A Once-Unthinkable Proposal for Refugee Camps

A political scientist has suggested closed camps on Western soil. Only the awfulness of the status quo makes them worth considering.

A woman walks hand in hand with her son in the middle of some tents in a camp run by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Maicao, Colombia, on May 7, 2019.
A camp run by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Maicao, Colombia, on May 7, 2019 (Luisa Gonzalez / Reuters)

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

Tens of millions of people have been forced to flee their home country in recent years to escape war, famine, deadly persecution, or natural disaster. These refugees spark political controversy wherever they arrive in large numbers. For that reason, governments in Europe, North America, and Oceania have differed on how many refugees they are willing to resettle. Even Angela Merkel, who helped make Germany the Western country with the biggest population of recent refugees, found that the public’s openness was quickly exhausted.

Countless thousands suffer. They drown while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. They die in the Sahara desert. They die trying to cross into Mexico. They are kidnapped and sold into slavery. They die at home because they are too poor to attempt escape. With no foreseeable end to the flow of refugees determined to reach wealthy countries, where voters are growing less rather than more willing to welcome them, more tragedy is assured. And liberal humanitarians concede that their reform efforts are not working.

“The UN Global Compact on Refugees … failed to deliver meaningful change,” Amnesty International lamented last year. The final text of the compact, which aimed to improve the international community’s response to mass forcible displacement, was notably unambitious: a shameful blueprint for responsibility shirking. The compact will not change the situation for Rohingya refugees newly arrived in Bangladesh, or a generation of Somali youths born in refugee camps in Kenya, or refugees stuck in illegal and devastating limbo on the island of Nauru for the past five years. For sub-Saharan Africa, now hosting 31 percent of the global refugee population, it will provide no relief.

What is to be done?

The political scientist Eric Kaufmann argues for a controversial alternative in his recently published book, Whiteshift, a researched inquiry into how migration and demographic change are affecting politics and culture in Western societies.

Rather than settling refugees in Western countries to live alongside citizens, who will tolerate a population far smaller than the total number of people in danger, he favors building permanent, closed refugee camps on Western soil that accommodate anyone who wants to come. Refugees would have the right to move to another refugee camp or to return to their home country, but would not have the right to enter the host country. Governments would draw a bright line distinguishing refugees from migrants.

Some critics liken permanent camps to putting refugees in prison, and find the notion of segregating refugees in such places to be morally noxious. Others point to the dismal conditions in many camps past and present, and doubt that future camps would be any better. Even Ireland’s comparatively generous Direct Provision program, in which refugees are semi-segregated in relatively high-quality housing, may immiserate residents by trapping them in limbo rather than letting them begin a new life in a new community, as Masha Gessen illustrates in a perhaps overcritical dispatch in The New Yorker.

Still, the status quo is so horrific that Kaufmann’s alternative merits a hearing.

The core of the problem as Kaufmann sees it:

Paradoxically, pressure to widen the rights of asylum seekers inside Europe makes it harder to fulfill the mission of getting people to safety. Why? Because if countries believe admitting refugees is the first step to granting permanent settlement, they will be more reluctant to allow them in. Claimants in the West have their cases judged increasingly harshly due to domestic political pressure to limit the number accepted for settlement. Those whose cases fail and cannot escape lack the option to remain safely in a high-quality facility. It’s estimated that thousands of genuine refugees are returned to countries where they risk being persecuted or killed.

Kaufmann proposes to eliminate that disincentive to provide refuge.

“Western publics are more likely to accept the financial burden of housing refugees on a long-term basis than accepting them as permanent settlers because they care more about the cultural impact of refugee settlement than the economic costs,” he argues. Absent cultural fears, burden-sharing among rich nations will be easier, he writes, as “countries will not be asked to alter their ethnic composition against their inhabitants’ wishes—only to contribute funds and build facilities.”

