The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


The term camp is used to describe a place where people are gathered. Different kinds of camps are addressed by international law, and the protection that must be granted to the individuals gathered in these places varies depending on the rules of law that are applicable to each kind. One must distinguish between spontaneous and forced gatherings, in open or closed camps.

Refugee Camps

When there are mass flows of people seeking asylum (e.g., individuals who leave their home countries to flee a conflict), camps are organized under the responsibility of the host country’s government, in cooperation with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These camps must be located at a reasonable distance from the fighting—in other words, at a reasonable distance from the border with the country of origin (1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Art. 2.6)—and must not serve as a base from which to run military operations. The “civilian and humanitarian character of refugee camps and settlements” is stressed in several reports by the UN Secretary-General, as well as in several Security Council resolutions concerning the issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict (in particular Resolution 1208, adopted on 19 November 1998).

The term refugees is used to designate the individuals in these camps, although they do not actually enjoy individual refugee status in the sense of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In certain circumstances, because of the number of people involved and the situation of emergency, an entire group of people may be called refugees without being given the refugee status. So they have minimal rights. Within the camps, these refugees benefit from assistance provided by the host country and the international community through UNHCR activities. They remain under the physical protection of the host country authorities. Sometimes, the UNHCR may distribute individual refugee cards. In most cases, this document serves as the refugees’ identity card and entitles them to the assistance distributed in the camps and to a certain amount of freedom of movement.

The UNHCR makes sure that refugees are not returned to their country by force (non-refoulement). It also ensures that they have access to the procedure for requesting asylum, on an individual basis, if they do not want to be repatriated or if their collective refugee status is withdrawn during a repatriation operation.

RefugeesUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Camps for Internally Displaced Persons in Times of Peace

Even in times of peace, individuals may be displaced within their own country for diverse reasons. Although they may gather in a camp and may receive aid from the international community, they are still under the authority of their government and the domestic laws of their country. The international assistance that is provided takes place within the domestic institutional framework and norms. No international agency has a specific mandate to protect displaced persons, and no international laws establish specific provisions to protect them. However, international human rights standards may be invoked in such cases. Internally displaced persons are only entitled to the UNHCR’s protection if they are “returnees.” These are individuals who were refugees or sought refuge outside their country and were then repatriated to their State but not to the exact place where they used to live. Even in such cases, individuals are only protected if the UNHCR and the State of origin negotiated an agreement concerning the repatriation, and it also depends on the content of this agreement.

DetentionInternally displaced personsRepatriation

Camps for Internally Displaced Persons in Times of War

In times of armed conflict, internally displaced persons are entitled to protection under international humanitarian law. In such situations, gathering them together may facilitate their protection, but it may also increase their exposure to the dangers of the conflict.

Camps Regulated by the Law of Armed Conflict

International humanitarian law sets forth provisions allowing a limited right to gather populations together. It expressly allows two kinds of camps:

  • Camps for prisoners of war: Captured combatants are prisoners of war, and they may be gathered into camps regulated by the Third Geneva Convention. ▸ Prisoners of war
  • Camps for civilian internees: In international armed conflicts, a party to the conflict can intern civilians residing in its territory who are nationals of the enemy party. Foreigners who reside on the territory of a party to a conflict may also request voluntary internment (GCIV Arts. 41–43, 79–141). ▸ Internment

Humanitarian law also allows gathering places that provide shelter from fighting for vulnerable populations. These are non-defended localities, hospital zones and localities, hospital and safety zones, and neutralized zones.

Protected areas and zones

Camps Forbidden by the Law of Armed Conflict

Certain camps are forbidden under international law, though they still occur in practice. These include:

  • concentration camps
  • forced regroupment camps
  • forced labor and reeducation camps
  • extermination camps

Parties to a conflict often justify the creation of such camps by saying they need to use the land for extensive military operations. Another justification may be the need to separate certain individuals from the civilian population, either because they doubt their loyalty or because they fear that the adversary may manipulate them for economic or military reasons. Sometimes, such forced gathering of civilians is organized in order to cut off any support from the society to a guerrilla movement. Mandatory or forced gatherings are forbidden under international humanitarian law.

In practice, when such camps are forcibly established, people often have to work, not only to ensure their own survival but also to help sustain the military presence and the “security” operations carried out, in and around the camp.

At first, gathering individuals into these camps may enable the authorities to better protect them from the effects of the war. However, it also makes these people much more vulnerable: they risk becoming a target for military activities or, more passively, being weakened through their loss of autonomy, means, and ability to subsist or survive.

Deprived of any autonomy and a legal framework within which to defend themselves, the population is left to endure the laws of violence and arbitrariness that always threaten to transform a concentration camp into an extermination camp. Practices explicitly forbidden by international humanitarian law include the following:

  • Civilians must not be displaced by force. In internal conflicts, forced population movements are prohibited by the Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions. Hence, the “displacement of the civilian population shall not be ordered for reasons related to the conflict unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition” (APII Art. 17).
  • Any authority that imposes population gatherings must ensure their means of subsistence. In any situation of conflict, military authorities are directly responsible for ensuring the well-being of any population interned or gathered together. The aim of this provision is to prevent armed forces from making a profit from population gatherings. Relief operations must not favor population regroupments.

In other situations, such as large-scale refugee flows or natural disasters, governments can always appeal for international assistance to help them provide aid to the population in distress. Such assistance can be provided on a bilateral basis or through intergovernmental organizations such as the UNHCR, UNDP, OCHA, and so on.

DetentionInternally displaced personsInternmentPopulation displacementPrisoners of warRefugeesRepatriation

For Additional Information: Brauman, Rony. “Refugee Camps, Population Transfers, and NGOs.” In Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention , edited by Jonathan Moore, 177–94. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved . New York: Summit Books, 1998.

Mtango, Elly-Elikunda. “Military and Armed Attacks on Refugee Camps.” In Refugees and International Relations , edited by Gil Loescher and Leila Monahan, 87–121. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Olsen, Odd Einar, and Kristin S. Scharffscher. “Rape in Refugee Camps as Organisational Failures.” International Journal of Human Rights 8, no. 4 (2004): 377–97.

Rees, Laurence. Auschwitz . New York: Public Affairs, 2005.

Terry, Fiona. Condemn to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action . London: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Todorov, Tzvetan. Facing the Extreme . New York: Metropolitan, 1996.

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