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Refugees: a demographic time bomb


Incubator Refugee Camp

   Some 21 million people worldwide are currently displaced outside their country, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. An unknown but large number of them are located in camps, the largest being Dadaab in Kenya hosting more than 300,000 mostly Somali refugees. Bethlehem's Deheishe camp, administered by the UN agency for Palestinians UNRWA since 1949, is arguably the world’s oldest such camp, still housing 13,000 people – as many as when I first visited it in 1960. The same time worn cinder blocks, the same sad faces.

   Like Deheishe, more camps than we would like to know have become permanent homes to generations, three in the case of the Palestinians. Yarmouk, the Palestinian camp in Damascus, developed into a town by itself with over 100,000 inhabitants and played an important role in the Syrian civil war which reduced its population to about 20,000. Worldwide, there is an estimated total of 700 refugees camps. In addition to the 20 million external refugees there are about 38-40 million internally “displaced” people, says the UNHCR.

The Syrian Case

   Syrian refugees alone are currently sheltered in 57 camps in Near East and Europe, including transit camps on the Greek islands but excluding those in North Africa. Syria, in 2015, had an estimated population of 23 million. Of these, roughly 4.8 million are currently considered external refugees. Deducting these plus the estimated 450,000 war casualties reduces the remaining population of Syria to 17,7 million which means that 27 percent of all Syrians are currently external refugees.

   It can be argued that during the five war years the remaining population in the country continued its natural demographic growth, thereby increasing the percentage of those Syrians still living in Syria. But this argument does not hold because the externally displaced Syrians also continued to grow and, as we will see, at a faster rate than the domestic population.

Population dynamics in refugee camps

   It is generally believed that more than 50 percent of Syria’s refugees are living outside camps, especially those in neighboring countries. Still, the 4.8 million currently registered by UNHCR are entitled to assistance where necessary and available. How life in refugee camps changes reproductive behavior shows the case of Syrians in Jordan: “Birth rate soars in Jordan refugee camp as husbands discourage wives from using contraception. While Syrian men are keen to repopulate their homeland, women are facing difficult decisions on family planning”. On average, 70 babies are born per month in the camp and of the 639,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, whether in camps or not, 16,000 women and girls are pregnant, according to UNFPA, the UN’s Population Fund. The crude birth rate (CBR) in Azraq is 40 (meaning the number of live births per 1,000 people per  year), compared to 23.5 in Syria in 2012, and 24.5 in Jordan, according to Dr Shible Sahbani, UNFPA’s humanitarian co-ordinator in Jordan.

   Similar fertility trends have been observed in other refugee camps. “The fertility of Afghan women in refugee camps appears to be exceptionally high (13.8 in the North West Frontier Province) and at least 700,000 births have occurred in the camps since 1979. Official statistics indicate an average family size for registered Afghans of 6.2 persons, slightly below the maximum allowable figure of 7.”

   P. Verwimp and J. Van Bavelof U. Sussex analyzed the reproductive behavior of Rwandan refugees. The authors find:

  • “that Rwandan Hutu refugees, at all ages, have given birth to more children than non-refugees 
  • that, again amongst Rwandan Hutus, given high excess mortality during their stay in the refugee camps in Eastern Congo, the refugees compensate the loss of children by having more children that differential survival rates indicate
  • that parents may have been investing more in newborn boys than in girls, possibly in order to insure that at least one son would survive that the women who came to Rwanda for the first time only after the genocide, i.e. the daughters of the old caseload refugees, followed the same fertility strategy as their mothers. Yet, they eventually came to live under less adverse conditions. As a result, they had somewhat higher fecundity and natural fertility.

These findings support old-age security theories of reproductive behavior: refugee women had higher fertility but their children had lower survival chances.”

   Generally speaking, it seems that only one group of people shows lower fertility when living in camps: nomads as observed, for instance, in South Sudan.


(Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarianism)

   For sedentary populations, refugee camps offer conditions which totally differ from their customary life style but are not always negative. Advantages of well administered camps are: regular and reliable food supplies, health care, schooling and safety. It is for potential parents often less expensive and easier to raise children in camps than outside. Since the time families spend in camps is wasted, as far as preparations for old age are concerned; when it is impossible to accumulate savings for old age, raising children as human capital is a sensible strategy.

