In a difficult place: how refugee camps corrode our humanity

No one leaves a refugee camp the same person they entered. That’s as true for the refugees who live there as it is for the people who work there. Common sense says that refugees get the worst of it, forced as they are from the place they once called home, displaced into an unfamiliar world not of their own choosing, and suddenly dependent on the charity and compassion of others as they struggle to maintain a sense of dignity and normality. Surprisingly, though, those who work with refugees, motivated as they often are by the noblest of human sentiments and the most vaunted of spirited ideals — they, too, bear their share of emotional scars from the work they do and the way they have to do it.

So how does a refugee camp, where those who come in search of help meet those who want to give it, how does this place drain away so much of the humanity that gave rise to its very existence? The answer comes from the unexpected way that the written and unwritten rules of refugee law generate parochial constraints on both refugees and refugee workers, and from the disconcerting way that those constraints generate unfortunate emotional by-products in the form of mistrust and suspicion.

Making things as bad as humanly possible

For anyone with even the faintest emotional pulse, the appropriate response to a person who has just experienced more suffering and trauma in one day than most people experience in a lifetime is one of compassion and care. One would think that the right thing to do for a refugee who may have lost everything, including members of her or his family, is to give them every possible comfort to help alleviate the pain and suffering they carry with them, like an invisible suitcase of nightmarish memories permanently strapped to their already weary bodies. But even if that were the right thing to do, the architecture of refugee law often conspires, unwittingly perhaps, to separate what is right from what is possible, and what is possible, as it turns out, is determined by a surprisingly and depressingly law set of standards.

The standard of living in a refugee camp, for example, can be dismal and abysmal. This is perhaps not surprising to anyone who has ever seen images of what a refugee camp looks like. What is surprising, however, is that this dismal standard of living is not accidental. It is created by design, generated by one of the central principles of refugee law — namely, that the return of a refugee to her or his country of origin must occur, according to the Refugee Convention (1951), only at the personal volition of the refugee.

The reason that this puts downward pressure on the standard of living in a refugee camp is that it creates a implicit desire among those who run the camp to make sure the quality of life in the camp is noticeably worse-off than the quality of life in the refugee’s home country. If the refugee camp were too comfortable, or if it offered a quality of life that was higher than the life a refugee had fled, then it might create a situation where a refugee would choose never to return home. So even though repatriation — the return of a refugee to her or his own country — is supposed to be purely voluntary, that choice can be expedited or nudged by creating undesirable conditions in the camp, bad enough to make refugees want to go home, but not bad enough to skirt human rights violations. In other words, aim as low as is humanly possible.

A secondary downward pressure on the quality of life of a refugee camp comes from the location of the camp itself. There is an unwritten rule in the world of refugee work that the quality of life inside the camp cannot be better than the quality of life outside the camp, at least for the refugees. If the refugees have a higher standard of living than local residents, it can create undesirable political problems, such as resentment from local inhabitants who have to work long, arduous days just to make ends meet while watching refugees have their needs catered to without having to work at all. It can also happen, and in fact does happen, that local inhabitants may begin to pose as refugees, hoping to procure the same benefits as the refugees. To guard against that, the conditions of the refugee camps must act as a disincentive to local inhabitants, as a place where no one would want to go unless they truly had nowhere else to go.

A matter of trust

Knowing that the quality of life in a refugee camp is intentionally suppressed — even if no one talks about it — already weighs heavily on the conscience. But there is another casualty of life and work in a refugee camp takes an even higher emotional toll, and that is the erosion of trust. What makes the erosion of trust so emotionally devastating is that it happens to the sort of people who normally consider themselves the type of person who never lose trust in others. It ships and chisels away at our very sense of self.

