THERE are more refugees than at any time since the second world war. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that 66m people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Of these, 23m are refugees—people who have fled their home country.  Across the world, giant camps have sprung up to accommodate them, including Zaatari in Jordan, Dadaab in Kenya, and Kutupalong in Bangladesh. These sprawling tent cities are what most people picture when they think of refugees. But most refugees do not live in camps. Why is this, and where do they live instead?

Camps make it easier to take care of refugees, largely by concentrating them all in one place. Host governments and aid agencies can quickly build tents to house them, distribute food rations and set up clinics and schools. Refugees in camps are wonderfully easy to inoculate. Camps can swiftly expand to cope with a sudden surge of new arrivals. Many governments also like to keep refugees in a place where they can easily be counted, registered, screened to make sure they are not terrorists, and cordoned off from the local population. 

But life in a refugee camp is often miserable. Many such camps are in remote places. Residents usually struggle to find work, and thus become dependent on handouts. Many countries ban refugees from working at all. The worst camps can feel like prisons. Refugees are sometimes prevented from leaving. In Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, for instance, thousands of Arabs fleeing areas controlled by Islamic State in 2015 were detained in camps and barred from returning home while Kurdish authorities screened them for links to the jihadists. Camps are often crowded, especially in places where lots of refugees have arrived all at once. Some host governments see camps as temporary and do not want camp-dwellers to get too comfortable. Bangladeshi authorities have been reluctant to allow the construction of shelters of brick or concrete in camps for Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar, even though the plastic tents they live in are far more vulnerable to monsoon flooding. 

Most refugees therefore avoid camps. The UN estimates that 69% instead opt to live in towns and cities.  The better-off rent apartments; others stay with family or friends. The poorest live on the streets. It is harder to access aid outside a camp, but much easier to find a job. Even informal and ill-paid work (the most common sort) is often preferable to the indignity, confinement and squalor of a camp. A startling 80% of refugees have been displaced for 10 or more years, according to the International Rescue Committee, a non-profit organisation.  Small wonder they quit camps and move to cities, where they have a better chance of rebuilding their lives. Aid agencies are gradually adapting to this reality. The UN Refugee Agency issued new policy guidance in 2014, emphasising that camps should only be temporary and urging that refugees should be integrated into their host communities whenever possible.  Many NGOs are exploring new ways of distributing aid in cities, including giving refugees cash to shop in local markets, or providing support to local families that host displaced people. To those who complain that refugee camps are a burden on the host country, the answer is clear: let the refugees out of the camps, and let them work.