Published on Development for Peace

How refugees' decision to live in or outside a camp affects their quality of life

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Fatatima plays with her son, Mouath in their makeshift home in the Ketermaya refugee camp. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank Fatatima plays with her son, Mouath in their makeshift home in the Ketermaya refugee camp. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

I first met Amin two years ago. He was a refugee from Afghanistan looking for living accommodations outside of the government-assigned camp. He told me that finding an out-of-camp accommodation was his first step towards creating a better life as a forcibly displaced person. Amin said that camps are often overcrowded and that residents usually do not enjoy the freedoms that an out-of-camp accommodation brings. My conversation with Amin made me think about how a simple decision like where to live —either inside the camp or out— could have inevitable consequences and ultimately affect the refugees' quality of life (QOL).  

While it is mainly the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to receive refugees, whether refugees live in a refugee camp or among the population is at the discretion of local policy or the refugee's choice. Globally, about 60% of refugees choose to live outside of refugee camps .  Although living outside of the camps can increase refugees' freedom, integration, and likelihood to participate in economic activities, the safety nets enjoyed inside the camp disappear, as does the sense of belonging and community spirit among the refugees. In urban areas, refugees may struggle to pay rent and end up living in substandard dwellings. Despite these constraints, where policy allows, most refugees often choose to live outside refugee camps  

This decision to live outside of the camp may be motivated by four key factors—freedoms, housing conditions, social networks, and economic participation. Refugee camps limit refugee rights and freedoms since the refugees are often under the authorities' constant watch. Most refugee camps are overcrowded, which makes residents vulnerable to disease.  Camps—especially those situated far from the cities—isolate refugees from networks that may support them and reduce their ability to integrate. 

I have analyzed the QOL for Syrian refugees living in Jordan in a new study that looks at differences between in-camp vs. out-of-camp refugees. The study examines why refugees choose to live outside of camps and how this decision affects their QOL. Unlike previous studies that mainly used income or economic participation to measure refugees' QOL, this study broadens the perspective by using multidimensional QOL indicators.  The study shows that assessing quality of life in forced displacement situations is critical to understanding refugees' welfare, something that cannot be reliably determined by looking only at the economic dimension of welfare .

Previous studies on the welfare of Syrian refugees in Jordan show that out-of-camp refugees often endure bad living conditions, have limited access to public facilities, work in informal jobs, and pay high rent. Because they have less contact with officials, they often lack access to information and may not be fully informed about their rights. These issues can put out-of-camp refugees at a disadvantage compared to camp residents, affecting their QOL. 

In Jordan, for example, where about 90 % of Syrian refugees (approximately 800,000 people) live outside of camps, most in-camp refugees are supported by targeted assistance. All camp refugees receive about US$ 32 per person per month through the World Food Programme's (WFP) blockchain system and core relief items such as blankets, cooking utensils, and bedsheets. The camp administration also provides employment assistance by facilitating work permits, advertising job vacancies, and training opportunities. Almost one in three working-age people in the camps hold work permits, thanks to a recent favorable Jordanian government policy.  

By using difference-in-difference and propensity score matching methods, and a sample size of 2,399 Syrian refugee households--50 % of whom lived outside of camps, the study measured multidimensional QOL using two broad dimensions:  

  • "Life satisfaction" captures people's subjective well-being. It is often used when studying refugees because it requires respondents to reflect on and make an overall assessment of their life happiness, including wealth, security, and hopes for the future. 
  • "Material living condition" captures households' objective living conditions and opportunities, including material deprivations that can be determined by counting the number of household assets such as beds, air conditioners, and cooking utensils, and the number of households living below the national poverty line.  Housing conditions can be captured by calculating overcrowding and satisfaction with accommodation services, such as water and electricity. 

The results of the study show that living in a camp reduces QOL for refugees: 

This study sheds new light on the importance of understanding QOL differences for refugees based on where they are living.  This has important policy considerations in targeting assistance and programs designed to create sustainable settlement and shelter using the multidimensional QOL indicator as a guide. The study shows that camp-based programs need to promote life skills to improve refugees' success once they move away from the camp. These programs are particularly needed for female-headed refugee households living in camps. The study also provides valuable analysis that will help governments, policymakers, and development organizations design improved refugee-hosting programs.  Going forward, more cross-sectional data and models would allow increased in-depth analysis of refugees' QOL before and after refugees move away from camps. A cross-country analysis of the refugees' QOL in countries with different refugee-hosting arrangements could also provide robust evidence on this topic.  


This work is part of the program "Building the Evidence on Forced Displacement: A Multi-Stakeholder Partnership''. The program is funded by UK aid from the United Kingdom's Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO). It is managed by the World Bank Group (WBG) and was established in partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  


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