Permanent solutions to the refugee problem have historically been presented as a choice between integration in first countries of asylum, repatriation to the refugee's country of origin when their safety can be guaranteed, or resettlement in third OECD countries. This paradigm was developed during the Cold War period, when the world was divided into two blocks, and sovereignty was conceived as a sacrosanct principle in which interference in the internal affairs of states was proscribed. This was even true in countries where citizens were treated with contempt by their own governments. As a result, the possibility of the UN or member states to intervene in order to avert the crises which drive large-scale displacement did not exist. International and regional responses to refugees were therefore reactive: intervention only occurred when asylum-seekers crossed an international border to seek protection. The large majority of refugees stayed in first countries of asylum.
When refugees arrive in a developing country, those who report to the authorities of the country concerned are often held in refugee camps where they receive emergency relief from World Food Programme (WFP), donor agencies and governments through the UNHCR in collaboration with the host governments concerned. Most refugees within camps have no access to employment. In Africa between the 1960s and 1980s, refugee camps were conceived as temporary structures where refugees were held until settlement sites were identified where the refugees concerned would be transferred to become self-supporting. Refugee settlements were the result of collaborative efforts between WFP, UNHCR, host governments, donor agencies and non-governmental organisations. Land was provided by the host government, the WPF provided food rations during the first two or three seasons until the refugees became self-sufficient in food production, NGOs provided social services, such as schools, clinics, skills training, etc. In some refugee situations, e.g. Pakistan, the World Bank was involved in funding some self-sufficiency projects.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, integration in first countries of asylum along with voluntary repatriation occurring in response to the elimination of the ultimate and proximate causes of displacement were considered as the most desirable durable solutions to the refugee problem. Hence during that period, over 140 agricultural, wage-earning and semi-urban refugee settlements were established catering for about 40-50% of the total number of African refugees. Such settlements were established in countries, such as Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan and Zambia. Throughout this period, organised settlements were considered as the best means of promoting refugee self-sufficiency.
After the end of the bi-polar division of the world, refugees lost their strategic significance. This has had at least two important effects on the international refugee protection and assistance regime. Firstly, the commitment of the international donor agencies’ and governments’ commitment to long-term self-sufficiency programmes has diminished dramatically and as a result refugee camps and reception centres that were originally established en-route to durable solutions have been institutionalised and hundreds of thousands of refugees have been languishing in such places without integration or employment. There are refugees who have been living in camps for nearly half a century, e.g. Afghans in Pakistan, Sahrawis in Algeria, Somalis in Kenya and Ethiopia, Eritreans in Sudan, Congolese in Rwanda, etc. Since the end of the 1980s, there has been no single self-sufficiency or organised settlement established in Africa or elsewhere in the developing countries.
The second effect of the diminished global strategic significance of refugees is reflected in the reluctance of governments in the OECD countries to accept refugees for permanent resettlement. Between 1975 and 1985, over 800,000 Indochinese refugees were resettled in the Western countries, especially in the US. Since then, there has been no large-scale resettlement programme in the West.
Without the commitment of Western donors, refugee-hosting countries in the global south are unable to establish self-sufficiency programmes and even those who have been residing in refugee camps are facing acute shortages of basic supplies. The reasons host governments place refugees in camps are firstly, they want to control their political activities and freedom of movement, to prevent them from competing with locals for renewable resources, employment; secondly, they want to prevent them from competing for scarce social and other infrastructural services; thirdly, keeping refugees in spatially-segregated sites enables governments to shift the responsibility of meeting their needs to the international community indefinitely. Because life in refugee camps is unbearable, those who are physically fit often leave no stone unturned to ‘vote with their feet’ and to self-settle in cities and surrounding villages by defying government policies that require them to reside in government-designated sites. Those who leave the camps to self-settle in cities and surrounding villages often are subjected to arbitrary round-ups, harassment, extortion and in some cases even deportation to unchanged political situations where they may face risk of being persecuted.
UNHCR, donors and even academics still talk about the three conventional solutions to the refugee problem, overlooking the fact that the single most important solution to the refugee problem—local integration—is no longer operative in practice. The critical question that arises is: what future is there for the millions of refugees if the international donor community refused to pay for long-term self-sufficiency programmes and host governments are unwilling to allow refugees to self-settle in cities and elsewhere so that they could integrate into host societies?