A day in the life of a refugee.

A day in the life of a refugee.

A day in the life of a refugee.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 23 2009 6:35 PM

How Do Refugees Pass the Time?

It depends on how long they plan to stay.

Sri Lankan war-displaced civilians peer from behind barbed wire fences. Click image to expand.
Some of the 288,000 Sri Lankans displaced by the war with Tamils

Sri Lanka announced Sunday that it would release more than 130,000 people, mostly ethnic Tamils, who have been detained in camps since the country's civil war ended six months ago. What have the Tamils been doing all day, every day, for six months?

Waiting, mostly. Six months isn't a very long time to be detained, at least compared with refugees in other parts of the world. (The Tamils are not, in fact, "refugees," though they have been mischaracterized as such in many news stories. Because they have not crossed national borders, the detainees are, legally speaking, internally displaced persons.) Given the relatively short durations of their stays in the camps, most residents have neither the time nor the means to establish an economic or social life. A few hold jobs improving conditions in the camps—digging latrines, constructing tents, installing water-purification systems, or working in health clinics—and children are occupied in UNICEF-established schools. But, for the most part, the Tamils have no real property and need special permission to leave the barbed-wire-enclosed compound. They spend most of their days crammed into assigned zones waiting for weekly food-distribution trucks to hand out flour, lentils, vegetable oil, and sugar and for water bowsers to fill their jugs. Hepatitis and dysentery are common, and detainees have to wait in line for an average of six to seven hours to see a doctor.

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Menik Farm, the largest of the camps, housed more than 280,000 people at its peak, nearly double its maximum capacity under international guidelines. (It also constituted Sri Lanka's second-largest town.) The government assigned 20 people to each toilet, but in practice, as many as 100 people shared a single latrine. Food and water were rationed, so residents had to queue up for their share, then wait in line again for access to cookware and an area to prepare their meals. (Chopping firewood was one of the few ways the detainees could work to fulfill their own needs.) Eventually, outside merchants began selling cookies, ice cream, and other luxury items from trucks, which also required buyers to wait in long lines. Ten to 15 people shared each five-person tent, so the Tamils sometimes had to wait in line just to get some sleep.

Menik Farm is by no means representative of the global refugee camp experience, which varies widely based on the permanence of the installation, its location, and the host government's attitude toward the refugees. Camps in Rwanda have been accepting a steady stream of Congolese Tutsis for over a decade, and they are unlikely to close in the foreseeable future. Newcomers are assigned a plot of land and asked to construct their own housing—usually fabric stretched across a wood frame. Some industrious long-term residents have reinforced their dwellings with mud. The settlements are divided into zones, and each has the chance to elect its own representative to a governing council. (Many camp politicians held positions of power in their pre-refugee days.) The council has little authority, but serves as a liaison between the host government and the refugees. While residents still get their daily rations through the U.N. World Food Program, many Tutsis farm small plots of territory and trade their produce with neighbors for soap or tailoring services, or sell it to the camp administrators. The fencing around the camps is spotty and relatively unguarded, but, since most settlements are located in remote and undesirable areas, opportunity for exchange with Rwandan towns is limited by distance and road conditions. Most people choose to stay in the camps.

Some camps remain open for several decades. The 1 million refugees who fled Afghanistan after the Russian invasion have been living in Pakistani refugee camps for more than 25 years. Islamabad has permitted many refugees to function as though they are permanent residents in the country: They have limited property rights, operate small retail shops, live in durable adobe-style housing, travel freely, and trade with neighboring towns.

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Explainer thanks Monte Achenbach and Therese Gales of the American Refugee Committee.

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Brian Palmer covers science and medicine for Slate.