Life in limbo

Our reporting – from Bangladesh to Somalia to Iraq – describes what life in exile looks like and explores some nascent solutions to the challenges refugees face as they spend longer and longer periods in limbo. Almost 16 million people have been displaced for longer than five years, according to the UN, including at least 2.4 million Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran, whose refugee crisis has lasted for four decades. 

Yet many refugees are still treated like a temporary inconvenience. They are segregated into camps, sometimes unable to move around freely. Excluded from public services, like health and education, they are supported by a parallel aid system. Prevented from working, refugees are forced into dependence on aid or exploitative work in the informal economy. 

“What was meant to be a temporary move turned out to be permanent,” writes journalist Moulid Hujale, who left Somalia aged 10 and grew up in Kenya’s Dadaab camp, then the largest in the world. “At least I knew I was born in Somalia. But what of the tens of thousands born in Dadaab by parents who were also born there? These third generation refugees have no identity or permanent home.”

The UN now says camps should be a last resort and recognises that increasing numbers of refugees live in cities. They have developed a framework meant to help refugees become self-reliant and contribute to their host country’s development. The humanitarian sector has pledged to make aid more efficient, including better supporting local aid workers, and renewed efforts to better coordinate short-term humanitarian aid and long-term development assistance. Yet reforms have been slow.

At a glance: Lives on hold

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