When Do 'Closed Camps' Become Prisons by Another Name?
14 Pages Posted: 17 Mar 2022 Last revised: 22 Apr 2022
Date Written: April 19, 2022
There is an inherent tension between the widespread practice of establishing camps to provide temporary housing and humanitarian assistance to migrants and the fundamental human right to freedom of movement. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some degree of limitation on rights—including movement—is “the defining characteristic” of camps. International law permits states to impose some restrictions on the movement of migrants, including temporary confinement in “closed camps,” for lawful purposes including identity verification and security screening in situations of war, emergency, or other grave and exceptional circumstances, but subject to important limitations: restrictions must be proportional, non-discriminatory, and time-limited. Closed camps, from which residents are not free to leave because they are suspected of presenting threats including crime, extremism, or disease, are a relatively recent development in the modern migration management regime and have become more common over time in a trend that is likely driven by the increased frequency of subnational conflicts resulting in high levels of internal displacement and the growing securitization of systems for managing large transnational flows of “mixed migrants.” U.N. agencies have provided some general guidelines on the human rights and humanitarian conditions that must be satisfied in order for closed camps to comply with international law including access to education, healthcare, documentation, and courts, as well as communication and contact with family. However, in practice, the states and non-state actors who manage closed camps can and have violated these conditions with impunity in the absence of accountability mechanisms to enforce their compliance. This article uses a case study of Al-Hol, a closed camp in northeast Syria where more than 56,000 people—mostly children and women—from at least sixty different countries have been confined since 2019 on suspicion of having family or other ties to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL) to illustrate how closed camps can become open-air prisons by another name and therefore require close monitoring and further study.
Keywords: Migration, Closed Camps, Human Rights, International Refugee Law, Islamic State, Syria
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