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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 that permission is 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. This trend 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 that manage closed camps can and have violated these conditions with impunity in the absence of accountability mechanisms to enforce their compliance. This Essay 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 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.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Refugee camps, Refugees--Legal status laws etc., Emigration and immigration, Humanitarian law