Ethiopia is right to liberate refugees from hellish camps

Published by The Times (22nd January, 2019)

More than 25 million people are refugees, forced to flee their homelands by conflict, drought or disaster. For all the hysterical headlines in the West over boats and walls, most of them stay near the places they have left, which tend to be among the poorest parts of the planet, and are desperate to return home.

Many of these unfortunate people end up in refugee camps, struggling to build new lives in some of the most miserable places on earth. I have visited camps on four continents. Some are like menacing prisons, filled with frustrated families guarded like criminals, their freedoms and mobility curtailed. Others are sprawling tent cities rife with gangs, guns and sexual abuse.

So celebrate a progressive new law passed in Ethiopia that gives more than 900,000 refugees the right to live outside camps, work more freely, attend regular schools and open bank accounts. As this rapidly transforming country recognises, offering refugees the right to education and employment boosts the local economy as well as enhancing lives and reducing reliance on aid.

Let us hope other nations follow suit and that we see an end to refugee camps. These places start as temporary sanctuaries, their host nations determined not to make them too comfortable so as to deter a sudden flood of foreigners from staying. They end up as inadequate and often isolated cities, stuffed with people trapped into dependency culture and easy prey for criminals.

These grim places keep people alive but, as one academic said, they prevent them from living. The average stay has been put at 17 years but some are there four times longer, with successive generations growing up behind fences.

The reason for the survival of these camps is simple: the inmates are easier to control, whether for a nervous host nation or a self-serving aid industry that is complicit in running them. Refugees equate to funds, whether for dodgy politicians or cash-hungry charities, and donors admit that it is easier to dole out aid in camps, so they receive disproportionate support. ‘You know where they are when they are in camps,’ one British minister confessed after the Syria crisis exploded.

The humanitarian sector is starting to see these uncomfortable truths. Refugees, like other people, simply want to live and work in dignity rather than be stuck in limbo. So while fear-filled European nations permit drowning at sea and torture in Libyan hellholes, the African country that once sparked the aid boom has now underscored the meaning of humanity.

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