The camp or the settlement, though they may differ to those who know, has long been the trope characterizing the refugee and the displaced, often with negative connotations. The picture is all too familiar – row upon row of ‘family tents’, each marked with the logo of this or that humanitarian agency, or these days it may be the family-size container that catches the eye. And that is still a reality for many of those displaced throughout the world – for Palestinians in the Lebanon now for decades; for Rohingya in Bangladesh, for Syrians in Za’atari in Jordan, or in Kilis or Gaziantep in Turkey; refugees in Idomeni in Greece, in Bidibidi in Uganda – the list goes on.

In fact, and contrary to first impressions, most of the world’s displaced do not live in camps, but in urban and semi-urban environments. And while camps may once have served a purpose for refugees in transit to resettlement, most refugees are not moving beyond their first country of refuge, and the value of camps and settlements on the solutions spectrum has long been open to question.

Not surprisingly, many refugees will make their own way towards something of a solution beyond the camp – they are agents, after all, and like us, will seek their own future, though perhaps with a little more energy and sense of purpose than you or me.  Naturally enough, this self-dispersal raises issues, whether for the bureaucrat anxious to demonstrate control and his or her capacity for inhumanity, or for the humanitarian agency concerned with service delivery and the quality of life, or for host communities anxious to do right but stretched in their own resources.

Any influx of refugees, or of people at large, is likely to have an impact on the receiving community, and on its infrastructure and capacity to cope – whether we are talking about schools, roads, markets, accommodation, or essential services, such as water, sanitation and medical care. And it is just this sort of pressure that can lead or contribute to negative outcomes, both for the displaced and for host communities.

Of course, some States do face serious difficulties, and basic principles of protection and assistance can be at risk. There has probably never been a moment when refugees were welcomed without reservation, but experience shows that much can be done to ease the path from flight to solution, and to support and develop hosting communities in countries of refuge. These issues touch directly on the dual responsibility of the international community to provide protection and to find solutions for the displaced, and ‘international protection’ itself is integrally entwined with the UN’s fundamental purposes – maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations between States, and achieving international cooperation in the resolution of humanitarian problems. 

It is remarkable that, from the first days of international organisation in the early 20th century, States have accepted that protection is an international duty, not so much in the strictly legal sense, as in the political and moral sense of responsibility. That responsibility, in turn draws its purpose and meaning both from the realities daily facing the community of nations and from those values that are the foundations of a United Nations of sovereign, independent States. This is not a seamless structure, of course, and there will always be tensions to manage, whether in relation to State interests, or in balancing and reconciling protection and assistance, or protection and cooperation.

On the one hand, stands the constituency of the uprooted (and for present purposes I draw no distinction between the refugee strictly so called, the internally displaced, and others uprooted from their homes by catastrophic events). On the other hand, stands the constituency of host communities – the first responders, if you will, whose hamlets, villages, towns and cities, are where the displaced front up; and where emergency assistance will often be required short-term, where resources will be stretched and limited, and where something more durable will be needed as time moves rapidly on.

Again, this is not a ‘super-regulated’ area; the place of law and organization must be constantly interrogated, and fitted into context with the role, actual and potential, of civil society, of universities and professionals in the built environment and related disciplines.

International law?

So, does international law have anything to say, or anything useful to add? Why on earth is an international refugee lawyer talking today? Law does not provide solutions, but it can provide triggers and a framework for action, markers for progress achieved or pending, and a structure of accountability.

It is now nearly 100 years since the League of Nations appointed its first High Commissioner for Refugees, kick-starting the process of building an international refugee regime. Since then, and with nearly 70 years of experience now behind the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, we have witnessed growing acceptance of responsibility for resolving the problems of displacement, through more effective cooperation among international institutions, and together with States and civil society. This has often meant working over, above, and beyond the letter of the law, wherever humanitarian need prevails; fortunately, this is how international law evolves, dynamically in the face of social and political realities. It’s not over, there is still much to do, but a lot has already been achieved.

Back in the 1920s, the refugee, displaced and unprotected by their own or any government, was very much an anomaly in a State-centric universe. Even today, you don’t need to look far to see some of the apparent legal limits. The two treaties which we refer to as the foundation of today’s international refugee regime, the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol  – are about status and those rights which, experience had shown, were essential if the refugee were to be able to take up his or her life again, in their new State of asylum or resettlement – the incidents of successful integration, if you like.

We can still learn from what has gone before, and the formal recognition of status can be an important protection against arbitrariness, as those who drafted the 1951 Convention well knew. They had another goal, too, which was not always met and was sometimes watered down, and that was to entrench the basic principle of equality with local citizens. So when it comes to rationing, or elementary education, or public relief and assistance, or labour legislation and social security, equality is the general rule.

In matters of housing and employment, however, States held back, even though both are critical to that degree of personal security and self-reliance and therefore also to successful integration. What seemed right and proper in 1951 may still hold good, up to a point, but the world moves on and today’s world is infinitely more complex; we can perhaps now understand that the refugee and the displaced are likely to be with us for a long time, but also that individuals and communities of the displaced have a voice and a right to be heard.

