Creating American refugee camps is a terrible idea

Creating American refugee camps is a terrible idea
© Getty Images

With the uproar over conditions at the holding facilities at America’s southern border, President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-DOJ official Rosenstein says he was not aware of subpoena targeting Democrats: report Ex-Biden adviser says Birx told him she hoped election turned out 'a certain way' Cheney rips Arizona election audit: 'It is an effort to subvert democracy' MORE has articulated a plan to put asylum-seeking families on military bases. This so-called “military base plan” could end up resembling refugee camps. And that is not a good look for America.

The Trump administration’s plan to put 20,000 migrant children on four American military bases in Texas and Arkansas is a work in progress. There are few details available and much confusion, including over the issue of how long children would be held without their parents. But there are some ominous signs that the president’s plan may lead to the long-term rollout of camps in which asylum seekers are stuck for years with little hope of being allowed into the country. In other words, refugee camps.

While the Trump “zero-tolerance” policy is being worked out, it is worth considering the merits of creating a settlement structure that could turn into what looks a lot like a refugee camp, albeit on or adjacent to a military base.  


Deciphering the goal of the Trump plan is of utmost importance. If the goal is security — to ensure no terrorists or “bad hombres” come to America — camps will not help. Would-be terrorists certainly will find ways to avoid being put in a camp. If the goal is to contain asylum seekers and keep them away from the local population, jobs and government benefits, camps — again — will not work. A look at the experience of other countries with refugee camps would be useful.

Of the world’s 23 million refugees and asylum seekers, about one-third are in formal refugee camps, mostly in Africa. However, even in countries where refugees are legally required to live in camps, most live outside of them anyway. For example, of Jordan’s nearly 700,000 registered refugees (mostly Syrians), fewer than 20 percent are in the country’s three main refugee camps; the rest live in towns and rural villages. The lesson is that refugee camps cannot contain all the asylum seekers wishing to enter a country. There will always be those — the majority — who manage to avoid the camps.

Presumably a military base would be better at restricting asylum seekers from leaving the camp, but this raises the problem of optics. Do Americans want media images of forlorn refugee children behind barbed-wire fences, complete with armed guards and dogs, to ensure they don’t go anywhere? Does America want to revisit the misery of the Japanese internment camps during World War II? Or, to open up comparisons with Soviet prison camps?

Refugee camps have a terrible reputation — even if this reputation is not always deserved (there are reasonable camps in some countries, where, with a permit, refugees are allowed to move in and out of the camps and are provided with humanitarian assistance and protection). But developed countries do not have refugee camps. There are no government-authorized camps in North America, Latin America, East Asia, or in Europe — aside from the miserable and overcrowded camps in Greece, which became overwhelmed by refugees in 2016 and are in a sad state of affairs. Never mind that they are not a solution to Greece’s migration problem.

Most importantly, beyond optics and efficacy, creating camps here is a terrible idea because they are in direct opposition to American ideals and beliefs about the freedom and rights of individuals — including the right of people to seek safety in America without being put behind military fences. The solution to the asylum seekers coming from the Northern Triangle countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — lies first in reducing the dangers in those countries. Parents shouldn’t have to fear their children’s exposure to vicious gangs and drug lords.

But when they do come to our borders, we must deal with them in humane ways. We’re not talking about opening our borders to the free flow of people, without checks and screenings; that is a necessary and important process of asylum seeking, and yes, it does usually mean detaining the migrants for a period of time. American asylum policy has been doing this for years.

Humane detention centers are not necessarily an oxymoron. Models exist in other countries. Let’s look there first, before turning towards the horror of American refugee camps.

Karen Jacobsen is the Henry J. Leir Professor in Global Migration at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Friedman School of Nutrition, and directs the Refugees and Forced Migration Program at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University. Her book, “The Economic Life of Refugees” (Kumarian Press, 2005), is widely used in courses on forced migration.