Refugee Warehousing

By USCRI June 13, 2024

Definition: The practice of keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness, and dependency.

Background: When people are displaced across international borders, governments and the United Nations typically work to achieve one of three ‘durable solutions’ for refugees and others:

  • Improving conditions in countries of origin so refugees can safely and voluntarily return home;
  • Integrating refugees into local communities in host countries where they had sought refuge;
  • Resettling refugees in third countries, such as the United States, Canada, or Australia.

However, refugees and other forcibly displaced persons often end up languishing in camps for years and decades instead. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) coined the term “refugee warehousing” in the early 2000s to draw attention and galvanize action on this increasingly common outcome for refugees—a “de facto fourth and all-too-durable solution.”

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

The term “refugee warehousing” does not imply the existence of physical warehouses—but rather captures how many refugees end up confined in rural settlement or camp settings for years on end, cut off from freedoms and opportunities.


Examples: 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 is hosting 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.


Freedom of employment, movement: Countries should phase out legal restrictions on refugees’ employment and explore how informal barriers to employment can be reduced. These efforts, combined with policies protecting freedom of movement, would boost refugee access to the labor market, which research shows is beneficial to both refugees and host communities.

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

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


This is part of a series of snapshots from USCRI in honor of World Refugee Day (June 20).

Also read: What is Asylum?

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