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Newsletter 12-21
September 2012

Security Considerations for Military Commanders
Establishing or Protecting a Refugee Camp

MAJ Jennifer Reed, U.S. Army

Overview of Refugees and Displaced Persons

Military involvement with refugee camps is often limited to humanitarian aid missions or supporting the many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide humanitarian aid inside camps. According to Joint Publication (JP) 3-03.6, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance, "the general policy of the U.N. [United Nations] is that where refugees are present, the affected country will provide security, safety, assistance, and law and order."1 Changes in the operational environment, however, to include the collapse of weakened or failing states, might result in the U.S. military having a more direct role in providing security for refugee camps.

Commanders at all levels are expected to establish appropriate force protection and security measures to safeguard their units. This article is not intended to look at those security issues and concerns. Instead, it will focus on the security issues that are peculiar to the occupants of refugee camps and what commanders can do to mitigate those issues.

For the purpose of this article, refugees are defined as "any persons who, by reason of real or imagined danger, have left their home country or country of their nationality and are unwilling or unable to return."2 Legally, refugees are different from displaced persons, who "are civilians who are involuntarily outside the national boundaries of their country"3 due to reasons other than persecution, such as natural or man-made disasters. An internally displaced person is "any person who has left their residence by real or imagined danger but has not left the territory of their own country."4

Although this article will primarily focus on situations with refugees, security issues inside camps for displaced persons are similar. Rules of engagement must address the specific nature of the refugee camp mission, ensuring they meet the criteria of international law as well as any host country laws that might still be in effect.

Resettlement Operations and NGOs

Certain military police units have the mission to conduct resettlement operations, following the doctrinal guidance described in Chapter 10 of Field Manual (FM) 3-39.40, Internment and Resettlement Operations. The objectives in a military police unit conducting resettlement operations include protecting displaced civilians from combat operations, preventing and controlling the outbreak of disease, relieving human suffering, and centralizing masses of displaced civilians. All of these objectives might equally apply to any unit tasked with establishing or providing security to a refugee camp.

Regardless of the size of the camp or the number of refugees expected, unit commanders must address crimes against persons and property, guidance for security patrols inside and around the camp, and emergency response force operations. The commander faces delicate and potentially international incident-creating issues, including providing adequate security without creating the impression that the camp is a prison with the occupants as prisoners. If NGOs are not present at the establishment of the camp, incorporating them at the earliest opportunity is essential. Their assessment of the security requirement is worth considering, even if not all suggestions result in changes. The organizations involved in refugee assistance are extensive and sometimes regionally specific.

A good online reference to understand specific NGO mission and capability is available at The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is the main U.N. organization charged with providing refugees with international protection and seeking permanent solutions for the refugee problem. The UNHCR is responsible for many publications on refugees, some of which are listed at the end of this article.

Establishing Rules and Knowing the Population

Establishing control over the population of the refugee camp is an essential starting point for the security operation. Determining appropriate camp rules of conduct will facilitate the camp commander's ability to maintain authority and discipline. Before the rules are made public, they should be reviewed by military unit legal officers and, if possible, a legal representative from the host nation or available NGOs. The same groups should also discuss with U.S. forces how the rules should be enforced and the appropriate response to camp occupants who violate the rules. Including the refugees in the development of the rules is also advisable, especially since use of the traditional and formal laws of the country of origin might influence behavior in the camps.

When considering the rules and outlining the security requirements, it is important for commanders to look at the members of the camp who are the most vulnerable. Women of all ages, especially unaccompanied women and women who are heads of households, are particularly exposed to danger in refugee populations. Both males and females under the age of 18 and the elderly also face increased risks.

The Vulnerable Population

Without the right safeguards in place, women and children are highly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). In May 2003, UNHCR published a guideline on the issue of vulnerable populations titled Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees, and Internally Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response. The report concluded that "Sexual and gender-based violence occurs in all classes, cultures, religions, races, gender, and ages."5

Acts of sexual violence include rape, child sexual abuse, forced sodomy, attempted rape or forced sodomy, sexual exploitation, forced prostitution, sexual harassment, and other crimes of a sexual nature.6 Commanders should familiarize themselves with this guideline and other applicable references, not only to improve the safety and security of their refugee camps, but also because many NGOs may be unfamiliar with the conditions that facilitate SGBV and are unaware of how to mitigate those conditions. Commanders may find themselves in the position of working with NGOs in establishing or improving a camp, and this report is a useful guide to enhance unity of effort between all parties.

Giving Women a Voice

In refugee situations the collapse of social and family support structures, gender-biased decisions, lack of security patrols, and lack of individual registration and identity cards are just a few of the factors that increase the possibility of SGBV.7 Although cultural norms might dictate that males play a predominant role in leading and decision making, the representation of women in the camp leadership structure is vital.8 "Equal access to and control of material resources and assistance benefits and women's equal participation in decision-making processes should be reflected in all programs, whether explicitly targeting SGBV or responding to the emergency, recovery, or development needs of the population."9 Without providing women with a voice in the camp, victimization is likely to run rampant. Working within the camp population, religious and other community leaders should be engaged by unit leadership to promote those social values that "uphold equal rights and respect for all community members."10

Estimating Populations

Population estimation will assist commanders with understanding the size of the traditional vulnerable population. This vulnerable population is generally comprised of children, females under 18, single female heads of households, pregnant females, and the elderly. Knowing the size of this population will assist the commander in understanding the camp security requirements as well as what resources are necessary for survival. Determining the demographics of the population, especially in the beginning of an operation, is difficult, but a formula is available to estimate the basic breakdown.

