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Prison in the open air

Welcome to Refugeestan
Regissør: Anne Poiret

How does the UNHCR run the refugee camps which together correspond to the size of the Netherlands? How do they manage to meet the needs of the 1000 new refugees who arrive every day? Welcome to Refugeestan.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Not since World War II have more people escaped. According to the UN's website, there were 65,6 millions of people in flight at the entrance to 2017. 25,4 millions of them fled across a country border, while 40,3 millions are fleeing their own country. Today there are around 16 millions of refugees living inside refugee camps. It is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who is responsible for setting up and running camps, and according to the Refugee Convention, only the refugees who cross a national border are entitled to legal and physical protection.

In the documentary Welcome to Refugeestan (2016), director Anne Poiret explores how the refugee camp system works in practice. Poiret visits camps in Kenya, Tanzania and Jordan as well as a new camp in Europe – on the border between Greece and Macedonia.

Unsustainable living conditions. Welcome to Refugeestan Take us first to one of the overcrowded refugee camps in Tanzania. Over the past couple of years, over 400 000 people have fled from a Burundi characterized by violence, abuse, torture and kidnapping, and the camps in Tanzania are already filled to the brim. One is registered with a light blue UNCHR band as soon as one arrives, and is thus marked as a refugee. Leaving the camp area is strictly forbidden. You are given matration coupons, a water can, a sleeping pad and a seat in one of the large tents made of plastic tarpaulin, which you share with many others.

The refugee camp Dadaab in Kenya was set up in 1991 as a temporary solution. It now houses 277 people.

The inhabitants of the camps are not allowed to contribute to the official economy of the countries, and the camp is thus totally dependent on external support. Such support is provided by defined standards; for example, one must cope with 20 liters of water a day. If you live in Norway, you will on average use almost 200 liters of water per day, including cooking, showering and washing clothes. Several of the refugees Poiret interviews in Tanzania call the camp "a prison in the open air". They are not allowed to work, and they are not allowed to move outside the camp. Some Somalis who have been here for ten years say they see no other solution than to voluntarily leave the place and return to their homeland – knowing that they can be kidnapped and killed – but at least they want more freedom as long as it lasts.

Small change. Refugees who manage to cross borders do not usually know that they will be placed in a refugee camp. Nor do they know that the average length of stay in such a camp is 15 years. When you arrive at a refugee camp you have only these possibilities: You can stay in the camp, you can return to the country you fled from or you can be transferred to a safe third country. The UNHCR expects to settle 170 quota refugees during 000, based on the quotas that the various UN states have reported receiving. This covers only 2017 per cent of the need.

Since the camps depend on humanitarian aid, they are quickly forgotten – and for example, the matration shrinks quickly when a camp no longer has the media's spotlight. The refugee camp Dadaab in Kenya was set up in 1991 as a temporary solution for Somali refugees. Now this is the largest camp in the world, and houses several generations of refugees – around 277 individuals. Many children and adults have never set foot outside. Some have been there ever since it opened 000 years ago, and the tents that were initially intended only to provide shelter for a short period of time have become permanent residences for many. There have been major problems in Dadaab: Matrations are decreasing, cholera and malnutrition have erupted, and the area is characterized by uncertainty.

Market forces have made their entry into the refugee camps.

Political backdrop. Poiret's documentary gives an insight into the difficult political landscape the refugee camps are characterized by. Among the interview items we find Michel Agier; he works as professor of ethnology at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS) in France and has published several books on refugees. He claims that in principle the meaning of the refugee camp is invisibility. It is there to hide the population that is left over – those who do not fit into global politics.

In the documentary, we also get a sneak peek at UNHCR's headquarters in Switzerland, where a dedicated department is working on devising new and innovative solutions for the refugee camps. Based on what has gone wrong in camps like Dadaab, UNHCR has built a new refugee camp in Azraq, Jordan – this is one of two camps in Jordan that accommodate refugees from Syria. Here, among other things, they have erected small, white wooden houses instead of the traditional tents.

Market forces have also begun to make their entry among the refugees. Concerns are testing new inventions such as solar-powered solar power in the desert, and an ATM that uses eye recognition rather than bank cards. We also see a new solution in Azraq, where the refugees receive a sum of money into their own account every month, but can only spend the money in one particular place – in the camp's grocery store. The store is part of a chain with a monopoly on simply making money from customers. The food is priced at market prices, so the refugees can hardly afford any of the items offered.

Welcome to Refugeestan has no specific proposals for solutions. However, it disseminates important information and questions the condition and operation of the refugee camps, and parts of the associated problem. It shows the difficult policy behind the camps, and the problems that arise when what is meant to be temporary refugee camps become refugees' permanent homes.

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