Forced migration, in which people are driven from their native lands by armed conflict, civil disturbance, persecution, or natural disasters or hardships, has taken place throughout human history. In the last century, as these flows became heavier and more widespread, global protocols drove the creation of refugee camps, facilities meant to house these populations and provide transitional services. As of May 2023, over 110 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees. Of these, approximately 6.6 million reside in refugee camps.
“With a projected 150-200 million climate change refugees by 2050, the problems and challenges of creating and coordinating effective multilateral humanitarian response programs will only grow,” said SPA Provost Associate Professor Khaldoun AbouAssi.
AbouAssi experienced forced displacement during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), which he says created “a country of refugees.” According to the European Commission, there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees and 211,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, of a total population of 5.3 million.
In 2013, AbouAssi, who earned his PhD at Syracuse University and studies the management of government agencies and nonprofits, was having dinner with his friend and coauthor Tina Nabatchi, Joseph A. Strasser Endowed Professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University, when the subject of Syrian refugees arose.
“Syrian refugees fleeing their country into Lebanon were not in camps, for political reasons,” he recalled. “But those who fled Syria to Jordan or Turkey ended up in camps. So that raises questions. Refugee camps are certain interesting settings where services are being delivered. Service delivery and policymaking are the bread and butter of public administration.”
As public administration scholars, AbouAssi and Nabatchi assumed that the literature had taken up these questions, but, to their surprise, a search of mainstream public administration journals returned nothing on refugee camps. They found work on refugee resettlement and the social and economic conditions within camps, but nothing on camp management.
“We know that refugee camps are governed through complex, multi-organizational arrangements involving international, national, and local organizations from the public, private, and non-governmental sectors,” said Nabatchi. “We know that these actors provide numerous services – housing, security, food, water, sanitation, education, healthcare, and so much more. However, we don’t know how these, and other services are delivered, how activities are coordinated and by whom, whether and how actors collaborate, or any other details of camp management.”
Since it was clear that the quality of the environment varied from camp to camp, AbouAssi and Nabatchi hypothesized that camp governance may play a part.
“Camp governance directly shapes the lives and experiences of refugees,” AbouAssi explained. “It determines whether and how well refugees’ economic, social, and psychological needs are met, and shapes their hopes for equality, agency, and human dignity. . . In short, more knowledge about refugee camp governance could provide the keys to unlocking advances that help some of the world’s most vulnerable human populations.”
The collaborators set out to conduct their own study of camp governance in Jordan and/or Lebanon. They considered project design and implementation and sought funding from governments and private foundations, with no luck.
Then, in 2022, AbouAssi and Nabatchi decided on a different approach.
“We realized we needed more than funding,” AbouAssi said. “We also needed access, information, and knowledge. . . We wanted to talk to people who might be working in this field, or in the camps themselves, but from different disciplines, maybe psychology or geography.”
They searched for scholars working in this area and sent cold emails: 20 responded, from a variety of fields, expressing interest in the academic questions behind the governance of these facilities. The next step seemed to be to convene these minds in one place, in a first-of-its-kind conversation on refugee camp management.
“We were careful about the term: it's not a conference, symposium, or even really a workshop,” said AbouAssi. “We called it a dialogue. We wanted people to come, brainstorm, and think collectively. It was something different from what we typically do as academics.”
With funding from SPA and the Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration (PARCC) at the Syracuse University Maxwell School, they recruited a planning team and organized the two-day International Dialogue on the Governance of Refugee Camps, in Lund, Sweden, on August 31-September 1, 2023, with support from Hamburg University and Aalborg University.
“First and foremost, we wanted to validate the importance of the topic,” said Nabatchi. “And that validation happened almost immediately. This gave us plenty of time to focus on our other goal – figuring out how to advance research about, and the practice of, refugee camp management.”
Fifteen scholars gathered, representing the fields of public administration and policy, government, economics, geography, international relations, climate studies, risk management, and nonprofit management. Participants were asked to submit an essay in advance sharing their thoughts on the pressing questions on camp management. These pieces served as prompts for session discussions with the whole group about camp management governance.
Following these discussions, the group clustered topics into six broad themes: (1) law, policy, and management, (2) camp typologies, (3) camp life cycles, (4) organizational ecosystems, (5) intersectionality and identity, and (6) refugee agency, voice, and mobilization. They also discussed appropriate research designs and planned next steps, including three research papers and a follow-up event.
“Next year’s international dialogue on refugee camp management will be a more structured and focused conversation among scholars from different disciplines, as well as a conversation with policymakers, such as research institutes, think tanks, or big international organizations like the UNHCR,” AbouAssi said.
In addition to advancing inquiry into camp management, AbouAssi hopes this work will shift the frameworks within which scholars consider issues of public administration.
“The whole field of public administration, of making and implementing policies and delivering services, seems to shy away from researching these questions unless they are about permanent settings,” he explained. “[We assume that any] shock or crises, such as hurricane, wars, or emergencies will be temporary, but [the institution] will be there forever. Our field, to a certain extent, prefers when things to go back to normal.”
Meanwhile, refugee camps are, by definition, temporary settings.
“[Originally,] it was the Syrian refugees fleeing Syria. Then over the past year it was the Ukrainian, Afghani, Rohingya, Sudanese, and Armenian refugees. With coming displacements related to ongoing wars and then maybe climate change, as the world moves forward, I'm not sure how ‘normal’ life is going to be,” he continued. “So, as a discipline, we need to research these temporary settings and their conditions and think about how to teach our students to make, analyze, and manage policy in such situations.”
AbouAssi, however, hopes that the International Dialogue on the Governance of Refugee Camps influences more than academia. He invites any scholar, practitioner, or advocate interested in refugees, management, the impact of climate change, and proactive solutions to these issues to reach out.
“From the inception of this idea, our interest was not to start just a research project,” Nabatchi said. “We are hoping that somewhere in this project there will be some kind of concrete policy recommendations that would help either change the lives of those in camps or prepare for better management.”
Financial support is critical to conducting quality research on the subject, and AbouAssi and Nabatchi welcome funding partners in the U.S. and abroad who are interested in supporting this crucial endeavor.
“I personally wish that I didn’t have to study this,” AbouAssi shared. “That all refugees were going back to their homes, and no new refugees are created.”
“That is not the case, unfortunately. Some of these camps are 80, 90 years old, which tells you they are there to stay. Hopefully, we can make a difference.”