Op-ed: Refugee Warehousing in 2024

By USCRI June 20, 2024

Can you imagine being born in a refugee camp? Growing up and going to school in that camp? Marrying your spouse in the same camp? And then having your children born and raised there? This unimaginable scenario unfolds every day and has been happening for decades. Refugees around the world often end up languishing in camps for years and decades.

Years and decades of refugees’ lives pass by in limbo. Refugees in protracted crises face barriers to meaningfully enjoying rights they are entitled to receive under the 1951 Refugee Convention—such as freedom of work, freedom of movement, and access to education.

Algeria has hosted Sahrawi refugees from western Sahara for roughly 50 years—with more than 170,000 Sahrawi refugees living in camps in the desert near the town of Tindouf in western Algeria.

Kenya hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees in its Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps. Many Somali refugees have lived in Dadaab since 1991 after fleeing the Somali civil war.

Bangladesh hosts one million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (Burma)—with plans to continue housing tens of thousands of Rohingya refugees at Bhasan Char, an island in the Bay of Bengal.

Sudan, a country with ten million IDPs due to the civil war, has been hosting Eritrean refugees since 1968 and other neighboring countries.

Each year, we pledged to focus on ALL refugees’ suffering, yet the international community’s selective compassion is becoming a norm. Refugees from impoverished countries are summarily expelled without due process, and others are greeted with a welcoming mat.

The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) coined “refugee warehousing” in the early 2000s to draw attention and galvanize action on this increasingly common outcome for refugees. The term does not imply the existence of physical warehouses but rather captures how many refugees end up confined in rural settlements or camp settings for years on end, cut off from freedoms and opportunities.

Although the world has celebrated World Refugee Day since 2001 to build empathy and understanding for the plight of refugees, refugee warehousing has continued and grown worse over the past 20 years.

Today, there are more than 110 million people forcibly displaced from their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, and human rights violations. Efforts to resettle refugees in third countries, like the United States, integrate refugees into local communities in countries where they had sought refuge, or improve the conditions in countries of origin so refugees can safely return home are failing.

The world community needs to take new steps. Countries should phase out legal restrictions on refugees’ employment and explore how to reduce informal barriers to employment. These efforts, combined with policies protecting freedom of movement, would boost refugee access to the labor market, which research shows benefits refugees and host communities.

In recent years, refugees have taken on greater roles in shaping policies that affect their lives. However, to achieve better results for refugees, refugee participation in processes like the Global Refugee Forum must be substantive and non-tokenistic.

Refugee-led organizations (RLOs) and community-based organizations are the groups closest to displaced populations and their needs or aspirations. Multilateral, bilateral, and philanthropic funding in humanitarian responses ought to be more geared toward these groups to build their capacity effectively in a systemic way.

On this World Refugee Day, we must see ourselves through all refugees and consider how we would want the world community to see us all.


Eskinder Negash is the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit, non-governmental, international organization that fights for the rights of refugees globally. He is a former refugee from Eritrea.

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