When did the first refugee camps appear ?
The first refugee camps appeared at the same time as one of the largest population movements of modern times, with the fall of the Ottaman Empire in the 1920s. Tens of thousands of Armenians were forced to leave the newly proclaimed Turkey. The mandatory powers, in particular France, set up refugee camps in Syria and Lebanon to house them.
After the creation of camps for the Armenian refuges, who took over?
Individual states took over managing the Armenian population in the region, then the status of refugees gradually changed. During the Second World War it was the League of Nations who managed the movement of populations such as the Spanish republicans or the stateless Jews in Europe. Then in 1951, the United Nations Assembly set up the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Geneva Convention relating to refugee rights. This organisation then built refugee camps to manage large population movements.
Once refugee status had been defined by international law, who were the first people to benefit ?
Firstly the Palestinians who were forced to leave their home country after the state of Israel was created in 1948. Around 730 to 750,000 Palestinians had to leave what would become Israeli territory. A United Nations agency was created especially for them and charged with running camps across the Middle East: in Lebanon , Syria, Jordan, and also in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.
What changes are there in the population within the camps?
It fluctuates with the crises and it is difficult today to put a figure on the number of people living in refugee camps throughout the world. Over the last twenty years, it has varied between 10 and 25 million displaced persons or refugees. But refugee camps are less and less common. In the current Syrian conflict, "setting up camps" is used less and less as a solution. By contrast, more and more "spontaneous" camps are being set up in urban areas in host countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
A camp opens, and sometimes closes: will this always happen?
When a conflict ends, the international community, and also the host countries, want to close the camps so the people can return home. What we often see is that some people don’t want to go home as exile can last a long time. UNHCR doesn’t know what to do with the people who don’t want to return home but who have trouble bledning in to their host country. This was a problem recently in Tunisia: when the Libyan conflict ended, a number of refugees of African origin who had fled Libya found themselves in southern Tunisia, with no solution. They didn’t want to go back, they couldn’t return to Libya and they had great difficulty integrating economically in Tunisia.
It seems to be working rather well in Nepal?
Yes, and there are places where it works well, when host countries work together and the number of people to resettle isn’t very large. With the Syrian conflict today, or previously with the Palestinian conflict, hundreds of thousands of people are displaced. And the "selection" to decide whom you take or don’t take is very difficult.
Kamel Doraï's biography (Migrinter website)
This interview has been initially carried out for the interactive report "Refugees - Mission Népal" in October 2013.