'Refugee camps develop into cities, with an economy, a power structure and increasing violence. Camps are cities in suspense. The joy of having reached a sanctuary can boost a perspective. It can lead to action and persistence. However, in most camps life is marked by traumas and uncertainty. People sense that they have been forgotten, excluded and deprived of their rights'.
by Jan Pronk
Millions of people are living in forgotten cities. They are refugees and displaced persons, put away in camps at the margins of the modern world. Hardly ever is a camp closed down. Camps are swelling in order to offer refuge against continuing or newly emerging dangers. Generations stay for decades in one and the same camp. They are doomed to die on the same dumping-ground where they were born.
Is this acceptable? It seems to be, actually. The outside world hardly offers a perspective on a new life outside the camps, perhaps only to a few so as to secure a little order within the camps themselves. Sustaining refugee survival within camps is easier and cheaper than halting the violence which they had to escape in the first place. They receive food, plastic sheeting, bore-holes and first aid. Clinics are set up to provide mother and child care. Occasionally some children get a little schooling, mostly in the open air, without books, pens, paper, blackboard and chalk and without salaries for the teachers. Thatched huts are upgraded into slums. Camp dwellers start exchanging belongings amongst themselves. Barter develops into markets. People try to make a living through prostitution and crime. Idleness fosters addiction to alcohol and drugs. Combatants come to hide themselves for a while within the camp and recruit youngsters for their militias. People in the camps start organizing themselves.
The camps develop into cities, with an economy, a power structure and increasing violence. Camps are cities in suspense. They suffer from shortages of water and sanitation, shaky food deliveries, oscillating relief assistance, despotic rulers, lawlessness and insecurity, both around the camp and inside. The joy of having reached a sanctuary can boost a perspective. It can lead to action and persistence. However, in most camps life is marked by traumas and uncertainty. In these camps suffering abounds and life is desolate and empty. In all refugee camps, only two things determine life and thought: memories and expectations. Recollections prevail. Inside the camps everything is being relived, time and again. Bombardments and attacks are recalled and retold. Rape and killings come back to mind daily, together with the nightmares of the flight, the threats and terrors on the way, the fear not to last out. Not all refugees are able to reach safety.
In Darfur, one out of every seven refugees has been killed. The recollections go together with the hope of a future in safety, outside the camp and with expectations about life in decency. Camp dwellers long for a return to the place where they belong. They cherish the hope of reconstructing hearth and home and the desire of resuming life back home or building a new existence somewhere else. Refugees tell stories, time and again. Twenty five million refugees, and as many stories. In their stories the past prevails. But at the same time they are mesmerized by the future. People hope, without expecting much. They live between hope and desperation. A camp may seem to be a static unit of time and space, dead and empty. However, it forms part of a turbulent history, part of a life full of tenacity and yearning. Present life within the camps is a function of both the past and the future. It is the sum total of stories, memories and contemplations — nothing more and nothing less: when expectations are betrayed and hopes are dashed, there is nothing left. For refugees and displaced people in camps the present is empty, an endless repetition of nothingness: no jobs; no information; education devoid of sense; food, water, health and security in doubt — and, for the rest, waiting, just waiting, without any expectation.
People sense that they have been forgotten, excluded and deprived of their rights. They find that they are voiceless, powerless and without any perspective. This feeling is right. In the eyes of people in the world outside a refugee is a loser, irrelevant, a burden, worthless, unworthy of rights indeed. The longer the present lasts, the emptier life becomes. For millions of refugees and displaced people this is the reality of today. For them the future is a void, it means suffering. The past, on the other side, equals violence and death. The world they fled was a jungle. The camp, upon arrival, was a hiding place, an asylum and a sanctuary. However, gradually it became a dump, a junk heap and a prison. Like dumping grounds are covered with soil to put the junk out of sight, camps are wrapped up with relief to salve our conscience. Rather than offering women, children, the elderly, farmers, villagers and other civilians protection against evil powers that force them to seek refuge in a camp, the world is shielding itself from the camps with a thick layer of indifference. Rather than receiving displaced people in our midst we bury them far away from our own cities, outside our habitat, somewhere deep below the surface of a civilized society, like in dungeons where they easily are forgotten, out of sight, out of the picture, out of our minds.
The longer this lasts, the less hope flourishes — 'there is nothing left to be done' — but also there is increased bitterness, frustration and resentment. The more refugees consider themselves forgotten, the greater the chance that the violence which they escaped will be fed by camp realities. At a certain moment camp dwellers are no longer interested in a solution of the conflict back home. They may start interpreting the camp as a bulwark behind which walls they cherish their own truths. They will then give birth to offspring who have nothing to lose and only look forward renewing the fight. The resentment of such a new generation will not only be turned towards the enemy of their parents and ancestors, but against the world as a whole: 'The world has written us off, now we are going to write off the world'.