Why refugee camps tend to become permanent

   Because of the intrinsically high refugee fertility in combination with the usually high share of fertile age adults and teens among refugees, camp populations tend to grow quickly. Unless external events lead to a closure of the camp – for instance peace permitting refugees to return home – camps will expand rather than shrink. The most notorious case is that of the Palestinians which have their own UN agency taking care of them, the UN Relief and Works Agency. “When UNRWA began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.”

   Lessons learned from this and other extreme cases have forced the UN High Commissioner and aid agencies to rethink refugee camps:

"According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, by 1993 the average refugee crisis was lasting for nine years. A decade later, that had risen to 17 years. Long-term refugee life is becoming a new type of humanitarian phenomenon, driven by complex crises such as those in Syria, Yemen and Ethiopia. Conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo  has prompted more than 450,000 citizens to flee to neighbouring countries, even as DRC deals with an influx of refugees from Burundi and Central African Republic. Fighting in  Somalia  has forced Somalis to seek shelter in Kenya, including in the Dadaab complex.

With generations now growing up as refugees, aid agencies need to provide structures, opportunities and inspiration within the restricted context of the camp. Organisations have to look at programming years down the line, at how to ensure new generations have necessary skills and education to get by outside a camp and, perhaps most crucially for those spending prolonged periods of time in exile, how to maintain hope."

   In view of the tendency of the natural growth of refugee camp populations to outstrip the numbers of people leaving the camp, the Kenyan government is trying to close down Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp hosting Somalis and some South Sudanese. Already now, Dadaab is Kenya’s third largest agglomeration after Nairobi and Mombasa. Since Somalis are among the world’s most prolific populations, Kenyans are scared by the prospect of further unbridled growth of the camp population. By treating refugees harshly, the Kenyan administration has apparently started to force Somalis to return to their chaotic, war-torn homeland at a peak rate of 400 a day.  At this very high rate it would take over two years to move all Somalis out. 

   Small countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Greece and Kenya are, in the short term, easily overwhelmed by an influx of refugees. In the long term, however, the high fertility of refugee populations can threaten the very existence of a country. Jordan, successor to the former Transjordania, absorbed a large share of Arab refugees called Palestinians. King Hussein and his son, the current King Abdullah II, who originally ruled over Transjordanian beduin tribes, discovered themselves to have become rulers of a Palestinian majority. This delicate situation – Palestinians show little loyalty to the Beduin monarchy – is now exacerbated by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrians threatening to become still another demographic time bomb crowding out the beduins unless peace returns to Syria and the camps are emptied. If the past civil war in Lebanon which lasted fifteen years serves as a benchmark, Syria’s war will continue for years before all stakeholders in the conflict and their militias are exhausted.

   Even if peace arrives it may not be possible for refugees to return to Syria: if the Assad regime prevails, returning Sunni refugees will be considered potential “terrorists” risking persecution and death. A similar fate expects young men who dodged military service. Which means millions could be forced to remain outside Syria. The world would, of course, continue calling them and their offspring “refugees” just as the grandchildren and grand-grandchildren of the first Palestinians leaving what became Israel are still considered “refugees” entitled to be served by aid agencies.  Still, after the fighting ends in Syria, countries hosting refugees will hurry to close down camps; aid agencies will focus on new humanitarian issues, and many Syrians will be left on their own, seeking a livelihood outside Syria and burdened with many children. 

   The same holds true of the 300,000 Somalis hosted in Dadaab camp which Kenya tries to "repatriate" with financial support from the United Nations. .If the one million Somalis living as refugees in neighboring countries decided to return to Somalia, they would considerably increase the population still living in the country, estimated at 8 million. However, many if not most of the refugees would not dare to return because of the continuing presence of the Islamist radical militias they fled from. If Dadaab is closed down, many would refuse to be repatriated and prefer to vanish in Kenya or flee to neighboring Ethiopia which already hosts a quarter million Somalis.

   To sum up: hosting refugees in camps over an extended period may not be a good idea: by encouraging procreation, large families could result that might not be sustainable under less favorable conditions, without humanitarian support. 


Heinrich von Loesch

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