Engaging with different ‘types’ of displacement: The Fine Line Between Humanitarian Assistance, Sustainability and Development

Engaging with different ‘types’ of displacement: The Fine Line Between Humanitarian Assistance, Sustainability and Developmen

Written by Marie-Eve Hamel

Refugee camps are built with the purpose of providing temporary settlement to individuals forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or climate-related reasons. Usually, the planning behind the establishment of refugee camps is done on the premise that this humanitarian assistance will be temporary, from the shelters provided to the utilities found in the camps. The ultimate goal of national and international actors is indeed to be able to close the refugee camps as soon as possible, since it would mean that individuals have been able to return home. However, as some conflicts have demonstrated over the past few years, including the Syrian crisis, displacement may, and often does, last longer than anticipated. This reality should encourage us to rethink the relationship between humanitarian assistance, sustainability and development.

This discussion is one that LIVED and its members, some of whom are researching international aid practices, engaged in with UNHCR staff members in Amman and in the Zaatari refugee camp while we were there filming our documentary in 2014. During our stay in Jordan, we heard about the dynamic and fine line between humanitarian assistance to development. When we asked about the ‘sustainability’ of the camp, the response was explicitly that, because the camp is meant to be temporary humanitarian assistance, sustainability is something that falls under development practices, rather than the relief provided by UNHCR. At the time we were visiting Zaatari, another camp, the Azraq camp, was being built. The long-term planning that went into this camp was evident with the decision to build shelters with concrete foundations. Electricity and water supplies were also issues that UNHCR had been struggling with, showing signs of urban planning in both the Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps. This is something that we discussed with Gavin White, UNHCR media representative in the Zaatari refugee camp.

There are 2 water holes and 65 wooden tankers that have been shipping water around the camp, but it's a huge investment. And there is an incredible amount of money and resources put into that and it's not an effective way of providing water over the medium-term. So then the ideal situation would be moving towards a water system, and then the same with sewage and so on. But these are very heavy infrastructure projects, so within this area we started to initiate engagements that go beyond the standard arrangements for a refugee camp setting, to move towards an engagement with the private sector, exploring different modalities of how you can expand these services and create more sustainability and cross-recovery through these heavier infrastructure projects.

This tension between short-term humanitarian assistance and long-term development was strongly felt in the Zaatari refugee camp, which for Syrian refugees unfortunately suggested the possibility of long-term displacement. Whilst this is something perhaps new for refugee camps, the importance of linking humanitarian assistance with development is strongly demanded by urban refugee populations. In 2014, most Syrian refugees were living in urban areas in Jordan. The assistance provided thus had to expand from providing basic needs to also providing services related to development, such as education, medical services, etc. For example, when we were in the town of Mafraq, near the Zaatari refugee camp, we visited a Syrian family whose basic needs were being supported by a local organisation. However, once these needs were covered, other issues such as education for the children had to be address. As Aoife McDonnell, UNHCR media officer in Amman mentioned, ‘we are at a point where we are trying to link humanitarian assistance with development. And they should really go hand in hand, especially when it comes to urban refugees. This should support Jordan, there should be something left afterwards.’ Again, this tension between humanitarian assistance, sustainability and development was a clear dilemma faced by the national and international response to the Syrian displacement crisis in Jordan.

As our team prepares to engage with internally displaced individuals in Colombia and provide filmmaking workshops at a UNHCR education centre, it is expected that this tension between humanitarian assistance and sustainable development will be observed in this location. Some families internally displaced by both conflict and climate-related reasons have been living in displacement for decades, showing another type of permanent displacement that brings new challenges. Similarly to urban refugees in Jordan, these individuals in Colombia are attempting to rebuild their lives in other towns and cities, moving away from an emergency humanitarian assistance to long-term sustainable development.

The initiatives provided should thus align with this need for long-term sustainable development, and this is exactly what is driving our filmmaking workshops, where it is hoped that by creating a local source of film-making knowledge, these skills will be transferred from young people to young people for years to come. LIVED firmly believes that filmmaking skills may provide both the Syrian and Colombian displaced youth with the opportunity to raise awareness and share the human stories of displacement that are often forgotten by mass media portrayal. With this initiative, we are thus trying to complement the crucial emergency response by national and international actors by providing sustainable skills that will give a voice to the youth population for years to come.