Five largest refugee camps in the world and how people live there

By Daniil Filipenco

Five largest refugee camps in the world and how people live there

When forced to leave their homes in search of safer locations, what choice do people have? Some of the options are other villages or cities where fresh shelter and a new job can be found but, for various reasons, this is not always an immediate option for hundreds of thousands of refugees. In search of a temporary safe haven, refugees are accommodated at temporary settlements called refugee camps.

According to UN estimates, one-fifth of the world’s refugees, i.e., approximately 6.6 million people, live in refugee camps. We were unable to identify an exact number of camps in the world given the complicated process of tracking refugees and their movements. However, assuming that an average refugee camp houses 11,500 people at a time, there are at least 500 refugee camps in the world.

What is a refugee camp?

Refugee camps are temporary facilities created to house and assist people who have been forced to leave their homes due to different types of violence they faced. The camps are not intended to offer long-term solutions but they provide people with food, water, medical care, and other vital services. According to UNHCR, on average, refugees stay between 10 and 15 years at a refugee camp but the duration can differ greatly depending on a number of variables, including the reason for displacement and the extent of conflict in the area.

The latest data shows that today 100 million people have already fled their homes in search of a safer place. This figure is 10.7 million higher than the estimate at the end of 2021.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees lists the following five refugee camps as the biggest on the planet:

5. Um Rakuba in Sudan

Source: WFP/Leni Kinzli

This camp is among the many set up at the end of 2020 with the help of UNHCR with the goal of addressing the escalating problem in Ethiopia’s Tigray area, situated almost 300 km away.

Due to violent conflict in the area, thousands of people were forced to flee and settle in neighboring Sudan. When the conflict first began, around 60,000 people fled the country and now hundreds continue to enter Sudan daily. Currently, Sudan houses over 1.1 million refugees and this camp itself is home to over 16,000 refugees.

About a third of all refugees are children and 25% are women. The Norwegian Refugee Council, Islamic Relief Worldwide, and Save The Children International have managed to provide children with safe and encouraging learning environments.

According to the residents, the camp has improved and today features well-functioning drainage systems, solar lighting, and speed bumps which have considerably reduced the number of traffic accidents. In addition, the cleaning campaigns have improved the environment.

4. Za’atari in Jordan

Source: UNHCR/Brian Sokol

Located 10 km away from Al-Mafraq, this camp was established on July 28, 2012, and is now populated by 80,000 people, symbolizing the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. It all began with a group of 450 Syrians who were escaping the conflict in their nation.

Since Jordan is the world’s second-least water-rich country, water is one of the most valuable resources there. Despite the fact that all structures in the camp are connected to a water source, about a third of all homes claim the water supply is insufficient to meet all their demands.

In 2017, a solar power plant was set up to provide access to electricity and currently, camp residents have access to electricity for 9 hours per day. In addition, the camp has some of the most essential facilities such as primary health clinics.

Today, over 30 international organizations operate in the camp. People can benefit from medical facilities, improved shelters, healthcare centers for pregnant women, schools and even a market with over 1,800 shops.

3. Kakuma in Kenya

Source: UNHCR/Siegfried Modola

Over 180,000 people are currently staying in this camp in Kenya’s Northwestern region which was established in 1992 to house 90,000 people.

Due to this overcrowding, essential commodities such as food, safe drinking water, and medications are becoming scarce in Kakuma which has stressed the local infrastructure and resources.

According to the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), insufficient dietary variety in the available food has caused undernutrition and anemia in settlement communities. However, numerous organizations such as the IWMI and World Agroforestry are working to solve the issue. Moreover, people in the camp receive seeds and learn to garden and also use solar power to pump water from boreholes to use on crops.

2. Dadaab complex of 3 camps in Kenya

Source: Nichole Sobecki

Located in Kenya’s Garissa County, almost 725 km away from the Kakuma refugee camp, the Dadaab refugee complex is composed of three smaller camps – Hagadera, Dagahaley, and Ifo.

The latest data shows that the complex houses over 230,000 refugees, mostly Somalis, some of whom fled the country as a result of the conflict in 1991, while others have sought shelter due to the catastrophic drought and hunger that occurred 20 years later.

People can benefit from a range of facilities, including latrines, boreholes, tap stands, educational, medical, recreational, and security facilities, as well as markets and financial organizations. However, with more people being introduced to the already crowded camps, access to essential facilities will consequently continue to be limited.

1. Kutupalong in Bangladesh

Source: UNHCR/Roger Arnold

Kutupalong began to develop as a haven on the opposite side of the Burmese border in 1991 but the armed clashes in 2017 in Myanmar’s Rakhine State led to the largest migration of thousands of Rohingya people who abandoned their homes to go to the camp. This forced Bangladesh officials to build a camp able to house over 800,000 people seeking shelter.

Today, with a refugee population exceeding 860,000 (of whom half are children), this is the world’s biggest refugee camp, occupying an area of around 13 sq. km.

Urban planning issues

In Kutupalong, Rohingya refugees encounter a variety of difficulties, with monsoons ranking as one of the most significant bringing extensive flooding that destroys numerous shelters. Refugees live in low-rise homes situated on a floodplain that is stuck in the mud.

Public services including hospitals and schools are not accessible. Since there are no emergency services at all, fires often destroy homes along with everything in their path.

The Bangladeshi government has attempted to address the Kutupalong urban planning problem for many years, but the ongoing influx of immigrants makes this almost impossible.

Available facilities

Given the camp’s rapid expansion, the destruction caused by fires and flooding, and the continued service activities of humanitarian organizations, the number of schools, hospitals, and other amenities in operation can fluctuate.

There are more than 270 primary and secondary schools operating in the camp. In addition, the UNHCR has established traveling medical teams to assist the refugees. The camp also features water and sanitary facilities and food distribution centers.

The future of the camp

The 2020 Camp 4 Extension (one of the camp’s sectors) can be viewed as a sustainable solution for a better future for the camp. A small group of people worked on this to design plans that will build a safer city. The first dwellings are of different heights and constructed from steel and bamboo which makes them safer while also being more compact to avoid overcrowding.

Final word

Millions of people around the globe are forced to leave their dwellings due to never-ending conflicts. Nearly one-fifth of these have no other option but to reside in refugee camps, temporary structures created to address particular emergencies. However, for many refugees, these camps remain their home for years or even decades.