The erosion of trust happens among refugees in ways that might seem somewhat predictable. Loss of trust in the refugee system, loss of trust in governments, lost of trust in other refugees — no one would fault a person who has been traumatized for also experiencing other forms of emotional collateral damage. But those who work in refugee camps, even those who are there to give everything they have to help those most in need of help, they, too, experience this loss of trust, often unaware of what is happening to them as their emotions turn brittle, thin, and bitter.

One of the things that refugee law promises to anyone seeking refugee status is a fair hearing of their story. If a person can prove that they face a well-founded fear of persecution or some similar direct harm if they return to their country of origin, then they can be granted refugee status. But in situations where there is a massive influx of refugees, sometimes those stories start sounding a little too similar to an intake officer’s ear — so similar in fact that it gets easier and easier to think that those stories are simply make-believe. The start sounding well-rehearsed and contrived, like shared, illicit commodity that refugees use to gain access to a camp. Horrible stories of death and destruction start sounding a little too compelling, as if they were intentionally embellished and manipulated to secure that coveted refugee status. It’s easier than you might think in these circumstances to start looking at refugees as liars, cheats, and beggars.

Without realizing it, what might have started as a series of compassionate inquiries transforms into a litany of suspicious interrogations. Refugee families are now separated for questioning to see if their stories match up, the questions themselves get more specific, until the point is no longer to listen the story but to find reasons to disbelieve it.

Refugees who have made it into the camps often make requests — medical care for a sick aunt, extra food for a hungry child, additional clothing for a cold sister — and again, it is easy to buckle under the weight of these requests and start thinking that every refugee is petulant and ungrateful, somehow scamming the system to get more than their fare share. For a refugee worker, the transformation from an effortless “yes” to a mistrustful “no” may be imperceptible, but the emotional consequences for both the refugee worker and the refugee can become irreparably corrosive.

Always half empty, always half full

The last contributive factor to mention is this: refugee work is chronically and lamentably underfunded. That’s as true for the official actors such as the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) as it is for unofficial ones such as the numerous NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) that engage in refugee work. This creates its own level of frustration that drains into the general dysfunction of refugee camps and refugee work in general. UN relief workers in charge of different humanitarian crises around the world have to fight to claim their share of an already inadequate budget, and NGOs have to compete among themselves to garner headlines and publicity, as these are valuable catalysts for fundraising campaigns.

All of this leads to a continuous struggle to gain and maintain perspective in a refugee camp, a struggle that affects both refugees and those engaged in refugee work. Refugees find themselves objects of publicity, which can feel dehumanizing, yet it is that very publicity that generates the funding that allows refugee assistance to continue. Refugee workers can frequently feel like they are exploiting those they came to help. Compassion can come across as emotional charity, tending toward pity rather than respect, which can in turn make even the noblest of motives feel cheap and degrading. Even at the end of a good day, every person in a refugee camp is left to face the night holding onto things that gnaw away at their emotional and physical well-being.

A difficult place

For those who have never been a refugee, and for those who have never been inside a refugee camp, it is difficult to imagine the level of suffering that refugees carry with them. Imagine the worst day you can have, a day when all you want to do is get home, turn out the lights, shut the world out for a while, and try to heal. Now imagine the same day, only with no home to go home to. That’s only a hint of what a refugee feels from the first step of their flight into an unpredictable future with an uncertain destination.

And for those who rush in to help them, nothing I have said here is meant as a cynical critique. Refugee work is some of the hardest work anyone can ever do, and all I have tried to do here is to explain the many ways that the whole endeavor creates an unexpected emotional toll. It is a line of work that takes more than it gives. It is also a line of work where those on the front line give so much of themselves until they sometimes have nothing left to give. The humanitarian impulse to give is slowly replaced by the inhumane pangs of guilt at not being able to do more. A refugee camp is full of broken people.

This is just a glimpse at the many structural elements in the whole enterprise that allow refugee camps to corrode our humanity. That doesn’t mean for a moment that it’s all just so much wasted effort. Certainly we can do more and we can do better. But to do anything less would be to lose everything, including ourselves.

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