Refugee camps are temporary facilities built to provide immediate protection and assistance to people who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution or violence. While camps are not established to provide permanent solutions, they offer a safe haven for refugees and meet their most basic needs such as food, water, shelter, medical treatment and other basic services during emergencies.
In situations of long-term displacement, the services provided in camps are expanded to include educational and livelihood opportunities as well as materials to build more permanent homes to help people rebuild their lives. These services are also offered to host communities.
Within the first 72 hours after a new emergency, the UN Refugee Agency mobilizes response teams to assess the situation and coordinate with government authorities a “safe humanitarian space” that guarantees the safety of the people being forced to flee - in rural settings this is often a camp.
The criteria for a safe humanitarian space includes the following:
A well-designed camp should protect the environment and help prevent fires and outbreaks of disease. Food, water access points and latrines should be properly lit and near shelters so as to protect women and girls against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and facilities should offer refugees the possibility to access the local economy, infrastructure and services of the host community.
The average length of time that refugees spend in camps varies depending on the crisis. In protracted refugee situations - where mass displacement has affected a country for five years or more -, refugees may spend years and even decades living in camps and it is common to have entire generations growing up in the camps.
In these situations, UNHCR provides more durable, semi-permanent shelter and works with communities to build those that best meet local conditions and needs. Services are also expanded to include educational and livelihood opportunities to help refugee families rebuild their lives.
No, the vast majority of refugees (approximately 78 percent) live in cities. While urban locations offer more opportunities to live autonomously and find employment, they also pose major challenges as refugees are often forced to share accommodation or live in non-functional public buildings, collective centers, slums or other types of informal settlements with substandard living conditions.
There are refugee camps all over the world. Many of these camps were built quickly to serve the immediate needs of those forced to flee, but have grown to host hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Some of the world's largest refugee camps are: Kutupalong-Balukhali expansion site (Bangladesh), Bidi Bidi refugee camp (Uganda), Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps (Kenya), Azraq and Zaatari refugee camps (Jordan), Nyarugusu, Nduta, and Mtendeli refugee camps (Tanzania) and Kebribeyah; Aw-barre and Sheder refugee camps (Ethiopia).
Kutupalong Expansion Site (Bangladesh)
The Kutupalong refugee settlement, located in the Cox’s Bazar region of Bangladesh, is currently the world’s largest refugee camp -- more than half the population are children. It includes approximately 26 camps that host more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees who fled violence and serious human rights violations in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The majority of the Rohingya refugees hosted at the camp arrived in September 2017 joining 200,000 other Rohingya who had fled in previous years. The rate of new arrivals has significantly decreased since the mass influx of arrivals in August 2017.
Bangladesh, including the district of Cox's Bazar, is the second most natural disaster-prone country in Asia and its coastal area is also exposed to cyclones. Overcrowded conditions at the camp place a strain on infrastructure and exacerbate the risks of flooding and landslides, especially during the monsoon season that runs from May to October each year. In response, the UN Refugee Agency has focused on reinforcing shelters, relocating families in high-risk areas and training thousands of refugees in rescue and first-aid techniques.
Bidibidi refugee settlement (Uganda)
Uganda is one of the largest host countries for refugees, hosting more than one million refugees and asylum-seekers from neighboring countries. One of the primary refugee camps in the country is the Bidibidi refugee settlement, which accommodates more than 200,000 individuals. Bidibidi was established in 2016 to respond to the influx of refugees who were fleeing war in South Sudan. In 2017, it was the world’s largest refugee camp and reached maximum capacity, limiting its ability to accept new intakes.
Securing essential aid such as food, shelter and clean water has been a challenge for Bidibidi since its establishment. There are very few clean water sources available to refugees and the local host community, forcing many refugees to collect water from unprotected sources or to travel long distances for safe water. To meet this need, the UN Refugee Agency built a solar-powered borehole. This borehole expanded the availability of clean water and allowed for water pumping stations to be built throughout the camp. In December 2020, refugees in Bidibidi were receiving an average of five gallons of water per person each day.
Kakuma Refugee camp (Kenya)
Kakuma refugee camp, located in northwestern Kenya, was established in 1992 to accommodate approximately 20,000 unaccompanied Sudanese children - also known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan”- who became uprooted during Sudan’s civil war in 1987. Today, the camp has expanded to host some 100,000 South Sudanese and 55,000 Somali refugees as well as refugees from countries all over the sub-Saharan Africa region, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Burundi, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda. Kakuma consists of four camps and the Kalobeyei settlement, which is an extension of Kakuma opened in December 2013 to manage new arrivals.
Conditions in Kakuma and the host communities are difficult as both communities face widespread poverty and poor living conditions, with more than 68 percent of the population highly food insecure. Despite the situation, Kakuma youth are determined to succeed and students regularly outperform the Kenyan national averages, passing national examinations with a pass rate of 88 percent compared to the country’s 76 percent average.
Dadaab refugee complex (Kenya)
Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya hosts nearly half of the country’s refugees and includes three camps: Dagahaley, Ifo and Hagadera. The majority of refugees in these camps arrived in Dadaab in 1991 after fleeing Somalia’s civil war.
Za’atari refugee camp (Jordan)
Located in northern Jordan, Za’atari is the world’s largest camp for Syrian refugees. It was established in 2012 to accommodate people fleeing Syria’s civil war and reached a peak of more than 150,000 people within the first year of its construction. Over 20,000 births have been recorded in Za’atari camp since its opening.
Today, Za’atari hosts more than 80,000 Syrian refugees and has evolved into an informal city that includes 32 schools, 58 community centers, and eight health facilities that operate alongside civil defense and community police. From cell phone stores to restaurants—refugees have set up almost 1,800 shops and businesses within the camp. Efforts to support refugees at the camp also include education and livelihood programs as well as the construction of the largest solar plant ever built in a refugee camp.
Despite the continued growth of Za’atari, the long-term sustainability of the camp has become a major concern a decade after construction. Most caravans, which replaced tents in 2013, are now in need of urgent repair. 70 percent of wall conditions in Za’atari are considered sub-standard and 7,000 refugees requested support for maintenance of roofs and windows in 2021 alone. Additionally, two thirds of refugee families in Za’atari camp are in debt with 92 percent of families reducing food intake or accepting high-risk jobs to make ends meet.
With no immediate solution to the Syrian conflict and humanitarian conditions deteriorating at a worrying pace, long-term solutions for all Syrian refugees in Jordan and beyond must be found.
Azraq Refugee Camp (Jordan)
Azraq camp was opened in April 2014 to receive the large influx of Syrian refugees that arrived in Jordan seeking safe haven. It is located in a desert area in northern Jordan and one of the early challenges when it first opened was the lack of electricity, which made daily activities -such as cooking, washing, studying or walking safely at night- difficult for refugees. In 2017, the UN Refugee Agency, in partnership with the Ikea Foundation, constructed a solar plant to address these challenges and significantly improve their wellbeing. It became the first solar plant built in a refugee setting in the world.
Through the years, efforts to support people at the camp have also included the provision of shelter, healthcare, food, clean water, sanitation services as well as educational and livelihood opportunities. More than 80 percent of refugee children at Azraq camp are enrolled in school and more than 350 formal shops owned equally by refugees and the host community have opened to provide livelihood opportunities and self-reliance.
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