The United Nations is starting to make some sense….

Recently, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) made a major step in the right direction in terms of how they are willing to handle the swelling refugee populations in places like Pakistan, Jordan, Lebanon and Kenya. As I incessantly argued and advocated throughout my graduate research at NYU, UNHCR has finally released a policy statement holding that they would actively pursue alternative options to refugee camps whenever it is possible to do so. The “Alternatives to Camps” policy deviates from the norm of defaulting on the refugee camp model and instead frames it as a last resort.

There are more than 17 million refugees in the world right now. 17 MILLION people forced to flee their homes due to conflict, persecution, drought, famine, war and violence. Over 1/3 of these people are living in what we call “protracted refugee situations” – situations in which peoples are displaced for 5 years or more. The average length of displacement for these PRS populations is 20 years. This is creating generations of youth who are completely disconnected from their homeland, having been born an raised in overcrowded, poorly resourced and highly unsafe refugee camps. It is in these camps where sexual violence towards girls is a perpetual reality of life, and educational programming that can offer children a hope for their future is overwhelmingly difficult to design, implement and manage, let alone find adequate funding for (less than 2% of humanitarian budgets go towards emergency education). So it is no surprise that the majority of refugees opt for a different solution – urban settlement. These urban refugees are much more difficult to provide for in terms of services, but are less dependent upon aid that can come and go at the advent of another emergency in another part of the world, or when the global economy takes a turn for the worse.

UNHCR’s new stance is long overdue, but that’s besides the point. It is here. The UN agency has made a commitment to shifting its way of viewing displacement, recognizing that rather than simply being a burden or a strain on already limited resources of a host country, refugees can provide incredible diversity and innovation to local markets and can serve as dynamic economies, when allowed to do so. A refugee camp model stifles this possibility, not allowing the displaced to take part in economic activities in host countries.

Local settlement, or integration, on the other hand, allows refugees to take control of their lives, and empowers them to make their own economic decisions. When allowed to participate in local education systems, children of refugees can start a new life for themselves and better integrate with the local community. They can learn trades that will translate to employment following their education, and will be able to learn alongside the local population to jointly imagine the possibilities of a shared future.

For an individual or family to be forced to flee their homes, migrate to a strange and unfamiliar land, and then be forced to live in settlement camps with no opportunities to work or learn or integrate with the local population, is in my opinion, a blatant abuse of the human right to dignity.

The reality is, the world is an increasingly interconnected place. While the term globalization has its fair share of critics, no one can deny the fact that the world is smaller, and lines of sovereignty, while important to respect, are porous, and population flows will continue to increase as the world’s population increases whether we like it or not. Conflict will always be a part of life, and growing populations cannot be expected to sit idly by while their lives are destroyed by it. Displacement is a part of the world we live in, and the ‘international community’ (sometimes this term seems almost laughable) needs to work together to provide for the security, health and prosperity of all peoples, regardless of where their paths take them. Immigration reform, displacement policy reform – these are two subsets of a larger issue at play: a dynamic world where borders are not static, nor would it be desirable for them to be.

Incorporating displaced populations (like incorporating immigrant populations, the same populations that built the United States of America as they fled persecution, conflict, war, famine, and violence) is common sense, and it is common decency. We are seeing this right now in Tanzania where over 162,000 former Burundian refugees are being welcomed into Tanzania as citizens – with the right to vote, the right to own land, and the right to prosper.

Implementation will not be easy. Governments, particularly those currently hosting massive populations of refugees, need to buy in. Many fear that incorporating these populations will breed new conflicts and crime and will take opportunities away from their own people. Who knows how the UN will handle these issues, only time will tell (you can write anything in a policy document) but the commitment to a new direction seems, at least to my optimistic mind, very hopeful.

Feel free to send me your thoughts. This is an issue I have poured much of my time and energy into, which has little place in my current work. So it’s nice to see strides in the field and even nicer to debate it.