A few years ago, I visited some of the Palestinian refugee camps scattered across Lebanon. After spending some time in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut, I travelled to Wavel -- a highly impoverished but comparatively spacious camp in the rural Beqaa valley, where a Palestinian refugee boy asked me a question: Can you see the sky in Bourj al-Barajneh? I was surprised by this question, but upon reflection realized it is perfectly reasonable. Bourj al-Barajneh is notoriously overcrowded. After more than 60 years of displacement, tents have been replaced by packed apartment blocks and narrow concrete alleyways. Without permission to expand the boundaries of the camp, residents have had to build in and up, so that there are indeed many places in Bourj where you can stand outside and yet barely see the sky.
Despite these cramped conditions, residents of Bourj al-Barajneh and other camps have opened their doors to the 36,000 Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria, but have now fled to Lebanon. Thousands of Lebanese families, many with little room to spare themselves, are sheltering scores of the 400,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon. In Jordan as well, "host families" are making a critical contribution by accommodating many of the 1.3 million refugees who have fled Syria since the uprising started in March 2011. Within Syria, the UN reports that approximately four million people are now displaced. Untold thousands have found shelter - however precarious - with extended family members, or even strangers.
These host families don't get much credit -- or support -- for their role in managing Syria's displacement crisis. Instead, all eyes are on the camps. From a humanitarian perspective, the camps are a critical last resort for those who lack the connections or financial resources to find shelter elsewhere. From a political perspective, for host countries such as Jordan, the camps keep the crisis in the spotlight and assuage the concerns of locals who feel their communities are already packed to the gills, and services are overstretched. They also send a clear message to the international community: "The refugees cannot stay here forever. But while they're here, you have to help us out."
In the absence of camps, the massive contributions host countries make to responding to displacement crises tend to be under-appreciated. Jordan, for example, is convinced it did not receive the recognition and support it deserved for accepting approximately half a million Iraqi refugees - the vast majority of whom were not pushed into camps - and seems resolved not to repeat this "mistake" with the Syrians. Lebanese leaders are struggling to sustain their policy of keeping their borders open and allowing the Syrian refugees free movement inside Lebanon, and they have floated the idea of creating UN-protected camps for the displaced within Syria.
Yet experiences from around the world have made clear that camps are a dismal option for displaced persons themselves - and for regional stability. Rather than providing dignified support and security, all too often camps become mired in poverty and become the target of attacks. Refugees and internally displaced persons do better when they have the opportunity to be integrated into host communities, pursue work, and attend school. But this is a tall order for already under-resourced communities. Since a solution to the Syrian crisis is not expected any time soon, more concerted and sustained support is needed for the host families and communities that are helping to give displaced Syrians the option of living outside camps. This means looking beyond traditional humanitarian activities like distributing food aid, tents, and health care in camps, and instead channeling support to local schools that accept displaced children, and improving health care, water, and sanitation systems in host communities whose populations have expanded.
There are fewer photo ops in this approach to Syria's displacement crisis. But ultimately, increasing support for host families and communities and minimizing the number of camps is the best avenue we have towards a more sustainable response to the exodus. With no end to the crisis in sight, the alternative is that years down the road we could well see millions of Syrians trapped in camps that have evolved into urban slums, densely packed hotbeds of discontent in which it is a struggle to see the sky.