Building Cities In the Desert: A Way Out of Internment Camps for Refugees?



Emily Arnold Fernandez, Asylum Access

Date and Time

May 6, 2013 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM



Open to the public.

RSVP required by 5PM May 03.


Encina Ground Floor Conference Room

FSI Contact


Emily Arnold-Fernández is the executive director of Asylum Access, an innovative international nonprofit that transforms the human rights landscape for refugees in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Using a unique combination of grassroots legal assistance and broader advocacy and strategic litigation efforts, Emily leads a team of refugee rights advocates to make human rights a reality for refugees, so they can live safely, work, send children to school and rebuild their lives. 

Emily was a fall 2012 Social Entrepreneur in Residence at Stanford's Program on Social Entrepreneurship. 


For the last half-century, the international response to refugees has been internment.  Today, the average time in a refugee camp has reached 17 years. 

When refugees reach “safety,” we imprison them behind barbed wire fences, often for years, sometimes for generations.  We relegate them to starvation rations if aid runs low or politics intervenes.  They almost never have adequate access to police, courts, or other mechanisms that could protect them from crime or ensure justice for victims.  Adults are not allowed to go out and get a job, to feed their families and fill their days.  Children grow up knowing no other life. 

And refugees are protesting.  Recently, a riot broke out in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan after Syrian refugees attempted to leave the camp without permission. Hundreds of other refugee protests never make the news. 

Answers to this problem have so far focused on supporting so-called “urban refugees” – refugees who have chosen to leave camps, usually illicitly, to move to the city.  But what if we brought the city to the refugees? 

Building cities, not camps, in refugee arrival zones has the potential to transform refugee response.    Developing urban centers that can attract and support both locals and refugees creates the conditions for refugees to meet their own needs and make choices about their own lives, while also growing the regional and national economy and increasing opportunities for locals to thrive. 

Building a city in place of a camp won't be easy.  It requires convincing and coordinating multiple actors to make long-term investments in a refugee arrival area.  National and local governments must work with development funders to implement roads, high-volume sanitation systems, and other infrastructure.  Corporations must be invited, and at times incentivized, to locate factories, IT centers or other labor-intensive operations in the new location.  Underemployed local populations in other urban centers must be made aware and take advantage of opportunities in the emerging city, so that refugees do not vastly outnumber the local population.  This (correctly) sounds complex, but coordinating diverse actors for rapid development in the context of a mass influx lies exactly within the UN refugee agency's area of expertise. 

To build a successful city also requires a policy framework and enforcement infrastructure that can ensure resources are equitably distributed.  Refugees currently in urban areas often experience deep discrimination, exploitation, and poverty when their rights are not effectively protected.  Refugees must be able to access resources and opportunities equitably with locals if the new city is to live up to its promise. 

These and other challenges must be explored and overcome: Refugee camps may be built in a day (or at least a matter of weeks), but transforming our response from internment to urban center will take careful planning, piloting of iterations, and a willingness to learn from mistakes.  The possibilities if we get it right are enormous: In place of segregated, aid-dependent camps, we'll have integrated, emerging urban economies offering opportunities for millions. 


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