First, estimate the total number of refugees. One way to do this is to assign people to count those who show up at a water distribution station. Once the estimated population is determined, assume that the ratio of males to females is 50/50. The number of children aged 0-4 years old is 16 percent of the total population. The average percentage of children aged 5-14 years is 27 percent. Roughly 27 percent of the population will also be aged 15-29 years. Those aged 30-44 years will make up 16 percent of the group. Only 14 percent of the camp will be aged 45 years or older.

Commanders can also make an educated guess as to the number of pregnant females in their camp with this formula: .50 (women in the population) x .47 (people of childbearing age) x .18 (average fertility rate).


If available to the unit, establishing a female engagement team (FET), similar to those first used in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), could empower women in the camps and provide the commander with a means to build trust in this often defenseless demographic. Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) Handbook 11-38, Commander's Guide to Female Engagement Teams, might provide a useful starting point for commanders seeking to use FETs in a refugee camp situation.

Minor Children

In establishing the systems for reporting incidents, members of the refugee camp should be able to speak freely to the camp officials, as specified in FM 3-90.40. However, commanders also need to consider the voices of the children. Minor children, especially those not accompanied by an adult or with their blood relatives, are at risk for SGBV as well as other abuses. Additionally, incidents of SGBV or other crimes that took place prior to the refugees arriving at the camp might be reported. Commanders need to have a plan in place for taking care of the victim and the accused so that no further violations occur and the accused receives a fair trial.

Camp Location

The location of the refugee camp is also something the commander must consider when looking at potential security issues. Outside the normal security considerations utilized in any displaced civilian situation, the location of a refugee camp in close proximity to a border increases the chance of violence against the refugees. The availability of resources, such as wood (for shelter as well as for fuel) and water, also create security concerns. The farther away from the security of the camp that women and children must travel to gather these resources, the more at risk they are, not only from other members of the refugee population, but from members of the local population as well.

Camp Design

The layout within the camp can also enhance or detract from the inhabitants. Both the UNHCR and FM 3-90.40 recommend keeping families together while separating unaccompanied adult males from adult females and children. Adequate lighting inside the camp deters criminal acts as well as routine patrolling inside and outside the camp. The design for a dislocated civilian resettlement facility is provided in FM 3-39.40 and might prove valuable to commanders establishing a refugee camp from the ground up.


CALL Handbook 10-41, Assessments and Measures of Effectiveness in Stability Operations, provides the commander with the tactical conflict assessment planning framework tool kit. Found in appendix A of the handbook, this framework provides a means of understanding refugee camp needs, providing the commander with some insight into potential security friction points before they take place. Additionally, getting input from the refugees themselves on the most important problems they face and how they feel these problems can be solved is helpful for the commander and the staff.


Commanders face a difficult mission when dealing with camps of refugees or displaced persons. The camp is probably at risk from the violence that led to the people seeking refugee status in the first place. Inside the camp, violence is likely to take place as the social structure breaks down and those without protection are victimized by those around them. Commanders cannot expect to eliminate generations of cultural conflict, but through careful planning, they can mitigate situations that make the violence worse, helping those victimized and preventing additional atrocities.


1. Joint Publication 3-07.6, Joint Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance (Washington, DC: JCS, 15 August 2001), IV-20.

2. Ibid., I-5.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response, May 2003, page 19. Accessed in May 2012:

6. Ibid, 16-17.

7. Ibid, 22.

8. Ibid, 51.

9. Ibid, 25.

10. Ibid, 51.


JP 3-07.6, Joint Tactics Techniques, and Procedures for Foreign Humanitarian Assistance (Washington, DC: JCS, 15 August 2001).

UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Guideline for Prevention and Response (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, May 2003).

Additional Resources

CALL Handbook 10-41, Assessments and Measures of Effectiveness in Stability Operations Handbook (Fort Leavenworth, KS: CALL, May 2010).

Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement and The Liaison Office (TLO), Beyond the Blanket: Towards More Effective Protection for Internally Displaced Persons in Southern Afghanistan, May 2010.

CALL Handbook 11-38, Commander's Guide to Female Engagement Teams, Version 3 (Fort Leavenworth, KS: CALL, September 2011).

CALL Handbook 11-07, Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook (Fort Leavenworth, KS: CALL, December 2010).

UNHCR, Frequently Asked Questions about Resettlement (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, 2011). Available at:

Global Protection Cluster Working Group, Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Person (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, June 2006).

Inter-Agency Standing Committee, Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, June 2010). Available at:

CALL Handbook 12-05, Restoring Essential Services in Stability Operations (Fort Leavenworth, KS: CALL, November 2011).

Rosa da Costa, "The Administration of Justice in Refugee Camps: A Study of Practice." Legal and Protection Policy Research Series, United Nations Refugee Agency, March 2006.

UNHCR, "Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," General Assembly Resolution 428 (V) of 14 December 1950. Available at:

UNHCR, "The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol" brochure. Available at:

UNHCR, Through the Eyes of a Child: Refugee Children Speak about Violence: A report on participatory assessments carried out with refugee and returnee children in South Africa 2005-2007 (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, 2005-2007). Available at:

UNHCR, UNHCR Global Report 2010 - The Refugee Convention: 60 years (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, 2010). Available at:

UNHCR, Operational Protection in Camps and Settlement: A reference guide of good practices in the protection of refugees and other persons of concern (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, 2006).

UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Guideline for Prevention and Response (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, May 2003).

UNHCR, Sexual Violence Against Refugees: Guidelines on Prevention and Response (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR, 1995).

United Nations, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (New York: UN, September 2004).

Vicky Tennant, Bernie Doyle and Raouf Mazou, "Safeguarding humanitarian Space: a review of key challenges for UNHCR," in United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) (Geneva, Switzerland: UNHCR PDES, February 2010).


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