Rows of identical caravan shelters in Azraq camp Credit: Melissa Gatter, 2018

I learned one major lesson after having spent much of the last decade researching and working in refugee camps in Jordan: a camp is an easy response to mass displacement, but never a solution. 

You can imagine my concern when I heard that my home city, Chicago, had announced plans to build two winterized base camps in the South Side. Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration claims that this base camp will not be a refugee camp. 

But what they choose to call it is less important than what it could actually entail for the thousands of asylum seekers who have been bussed to the city as pawns in an unfortunate political game.  

In Jordan, politicians have been moving refugees around metaphorical chess boards for decades, blaming the displaced communities for depleting the country’s scarce resources. 

Jordan has provided lesson after lesson on hosting those who have been deemed undesirable. The country is home to millions of refugees, 80,000 of whom live in Zaatari camp, the second largest refugee camp in the world. 

Here, I offer five of these lessons to Chicago’s mayor, who should rethink his plans for the base camps. 

Asylum seekers should not be treated as a security issue 

The city’s plans for the camp contain two major red flags. The first is the role of the contentious private security company GardaWorld and its subsidiary Aegis Defence Services as camp managers. Handing over the camp to a security company with a checkered past in migration management will only turn the winterized shelter into a military operation, despite the mayor’s insistence to the contrary.

Putting the city’s faith in GardaWorld would require ignoring the second red flag: the rows of identical shelters. Rows are surveillance tools used to discipline large numbers of people in places like camps, jails, barracks, and classrooms. 

In Jordan, everything in Azraq camp, from community center benches to caravan shelters, stands in looming rows, turning Azraq into what its residents call an open-air prison. They fear deportation daily in a place intended for their safety, where the Jordanian military has installed checkpoints and armed vehicles along the perimeter. The Jordanian government also insists the camp is not a military operation—actually, they’ll tell you it’s the best-planned camp in the world.

Integration should always be encouraged over isolation 

Jordan’s treatment of Syrian refugees as a problem to be hidden away in camps has turned them into scapegoats for the country’s rampant corruption. Integration efforts led by humanitarians have focused on solidarity-building, helping to improve relations between host and refugee communities living in urban areas.

As in Jordan, Chicago’s marginalized neighborhoods are also the first to host refugees. The ‘problem’ of asylum seekers should instead be seen as a potential part of the solution to the city’s housing crisis. This must involve intentional resource-building for community organizations and initiatives that have long been active in the divested neighborhoods of the South and West Side. 

The Inner-City Muslim Action Network, for example, has twenty-five years of experience running a transitional housing program in the South Side for the formerly incarcerated and could offer insight on building a dignified housing system for asylum seekers, who experience similar legal and social precarity while their asylum claims are processed. 

The city could turn to the Greater Southwest Development Corporation, which is focused on developing Chicago’s Southwest neighborhoods, and consider key insights from local projects working to transform vacant lots in these neighborhoods into opportunities for wealth-building through homeownership. 

In addition to housing inclusion, community-building work led by organizations like My Block My Hood My City and The Black Star Project can aid social integration for asylum seekers, who the mayor warns may become ‘desperate’, alluding to the criminal activity some City Council members have said they observed in migrant shelters.

Let asylum seekers work

One of the biggest impediments to camp refugees’ wellbeing in Jordan is their inability to seek formal employment, due to both legal barriers and physical isolation. Humanitarian organizations have bypassed these restrictions by hiring refugees in ‘volunteer’ positions that offer monthly cash stipends. Being able to work gives refugees not only financial stability, but a sense of purpose and inclusion in their new community. 

One of the main reasons asylum seekers in Chicago cannot find housing and meet their basic needs is when they cannot access legal employment. Temporary protected status (TPS), a federal program that enables migrants in the U.S. to work legally while on a path to citizenship, has not been extended to those entering the country after July 2023. 

However, Chicago should incentivize community initiatives that creatively and responsibly connect asylum seekers with income-generating opportunities, learning from local organizations like Growing Home, which offers paid job training and employment seeking assistance for the formerly incarcerated on a South Side farm, and Blue Tin Production, an ethical apparel manufacturing co-op that employs immigrants and refugees and is soon to open a community center on 63rd Street.

Editor’s note: On November 7, the Resurrection Project announced a pilot work permits program that will pair bilingual staffers with new arrivals to assist with legal screenings and applying for work authorization, in partnership with city, state, and federal administrations. USCIS agents will be on site along with attorneys and volunteers. 

Always plan for the long term 

It is likely that the winterized base camp will far outlive the winter. In 2024, Azraq camp will be ten years old and the Zaatari camp will be twelve. Dadaab camp in Kenya, the largest refugee camp in the world, is more than thirty years old. All of these camps, like the mayor’s planned base camps, were built to be temporary. 

The problem with camps is that they too easily become the default long-term solution when no viable alternative is made available. The mayor should prioritize alternative long-term solutions—like affordable housing and access to income-generating opportunities for everyone—over the camp, especially as asylum claims can take months or even years to process. 

The city should make the reception of asylum seekers a humanitarian priority 

Asking for aid is a matter of pride; the American approach to humanitarian emergencies has traditionally been to fund aid organizations working elsewhere in the world, but seldom within our own borders. 

As long as the government does not provide the appropriate infrastructure to receive asylum seekers, it would be a shame to neglect the humanitarian expertise that is readily available in Chicago: RefugeeOne, Heartland Alliance, World Relief Chicago, the International Refugee Assistance Project at the University of Chicago Law School, as well as mutual aid groups like Brave Space Alliance and volunteers, can and should be invited to offer immediate assistance and support integration efforts. 

Most importantly, the asylum seekers at the receiving end of this assistance should be actively involved in the designing of programs intended to support them. As I witnessed in Jordan, ignoring refugee perspectives can result in well-intended but misplaced help. 

For example, many aid agencies have prioritized offering skills-training programs over advocating for more formal work opportunities for refugees who are often already highly-skilled. Asylum seekers have the best understanding of their own needs, and the city should build its support systems around their expertise.

Chicago’s response to the question of what to do with asylum seekers must be a collective effort. Mayor Johnson should endeavor to involve communities of the North Side as well as the South Side in making space for the newest Chicagoans. Resources and responsibility must be shared. 

In the still early days of his tenure, Mayor Johnson should view the arrival of asylum seekers as an opportunity to set a precedent for other American cities to show how we can benefit, as we always have, from welcoming newcomers. 

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Melissa Gatter is a Lecturer in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex, where she researches forced displacement and humanitarian aid in the Middle East. She has worked and consulted for leading aid agencies, including Save the Children and CARE International, in Jordan. She is the author of Time and Power in Azraq Refugee Camp: A Nine-to-Five Emergency. Melissa is a native Chicagoan and a graduate of the University of Chicago.

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