In fact, he claims, his approach would allow the world “to absorb any number of refugees without discriminating on the basis of wealth, fitness to travel and risk appetite,” as effectively happens now. “Nobody dies in transit or gets attacked or enslaved en route.” And Western governments would have less need for gatekeeping bureaucrats. “This will offer refuge, but not settlement,” he notes, “so only those genuinely fearing for their lives will remain. There would be no need to engage in the impossible task of sorting genuine refugees from economic migrants.”

Why should long-term refugee camps be unthinkable in the West, he asks, when they are already a reality in many countries that border on conflict zones? “Why is a secure camp in the West an affront to human rights while one in Turkey or Libya is not?” (I’d add: If both are an affront to human rights, isn’t it still possible that refugees currently consigned to the camps in unstable countries would be better off if the West offered a more humane version of those camps?)

In his telling, “liberal activists and judges have strained to interpret international human rights law as generously as possible to the point where someone who arrives in Europe has a path to citizenship,” but doing so only guarantees that severe limits will be imposed on the number permitted to arrive. A lucky few will be treated better at the cost of mortal danger for many more.

Kaufmann concludes that hosting refugees in the West is a good litmus test of whether liberals are more interested in helping those in need or “making the symbolic gesture of calling for more settlement—which is guaranteed to result in doors being closed.” If the latter, they will label closed facilities prisons, he writes, “agitate to have camp residents resettled and call for facilities to be closed … We’ll revert to the status quo, in which many who flee war are sent back to die, unlucky migrants drown at sea or are preyed upon by criminals, the majority languish in underfunded camps and a small group of better-off risk-takers get lucky.”

He goes on to describe what he sees as the best version of the approach he favors: “spacious permanent migrant centers across the full range of EU countries, alongside free transportation from conflict areas,” cutting deaths at sea, expanding refuge, and improving overall conditions among migrant facilities.

“The optimal scenario is one in which every refugee can flee a conflict zone and be protected, housed, clothed, educated, and fed, receiving proper medical care,” he writes. “There should be recreational facilities and, ideally, an opportunity to work … This should be paid for by the international community, through either charities or contributions from wealthier countries.”

This is, he concludes, where the attention of Western social-justice campaigners should be focused. “The current approach is dangerous. Erasing the line between refuge and settlement makes it more likely countries will bar the door the way they did in 1939.” Would the alternative he proposes end up being better or worse?

For a critique of Kaufmann’s proposal, I contacted the Danish Refugee Council, an international humanitarian organization with 7,000 staffers and 8,000 volunteers who work in conflict areas, along transit routes, and in countries where refugees settle. Its stated aim: “a dignified life for all displaced.” Its stated methods: “In cooperation with local communities, we strive for responsible and sustainable solutions. We work toward successful integration and—whenever possible—for the fulfillment of the wish to return home.”

In response to a summary of Kaufmann’s proposal almost identical to the one that began this article, the organization forwarded the following comments, attributing them to Solveig Als, a policy adviser under the external-relations secretariat.

She began by noting that “unfortunately, Kaufmann is not alone in his belief that––as opposed to safeguarding safety, dignity and well-being of people affected by conflict––reducing rights and containing refugees either in Europe or outside Europe is the only way forward to avoid further fueling right-wing populism,” adding that “this is also true for current policy developments at the EU level, where containment policies and deterrence measures are reflected across asylum and migration policy proposals under the Common European Asylum Reform.”

Still, she argued, Kaufmann’s policy proposal is at odds with international norms that nearly 200 countries have embraced in refugee-policy negotiations:

First and foremost, an encampment policy—which appears as the cornerstone and key premise of Kaufmann’s proposal—is in direct contradiction to the new international consensus on the need to move away from containment, care and maintenance towards self-reliance and dignified lives for refugee families.

This shift towards self-reliance and out-of-camp policy is core to the recently adopted Global Compact for Refugees, which was developed over 18 months through intensive consultations and discussions among UN Member States, experts, civil society and refugees, and approved by overwhelming majority (181 UN Member States) in December last year. This remarkable political consensus that refugees and host communities are better off when refugees become included and productive members of society stands in stark contrast to the author’s hypothesis that segregation is a political necessity.

