Forever Fleeing: The Refugees Time Forgot

Portrait of a Sahrawi man in Algeria, one of the oldest refugee groups in the world. This year 40 years have passed since they fled from Western Sahara. Picture: United Nation Photo, Flickr

In the wake of the refugee crisis is Europe, concerns are often voiced regarding the challenges of integrating refugees into society and the workforce, as well as counteracting physical and societal segregation. While it is clear that a lot more can be done in Europe on the issue, often many other countries have a far gloomier record. Refugees are often kept on the sidelines of society for years. Let’s take a look at some of the oldest refugee camps in existence in the world today.

Palestinians are among one of the most well known people to be settled in refugee camps for an extensive period of time. Many Palestinian refugee camps have existed since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war – over 65 years. Despite their lengthy stay, the Palestinians, and their children, are often denied citizenship by their host countries and have limited political and economic rights. Most of the camps are located in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, as well as the Gaza strip and the West Bank. Among the largest and oldest Palestinian refugee camps is Ain al-Hilweh (1948) Lebanon, and Jabalia Camp (1948) and Rafah (1949), the Gaza Strip. Conditions vary depending on the country; in Lebanon for example, they are not considered citizens, and since 2001, they are not allowed to own property. Roughly half of the Palestinian population in Lebanon live in 12 different refugee camps. Poverty is rife and the conditions miserable. In contrast, Jordan has granted most Palestinians citizenship, and they are often well integrated into society. Nevertheless, 10 camps are still in existence in Jordan, with roughly 370 000 people living there.

Of far lesser numbers, but of even older refugee status, are the people living in Cooper Camp, West Bengal, India. The over 7000 people living in this forgotten camp fled (or is a descendant of those who fled) modern-day Bangladesh after the partition of British India in 1947. This makes Cooper Camp the oldest refugee camp in India, and possibly the world. Despite this, few Indians even know of its existence, and this poverty stricken camp is even lesser known to the outside world. Here, people have lived for decades – given birth and died – waiting for the right to reside in the country. Since 1947, millions of Bangladeshi refugees have continued to seek shelter in India, but integration and acceptance is clearly lacking. Only the ones who can afford to pay bribes can obtain citizenship and own property. Anti-immigration sentiments have, from time to time, exploded with tragic consequences; as in 1983 when 2000 Bangladeshi migrants were brutally killed in the Nellie massacre, in the span of just six hours.

In Algeria we find the next refugee group; the Sahrawi people, originally from Western Sahara. Like the biblical Hebrews fleeing Egypt, they have lived for 40 years in the desert. Many of those who live in the five camps near the city of Tindouf, have been there since the war between the Sahrawi Polisario Front and Morocco, that erupted in 1975. The number of refugees currently living in these five camp is uncertain; the Algerian government puts the number at roughly 165 000, while UNHCR base their assistance programme on the figure 90 000. Regardless of their numbers, the people living in the camps live in abject poverty, with restricted job opportunities. With running water often lacking and a limited possibility of growing food on the desolate desert plain, the inhabitants largely survive on humanitarian aid. The Polisario Front have governed the camps for decades, with little involvement from the Algerian government. The humanitarian situation was worsened this October by large floods, affecting all five camps and resulting in widespread damage.

Refugees in the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand. Photo: Mikhail Esteves, Flickr

Thailand is home to the last refugee camp we’ll visit: Mae La. It is the largest camp out of nine camps in Thailand where Burmese refugees are currently seeking shelter. Mae La was established in 1984 and today it is home to over 40 000 refugees, although the exact number is uncertain. The situation for the refugees themselves is highly problematic; the camps are overcrowded and its residents impoverished. The lack of health care facilities, and their limited ability to support themselves has resulted in aid dependency. In addition, the refugees have to remain in the camp – living or working outside its borders puts them at risk of arrest and deportation back to Burma.

These four refugee groups are just a small share of the protracted refugees in the world today. Indeed, there are numerous more examples of people that have lived as refugees for decades. Clearly, this is not a new phenomenon, and while the current refugee crisis in Europe is in the spotlight, we should do well to remember the plight of the millions of refugees living indefinitely in legal limbo and poverty. And perhaps, start to increasingly question the states that host these refugees for years on end without providing asylum or integration.

Lotta Herz

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