USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

Refugee Warehousing

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is refugee “warehousing?” 
2. Isn't refugee status temporary? Why not wait for repatriation or resettlement?
3. What does the “right to work” mean?
4. What about property ownership?
5. What is meant by “freedom of movement?”
6. What is the difference between enjoying these rights and “local integration?”
7. What happens when refugee status is over? Do refugees have to go home?
8. Should refugees in camps get assistance?
9. Some refugees say they want to be in camps. Should we support them in this?
10. Are refugee camps “terrorist breeding grounds?”
11. What if locals discriminate against refugees in the markets?
12. Are you saying that the UN, UNHCR, UNRWA, and the U.S. have been doing the wrong thing for 30 years?
13. What would UNHCR’s role be if warehousing were ended?
14. Does granting refugees their rights let the refugee-generating, human rights-violating countries off the hook?
15. What about the burden shifting from wealthy countries to countries of first asylum, poorer countries?


1.  What is refugee “warehousing?”


Warehousing is a term used to describe the practice of depriving millions of refugees worldwide of their rights to work, practice professions, run businesses, own property, move about freely, or choose their place of residence. International standards (including 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and other instruments) grant refugees the rights necessary to live in dignity as they await durable solutions.  In practice, however, millions of people forced to flee war and persecution end up spending years and decades in refugee camps, where they are not allowed to work, move freely, or otherwise pursue a decent life. 

Deprived of their rights, generations of refugees exist in forced idleness.  This lifestyle is particularly difficult for children, who make up almost half of the world’s refugees.  Dependent on humanitarian assistance, warehoused refugees live without hope for a better tomorrow.  For more information, read "Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, a Waste of Humanity." 

2.  Isn’t refugee status temporary?  Why not wait for repatriation or resettlement?

Millions of refugees have been waiting for repatriation and third-country resettlement for decades.  We vigorously promote these durable solutions but recognize that they can be difficult to achieve.  They often require fundamental regime change in source countries and greater political will to resettle refugees in third countries.  Instead of keeping refugees like captives in camps with their lives on hold as they await a long-term solution, let’s work together to ensure that they live like dignified, free human beings.

Refugees who are self-supporting and acquire marketable skills are likely to resettle more easily and repatriate more productively than those kept idle. Would enjoying their rights while in exile make refugees less willing to return?  Perhaps.  But if country conditions really change in a positive direction, they may have no legal choice.  A more crucial situation would be if conditions were so deliberately bad in host countries that refugees were forced to return prematurely, essentially refouled-- back in the hands of their persecutors.

3.  What does the “right to work” mean?

The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees doesn’t guarantee anyone a job; it merely says that refugees should have the right to work on par with nationals.  This includes not only wage-based employment but also self-employment, professional work, running businesses, and owning property.  In the first three years of a refugee’s stay, the Convention authorizes some restrictions, in order to protect the national labor market, but prohibits restrictions if the refugee marries a national, has a child who is a national, or is in the country for more than three years.  Parties to the Convention must grant treatment “as favourable as possible” to refugees seeking to practice professions or to run businesses in the host country.

4.  What about property ownership?

The Convention also requires treatment “as favorable as possible” to refugees seeking to own, to lease, or to acquire other rights to moveable and immovable property.  These rights are vital if refugees are to rise above wage labor and have the chance to farm, to run businesses, and to practice professions. 

The right to hold a legal title affects farmers’ access to credit.  Farmers are especially dependent on credit, both short-term (seeds, fertilizer and other inputs) and long-term (equipment).  Only a legal title can serve as collateral for such credit; non-transferable access rights cannot.

5.  What is meant by “freedom of movement?”

Freedom of movement (Article 26) includes the right to choose one’s place of residence and to move freely within the territory of the host country.  Freedom of movement allows refugees to choose where to live and is connected to their right to earn a livelihood (i.e., to go where the jobs are, to travel and transport goods from sources to markets, etc.).

The Convention also provides for international travel (Article 28) via Travel Documents.  The right to travel internationally depends upon destination countries granting visas and honoring other Convention rights.  The Convention’s intention is for refugees to take up residence in other countries providing that, if they do so, the new host country becomes the one responsible for issuing such documents.  At present, Travel Documents are rare and the visas to travel on them are limited.

