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New USCRI Publication: Lives in Storage: Refugee Warehousing and the Overlooked Humanitarian Crisis

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Out of the 25.9 million refugees in the world today, 15.9 million—representing 78% of all refugees—are housed for years or decades in stagnant, segregated refugee camps or settlements that restrict their mobility and ensure only abridged human rights (UNHCR 2019a, 22). Even worse, 5.8 million have been living in these protracted situations for over 20 years (UNHCR 2016). According to UNHCR, the estimated average duration of protracted refugee situations (PRS) is between 18 and 26 years—an unconscionable length of time in which refugees are, in effect, warehoused pending alternative, durable solutions (UNHCR 2019a, 22).

In the early 1990s, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) launched its global anti-warehousing campaign, objecting to the practice of warehousing and asking where, in international or domestic law, does it propose refugee encampment for decades. In 2004, USCRI gained support for its campaigns with the endorsement of over a hundred humanitarian rights organizations. For over 15 years USCRI has led the global public awareness campaign to challenge encampment and call out the failure recognizing the human rights of refugees living in protracted situations. Since then, human rights organizations have sought to address the crisis of PRS and refugee warehousing, and numerous reports—surging in the early and mid 2000s—focused attention to the crisis. However, these discussions have not sustained the momentum necessary to galvanize change.

In 2018, nine additional PRS have occurred (totaling 49 PRS worldwide as of last year), where the displacement of more than 25,000 refugees extended beyond five years, including South Sudanese refugees in Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda, Nigerians in Cameroon and Niger, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia in South Africa, Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan, and Ukrainian refugees in the Russian Federation(UNHCR 2019a, 22). In Pakistan, over 5 million Afghan refugees have been living in PRS since 1979, Sahrawi refugees in south-west Algeria since 1975, and Eritrean refugees have been living in protracted situations in Sudan since 1968 (Khan 2017; Coello 2018; “Eritrean Refugees” 2013). Further, despite mounting protests to stop the creation of additional camps, countries continue seeing encampment as a durable solution.

In this paper, the USCRI examines the issues currently facing PRS globally, the role of the aid model in its continuance, and the need for the international community to adhere to the principles of the 1951 Convention on Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and not operate in its omissions on encampment. Additionally, using a rights-based framework, USCRI offers recommendations as part of a long-standing campaign to address warehousing and call attention to the continuing crisis in a new decade. Refugee warehousing cannot be a viable solution in the absence of alternatives— not when its temporality is measured in generations and in the indefinite restriction of fundamental human rights.