUNGAI 2016).

   TRENCHARD, T / WALL STREET JOURNAL (2016). 

A young refugee looks at murals on the wall of a beauty salon in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya. Source: TRENCHARD, T / WALL STREET JOURNAL (2016). 

Alternatives to Camps

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the lead refugee agency, published a policy on alternatives to camps with the aim to pursue alternatives, whenever possible, while ensuring that refugees are protected and assisted effectively and are able to achieve solutions (UNHCR 2014). The current UNHCR camps policy states that “where camps must be established, UNHCR will plan and implement the operational response that enables camps to be phased out at the earliest possible stage. Where this is not possible or practical, UNHCR will pursues the progressive removal of restrictions on refugees to exercise their rights and seek to build linkage between the camp and host communities and anchor the camp between the local economy, infrastructure and national social protection and service delivery systems in order to transform them into sustainable settlements” (UNHCR 2016c).

References Library

ABDI, A. (2005): In Limbo: Dependency, Insecurity, and Identity amongst Somali Refugees in Dadaab Camps.. In: Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 5, 5/7.Canada`s Journal on Refugees. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

BETTS, A.; OMATA, N. (2015): Refugee Economies.. (= RSC Research in Brief 2, October 2015). Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

DEADORFF, S. (2009): How long is too long? Questioning the Legality of Long-term Encampment through a human rights lens. Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford Department of International Development. University of Oxford. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

HUNTER, M. (2009): The Failure of Self-Reliance in Refugee Settlement. In: POLIS Journal 2, 1-46. Leeds: University of Leeds. . URL [Accessed: 19.07.2016].

IOM; NHCR; UNHCR (2015): Camp Management Toolkit. Genva: International Organization For Migration. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

JAMAL, A. (2003): Camps and Freedoms: Long-term Refugee Situations in Africa.. In: Forced Migration Review 16, 4-6. Oxford: Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

MITCHELL, M. (2015): Burj el-Shemali camp, Lebanon. Photo.. URL [Accessed: 26.08.2016].

MUMGAI, C. (2016): Larger than 11 African Capital Cities: 10 dramatic facts about Dadaab, wolrd’s biggest refugee camp. Johannesburg: Mail & Guardian Africa. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

MUYENJE, H.; UNRWA (2013): Marka Camp. Amman/Gaza Strip.. New York: UNRWA United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

RCOA (2016): Protracted Refugee Situations. Surrey Hills: Refugee Council Of Australia. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

SMITH, M.; 2004 (Editor) (): ‘Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, a Waste of Humanity’, World Refugee Survey. Washington: US Committee for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

SYTNIK, S. (2012): Right Displaced: The Effects of Long-Term Encampment n the Human Rights of Refugees. (= Refugee Law Initiative, Working Paper No. 4). London: London School of Economics and Political Science.

TRENCHARD, T.; WALL STREET JOURNAL (2016): A young refugee looks at murals on the wall of a beauty salon in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya . Photo. New York: Wall Street Jounal. URL [Accessed: 29.11.2016].

UNHCR (2016): Solutions. Geneva: United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

UNHCR (2016): Kenya – Dada. Refugees in the Horn of Africa: Somali Displacement Crisis, Information Sharing Portal. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

UNHCR (2016): Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2015. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 19.09.2016].

UNHCR (2014): Policy on Alternatives to Camps. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 14.07.2016].

UNHCR (2006): Protracted Refugee Situations: The Search for Practical Solutions.. (= The State of the World’s Refugees). Geneva: United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

UNHCR (2004): Executive Committee: Protracted Refugee Situations, Standing Committee. (= 30th Meeting, EC/54/SC/CRP.14). Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 16.11.2016].

UNRWA (2016): Where We Work – Jordan – Marka Camp. Amman/Gaza Strip: United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Geneva: United Nations Relief and Works Agency. . URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

UNWRAITALIA (2016): Where Do We Operate / Lebanon/ Burj Shemali. Roma: UNWRAITALIA. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

Further Readings Library

Reference icon

ABDI, A. (2005): In Limbo: Dependency, Insecurity, and Identity amongst Somali Refugees in Dadaab Camps.. In: Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies 5, 5/7.Canada`s Journal on Refugees. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

This article examines the situation of the 130,000 Somalis in their second decade in Dadaab camps in Kenya, with a focus on the role and responsibilities of the refugee regime and the host state. Research found that refugees’ dependency on inadequate aid is due to lack of alternative livelihoods rather than “dependency syndrome.”


Reference icon

JAMAL, A. (2003): Camps and Freedoms: Long-term Refugee Situations in Africa.. In: Forced Migration Review 16, 4-6. Oxford: Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford. URL [Accessed: 25.08.2016].

In this article Arafat Jamal analyses the situation of long-term refugee situations in Africa, proposing a new way forward “from protracted to productive”, ensuring security, self-reliance and opportunities for refugees.


Reference icon

UNHCR (2006): Protracted Refugee Situations: The Search for Practical Solutions.. (= The State of the World’s Refugees). Geneva: United Nations High Commission on Human Rights. URL [Accessed: 29.08.2016].

This think piece of UNHCR describes the nature and scope of the problem, as well as the causes and consequences of protracted refugee situations, giving examples of cases around the world. It also studies the human right, political and security implications of the protracted refugee situations, proposing strategies for a better future.


