After harrowing journeys, often lasting months and in life-threatening conditions, most migrants expect safety and a fresh start when they reach their destination. Instead, what most find is another, less perilous but just as difficult, journey that awaits them, through the bureaucracy of their new home, where they must wait weeks or even months to be processed and given refugee status. In the meantime, they are housed in refugee camps: they are detained in overcrowded structures, often without being allowed to leave, until they are either determined to be refugees and integrated into the community, or deported back to their home country.
The inhabitants of the camps suffer from mental illness such as anxiety, depression and PTSD at alarming rates, and see their most basic rights, such as the right to work and to freedom of movement, being stripped away. What is supposed to be a liminal space where to pass briefly and find refuge from a traumatic escape from war instead becomes a limbo, where refugees are suspended for weeks without being able to integrate in their new community or build a new life.
In some ways, however, migrant camps are the “least bad” solution to refugee crises under the current model, especially in the EU: they make it possible to distinguish between genuine asylum seekers and other immigrants, and protect locals from large influxes of people that majorly disrupt their daily life.
It is up to governments to reconcile these two valid perspectives and reform the asylum seeking system so that it is more humane and fair for all.
The most controversial, but at the same time founding, aspect of migrant camps is the restrictions often imposed on the freedom of their occupants. Adults, families, and children, often unaccompanied, are not permitted to leave the camps before they have been processed despite the vast majority of them having done nothing wrong. For example, a controversial new law proposed by the UK government would have any immigrant who enters the UK illegally, regardless of their status as asylum seeker, be detained for up to 28 days, and more if they are awaiting deportation. This goes directly against the 1951 UN conventions on refugees, which states that “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened (…) enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence” (Article 31.1).
However, the article following this presents a caveat, allowing those restrictions of movement deemed “necessary” until their status is regularized (Article 31.2). This gives host states vast leeway to keep people effectively imprisoned for weeks, especially if there are delays due to a sudden influx of migrants or political squabbles over immigrants’ status.
The proposed UK legislation would take this even further, automatically denying asylum to anyone who arrives to the country illegally (in most cases by crossing the English Channel): while this might not violate the letter of the law, as anyone who does so would have had to transit through France first and would thus not be coming “directly” from a place of danger, it is still in broad violation of the basic right of refugees.
During their stay in the camps, refugees can suffer almost as much and be in as much danger as they would have been in their home country. Camps are often overcrowded, with unsanitary conditions and a lack of privacy. The most egregious examples were the camps in Moira, which housed Syrian asylum seekers awaiting approval of their status and transferral to other European countries. There, crime was rampant, medical care was nowhere near sufficient for the population, which reached more than 20,000 men, women and children at its peak in a camp designed for 3,000. The lack of sanitation led to outbreaks of diseases such as meningitis, and months went by without electricity during the freezing winter because of the overpopulation.
Even in less extreme circumstances, the mental anguish experienced by migrants in the camps is hard to quantify. Many of them are suffering from PTSD from the traumatic environments they have experienced or the journey they undertook to get to safety, and many others develop depression or anxiety while they are in the camps. The uncertainty over whether a refugee will be transferred, or whether they will even be allowed to stay, as well as the lack of purpose many feel because of not being allowed to work or leave the camp, leads to even further distress and can lead to increased crime.
It is undeniable that the camps do serve a purpose, however, and an alternative under the current immigration laws is hard to find. The state needs time to examine and process every migrant and determine if their asylum claim is legitimate, especially as many arrive without passports or documents, which have been either lost or taken by the human traffickers who smuggled them to safety. Whether this rigid distinction between refugees and regular immigrants, who may not be fleeing war but still face extreme poverty or persecution in their home countries, is morally right or even sustainable is controversial: currently, however, countries need time to determine who has a legitimate claim to asylum and organize the deportation of those who don’t. If immigrants were allowed to move freely, the argument goes, many would disappear before their status could be found out, rendering the process impossible. Furthermore, this would disrupt the local community: many migrant camps are in small Mediterranean islands, such as Lesbos in Greece or Lampedusa in Italy, where tourism forms the livelihood of many people and risks decreasing due to the sudden surge of immigrants. The often-cited statistic that immigrants cause crime is sometimes exaggerated but not untrue: research has shown that nonviolent crime does tend to increase after a country takes in a wave of refugees, also due to unemployment and mental health issues they are facing while settling into their new country. The trend of developed countries shifting the responsibility for migrant processing to their often poorer Southern neighbors, such as the EU detaining migrants in Turkey or Libya makes this even worse. Often the new host countries lack the resources necessary to house the migrants and integrate them into their local communities, as they are facing economic difficulties themselves, and due to this ordinary people also tend to be less willing to welcome the migrants into their homes or communities.
The tension between the very real needs of migrants and locals is clear: the former deserve freedom of movement and to be allowed to make a home in their new country soon so they can leave the traumatic experience of war and persecution behind, while the latter’s need for safety, security and stability must not be overlooked. Professor Bendixen (University of Bergen) views the migrant camp as an unfair institution whose “existence is legitimated by alluring to its state of exception”: the liminal and disorganized nature that makes it so harmful to their inhabitants is also what justifies its existence. In the same way, the very thing that oppresses migrants seems to be what preserves the rights of locals and keeps them safe – but in reality, neither side truly wins with the current arrangement, and the ultimate goal of integration and resettlement of migrants into their new community is delayed more and more.