Law and policy move on, too, and the developmental aspects of international cooperation and assistance present a different and telling perspective. The 1951 Convention/1967 Protocol remain widely accepted, but they are part of a wider picture, in which States, UNHCR and other partners, must engage collaboratively in the solution of humanitarian problems; and this means thinking outside the box of emergency assistance, and doing the groundwork today for durable, sustainable solutions tomorrow. This translates into building on and strengthening the resilience of host communities in the reception frontline by, among others, adopting a development frame of mind, so that what is done for and with the displaced, is also done for and with host communities, whether in infra-structural support or the built environment.

If ‘solutions’ are the goal – and they are; and if the end-point, in a temporal sense, cannot be determined – and it can’t, then the commitment of the international community must itself be open and enduring – recognizing that a development-based response today is an investment in the future: making stronger and more resilient the environment of hospitality, and enabling the beneficiaries, hosting and displaced, better to engage with challenges yet to come.

Protection, solutions and development

Much has indeed been achieved over several decades to improve the status and rights of the refugee, through the adoption of rules, best practices and essays in partnership involving UNHCR, States, non-governmental organizations, civil society, and refugees themselves.

Thought and action, however, can still be impeded by categories, labels and mandates, and the protection of refugees can be limited by the confining lens, for example, of non-refoulement – not sending people back or on to where they will still be at risk; and of ‘refugee status’, with the often unfounded assumption that this is all that is needed for refugees to establish themselves in a new home and a new life, in a new and presumably secure environment.

In fact, protection and solutions demand more than can be provided by status and obligation alone. As in life, there are many steps between the emergence of need and the meeting of needs; and many obstacles can get in the way, some natural, others imposed. Bringing aid and assistance to those displaced by persecution, conflict, disaster and climate change, may be impeded by the nature of things – by the very impact of disaster, by challenges of accessibility, by underdevelopment and its effects on the capacity of host communities, infrastructural and other, simply to cope with new demands.

And governments will not always be willing partners. In instances of large-scale movement, whether from within or without, they may fear the unknown, particularly the projected duration of displacement. That, in turn, may lead them to oversell the notion – belief, illusion – that all is temporary and that nothing but short-term responses and remedies are needed. 

Politically, this can seem attractive, particularly in a fraught electoral environment, but experience tells us time and again that ‘temporary’, by definition, is indefinable – or at least, incalculable by reference to the multitude of human and other variables that are the foundation of causes, no less than that of solutions.

Here, the 2016 New York Declaration and the 2018 Global Compact on Refugees may well be critical milestones, full of potential for UNHCR and its partners in what needs to be a credible ‘multi-stakeholder/whole of society approach’. We know that refugees and the displaced can be an asset, a catalyst for development bringing added value all round. To get there will require new thinking, some of which is reflected in UNHCR’s recently established Division of Resilience and Solutions. Properly managed, this could lead to a sharpened perspective on the role of protection in the medium and long-term, in what is necessarily a cooperative development environment touching all aspects of solutions, not excluding social justice.

Of course, UNHCR is not a ‘development actor’ as such, but the four objectives of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework illustrate how close its operational activities come to that domain: easing pressure on host communities; enhancing refugee self-reliance; promoting access to third-country solutions; and promoting conditions for return. These are all seriously interesting challenges for UNHCR, in particular, which must ensure that protection remains relevant in development and solutions, while recognising the real and necessary limitations on its functioning in a collaborative environment.

Protection, however, is not just a humanitarian issue. Being linked to solutions, it necessarily touches on the broader questions of social welfare, education, settlement and infrastructure, wherever refugees or returning refugees may find themselves. This multiplicity of tasks, no less, will demand multiple actors from within and without the United Nations, and some serious practical thinking on the modalities for more effective cooperation.

Just as there must be a ‘stronger solutions orientation in the delivery of protection and assistance’, so too must there be a stronger protection orientation in the delivery of assistance and solutions. Solutions are only likely to be durable where they deliver, not just ‘infrastructure’ or ‘resilience’ among refugees and host communities, but also those elements of social justice, here considered as shorthand for the longer perspective of protection, that are key to successful outcomes over time.

From some angles, it may seem that there is a clear line, a ‘time line’, between humanitarian assistance and development; but the issue is highly contextual and perhaps more accurately understood as a process of synchronisation over time. On the one hand, the necessity for international protection may well be overtaken by solutions; on the other hand, the dimension of protection remains a constant in the assessment of outcomes (and of progress towards them). Future emergencies can arise at any time, and from any number of sources, so that capacity-building for protection and solutions also has implications for development. Besides opening up livelihoods and education, it will be essential, and very good practice, to ensure that both host communities and refugees acquire the skill sets and expertise that will enable them to respond to the unforeseen; that the refugee’s capacity to contribute to development and community is enhanced, and that the tensions that can emerge from perceptions of disadvantage are reduced or avoided.

From the very start, therefore, humanitarian assistance and protection in emergencies will need to focus on the foundations of development, particularly through engagement with first responders, host communities, and civil society. There is a full agenda of opportunity and potential here, open to all those engaging in the built environment and in each and every discipline committed to sustainable solutions for those displaced today and in the years ahead.

These remarks were first delivered as part of the Cities and Displacement Learning Exchange, co-presented by the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, the Faculty of Built Environment (FBE) and the Grand Challenge on Rapid Urbanisation, at UNSW Sydney on 27 August 2019.