She went on to offer three additional critiques. First, right now, “long-term closed refugee camps is not the general trend in countries bordering conflicts.”

Second, countries have shifted toward housing refugees outside of camps, because evidence suggests that this helps them succeed if and when they return home:

Skilled, knowledgeable, empowered individuals and families stand a much better chance to successfully reintegrate. Returnees, especially after years and sometimes decades in displacement, do not merely have the task of resuming their lives prior to displacement; they must reinvent their lives … Old skills and livelihood strategies may no longer apply. Trauma and loss may well be associated with the return. Hence, it is important to promote a high quality of asylum where displaced persons are not merely offered ‘care & maintenance,’ but are offered opportunities to build capacities and develop skills.

Third, she offered, the Danish Refugee Council is concerned about the detention and force that the proposed “closed camp” approach is likely to entail:

While Kauffmann [sic] describes the camps as ideally spacious spaces with recreational activities and potentially opportunities to work, all evidence and experience with closed facilities for asylum seekers and refugees demonstrate that such an out-of-sight policy contributes to creating zones of exception in which violations of fundamental rights are more likely to occur. No real-life evidence suggests that pro-longed encampment is sustainable. Neither for refugees who will be forced to live in uncertainty and limbo, nor for hosting countries which will experience the effects of frustrated refugee communities.

These are formidable objections, and I sent them to Kaufmann hoping for a rebuttal. On the matter of European Union policy, he noted that while it is moving in the direction he proposes in his book, “it is important to note that containment is currently being offshored to Turkey and Libya, which do not maintain Western standards of care, and in Libya’s case even endanger the safety of the refugees. So this is sub-optimal from a human security standpoint.” He believes that EU countries ought to be administering those camps within their borders.

As for the rest, he stated that the position of the international human-rights community would benefit a minority of people needing refuge at the expense of the most needy:

I accept that containment is not ideal in terms of the lives of refugees. But many people in the world are also living lives that aren’t what I would wish for. Malnutrition, corruption, gang violence and other scourges blight their lives.

We have an obligation to keep people safe, healthy and educated, but, cruel as this sounds, not to provide them with a western-standard life. I still believe in holding out hope, which is why I recommend that countries select, by lottery, a fixed number of refugees for settlement each year. This should not be treated as a legal obligation, however.

Indeed, containment is the only way we can win acceptance among a wider range of countries for a refugee programme that pays to move people to safety in a secure way (not on flimsy rafts) in unlimited numbers. If another wave of refugees tries to reach Europe next time, it is guaranteed they will be turned away. What then? I would rather all people be safe than for a lucky few to settle while the least mobile suffer or die. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

It may be, if Steven Pinker is right, that the number of civil wars continues to decline. If numbers are moderate, I’d support the idea of allowing refugees to live and work in a society, so long as there is public support for the programme. The issue, however, is that if this comes to mimic a western life, large numbers of others will arrive, overwhelming the system. Perhaps a numerical cap could allow it to operate. For me, the key principle is to save an unlimited number of lives. Blurring the line between refuge and settlement poses a great danger to that principle, much as it did in World War II.

After pondering this exchange, I felt more informed about the risks and trade-offs of a Western push for a greatly expanded system of closed camps versus efforts to resettle more refugees in host nations. But I reached no definitive judgment on which approach would turn out better.

Adherents of the Kaufmann approach can’t be sure that deteriorating conditions in closed camps would be met with embarrassment and reform rather than the vilification of the people trapped inside. And those who believe the Danish Refugee Council model is best suited to today’s circumstances would do well to imagine a possible future in which exponentially more people seek refuge, whether due to rising sea levels or crop failures or a global pandemic disease or a regional, or even world, war. What system would best serve the world in those circumstances, and how, if at all, should the answer to that question inform the system we operate today?

What Kaufmann and the Danish Refugee Council have in common is a determination to draw attention to an ongoing crisis, largely out of sight, that is costing the lives of innocents right now, even in a world with plenty of space and resources to protect them all.