Reference icon

UNHCR (2014): Policy on Alternatives to Camps. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 14.07.2016].

This document describes the UNHCR Policy on alternatives to camp, enforced since July 22, 2014. UNHCR’s policy is to pursue alternatives to camps, whenever possible, while ensuring that refugees are protected and assisted effectively and are able to achieve solutions. The policy is directed primarily towards UNHCR staff members and those responsible for the development of protection, programme and technical policies, standards, guidance, tools and training that support such activities.


Case Studies Library

Reference icon

UNHCR (2006): The State of the World’s Refugees. In: RCOA (2016): Protracted Refugee Situations. Surrey Hills. URL [Accessed: 19.10.2016].

As of 2006, approximately 103,000 Bhutanese Lhotshampas have been living in refugee camps in southeastern Nepal due to regional tensions between Nepal, Bhutan, and Indian since 1990. The Lhotshampas are descendent of the Nepalese and suffered under a series of ethno-nationalist politics in the 1980s introduced in Bhutan to restrict Lhotshampas rights in terms of citizenship, dress code, admission to schools, and permission to sell cash crops. Following large-scale protest and subsequent military intervention in 1990, the authorities expelled all Lhotshampas who could not prove they were living in Bhutan prior to 1958. They sought refuge in Nepal and the West Bengal state of India and since this time, have been confined in seven refugee camps in south-east Nepal. Although the standard of living in the camp is relatively high due to a donation of about $20 million per year, there is considerable frustration among refugees about their prolonged exile, particularly in young people. Integration into the local community remains low although the local population benefits from the cheap labour, access to more goods on the market and also make use of health care services available in the Lhotshampas camps. Resolution of the situation has proved difficult to resolve. In 2001, Nepal and Bhutan agreed on a joint nationality-verification process, which only included representatives of the respective governments and not the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. This process has been heavily criticized and plagued by problems. For example, 70% of the refugees were verified as having voluntarily migrated from Bhutan although the refugees themselves claim they were forced to sign such forms. UNHCR has also been involved in an integration initiative together with the government of Nepal Update to the case: Das Shrestha, D., (2015): Resettlement of Bhutanese Refugees surpasses 100,000 mark. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL: http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2015/11/564dded46/resettlement-bhutanese-refugees-surpasses-100000-mark.html http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2015/11/564dded46/resettlement-bhutanese-refugees-surpasses-100000-mark.html [Accessed 20.10.2016] In the intervening time, UNHCR has successfully resettled all but 18,000 of the 108,000 Lhotshampas refugees. A core group of countries came together in 2007 to accept refugees into their countries: Australia (5,554), Canada (6,500), Denmark (874), New Zealand (1002), the Netherlands (556), the Untied Kingdom (358), and the United States (84,819). As UNCHR representative, Craig Sanders stated, this has been the largest and most successful resettlement program conducted to date by the UNHCR with nine out of ten refugees having been resettled.


Reference icon

LOESCHER, G.; MILNER, J. ; NEWMAN, E.; TROELLER, G. (2008): Protracted refugee situations: Political, Human Rights, and Security Implications. Tokyo: United Nations University Press. URL [Accessed: 20.10.2016].

In the case of the Somali refugees, opposition to the regime of Mohamad Siyaad in the 1980s in Somali which led rise to intense fighting in 1988 caused 400,000 Somalis to flee into Ethiopia and Djibouti. Further civil war displaced half of the population in Somalia in 1991-1992. Although many returned home with the assistance of the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 400,000 Somalis still in remain in exile. These refugees’ face ongoing instability and conflict, famine and disease. The causes of the ongoing Somali refugee crises are deep, complex and diverse including the legacy of authoritarian clannism, state collapse, failed peace processes, a history of irredentism, and the rise of political Islam and Islam jihadism and the security consequence of the ‘war or terror’. At international and regional levels, steps have been taken in recent years to address the causal factors of the ongoing crises to provide frameworks for addressing the problem for repatriation, strengthening protection, and resettlement.


Important Weblinks

www.unhcr.org [Accessed: 28.08.2016]

This is the official web site of the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, containing key and up-to date information about the status of refugees worldwide, as well as multiple publications and resources.

www.data.unhcr.org [Accessed: 26.08.2016]

This is the information management toolkit of the UNHCR. It provides up-to- date information about the UNHCR and partners’ response to the current emergencies and other protracted refugee crises.

www.unrwa.org [Accessed: 16.08.2016]

This is the official web site of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). It contains key information about the status of Palestinian refugees, the situation in the camps and latest trends.

storymaps.esri.com/stories/2013/refugee-camps/

This is an interactive map containing key facts about the fifty most populous refugee camps around the world. The site is operated by Digital Globe, ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute, California).

http://www.fmreview.org [Accessed: 30.08.2016]

Forced Migration Review (FMR) is the most widely read publication on forced migration – available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic, and free of charge in print and online. It is published by the Refugee Studies Centre in the Oxford Department of International Development, University of Oxford.

www.rsc.ox.ac.uk [Accessed: 30.08.2016]

This is the web site of the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) of the University of Oxford, which was founded in 1982 with the mission of building knowledge and understanding of forced migration in order to help improve the lives of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.