6.  What is the difference between enjoying these rights and “local integration?”

Local integration is one of UNHCR’s three “durable solutions” and it requires a host country to grant refugees permanent status as citizens.  When citizenship status is granted, they are no longer refugees.  Many countries are reluctant to grant citizenship to large numbers of refugees.  Fortunately, the Convention does not require this.  It only requires hosts to allow them the freedom to live decently while they await durable solutions.

7.  What happens when refugee status is over? Do refugees have to go home?

Cessation of refugee status and its determination are not functions of warehousing or of refugee rights.  In any event, when status ends, refugees may be obliged to return.

8.  Should refugees in camps get assistance?

Yes.  In fact, it is imperative to assist persons who do not have the right to support themselves.  But making assistance conditional on confinement creates a population of refugees who are dependent on aid and creates perverse incentives to warehouse for aid dollars.  Instead, USCRI recommends that the international community allow refugees to stand on their own feet as soon as possible.  When host countries honor refugees’ basic rights and promote self-sufficiency, they can avoid indefinite warehousing.   

There may be legitimate reasons, particularly in emergencies, in which camps are appropriate.  But the international community should not assume that camps are the only solution.  Sometimes, local communities can host refugees without international interference (and still be eligible for compensation from the international community).

9.  Some refugees say they want to be in camps.  Should we support them in this?

Refugees might say that they want to be in camps because they are not allowed to engage in livelihoods outside of their camps or because the assistance they receive is restricted to the camp in which they live.  In this context, it is wrong to say that refugees “want” to be in camps.  USCRI supports life-saving assistance to refugees wherever they are and does not ask them to trade their rights for food.

10.  Are refugee camps “terrorist breeding grounds?”

Not generally.  Camps can serve as recruiting grounds for guerillas and warehouses for their family members. When this is the case, camps make many violent struggles more intractable. Whatever the merits of their particular causes, it is not the business of the international humanitarian community to subsidize them.

11.  What if locals discriminate against refugees in the markets?

The Convention asserts that States shall apply its provisions without regards to race, religion, or country of origin.  This may not cover every act of discrimination by private actors, but it is important to keep in perspective: few practices are more discriminatory against refugees than warehousing itself.
 
12.  Are you saying that the UN, UNHCR, UNRWA, and the U.S. have been doing the wrong thing for 30 years?

These international actors are not ill-intentioned.  They are political entities limited by the political will of states and other actors; some are unimaginative and stuck in a rut through self-limiting aid structures and institutional self-interests.  But civil society also plays a role in creating political will favorable to refugees’ rights.  It is our duty to offer creative solutions and to point out dilemmas in the status quo.  UNHCR has made progress in addressing warehousing recently.  View USCRI's Recent Progress page >>
 
13.  What would UNHCR’s role be if warehousing were ended?

Protection.  UNHCR’s original mandate was to ensure that refugees enjoy all the rights of the Convention.  UNHCR could take on a new role, as well: to act as a broker between host governments and donors.  It is the international community’s responsibility to make whole poor host countries that honor the Convention for any expenses they incur (e.g., due to refugee exercise of the rights to public education, public assistance, access to courts, etc.).  UNHCR could ensure that refugees actually enjoy these rights, calculate the costs to the host government, and present credible bills to donors for reimbursement of the host government.
 
14.  Does granting refugees their rights let the refugee-generating, human rights-violating countries off the hook?

All humane solutions for refugees, other than repatriation, can be construed as taking a “problem” off the hands of offending governments.  We advocate for refugees’ rights because human beings are ends in themselves and not means to other ends.  Refugees should be free to lead normal lives.  Politicians and governments should not use refugees as props or waste their lives just to make a point.
 
15.  What about the burden shifting from wealthy countries to countries of first asylum, poorer countries?

We reject the notion that free human beings are “burdens” to anyone.  Of course, some refugees may not be able to support themselves and may require extra support.  In such cases, the international community should compensate host governments for its expenses.

If signatories fully uphold the Convention and if appropriate travel documents are issued, refugees can move freely and be agents of regional economic integration, rather than settling only in neighboring countries. 

For more information, read "Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, a Waste of Humanity" >>

Read personal stories from refugees around the world >>

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