Environmental Impact of Refugee Camps: Resource Usage and Management

Over ten million people are trapped in protracted refugee situations in over thirty countries. While refugee camps are often constructed to deal with immediate crises of assumed short-term duration, the average length of displacement is now close to twenty years. Environmental degradation including deforestation, soil erosion and air pollution often result, with negative impacts on camp residents, their hosts, and broader ecosystem services. Further complicating matters, many protracted refugee situations are located in arid and semi-arid climates. These impacts increase the risk of wet season flooding and decrease dry season water availability, further straining already stressed water supplies. This project offers comparative evidence-based assessments of the environmental impacts from two arid-region, long-term refugee camps - Aysaita Camp in the Afar region of Ethiopia and Ali Addeh Camp in Djibouti - and offers actionable lessons to reduce impacts on and from the environment for camp and host communities alike.

The team conducted an extensive literature review, comprised of general and regional research on forced migration, water and environmental management, the Horn of Africa, as well as challenges and current practices. During 5 weeks of field visits and with the help of UNHCR, 20 refugee interviewers and 10 local interviewers, the team interviewed over 40 stakeholders and collected interview data in 4 languages from over 700 households on actual and perceived natural resource usage in the camps and local host communities; environmental impacts of these usage patterns; and, opportunities for interventions to improve livelihood and resource outcomes. The interviews are currently being translated and analyzed.

The team also used a range of data sources including national surveys, remote sensing and groundtruthing to assemble a GIS database of the human and physical environment in all five zones of the Afar region in Ethiopia, and the Republic of Djibouti. The database is being used to assess environmental change over time and place household perceptions of change and potential solutions to environmental problems in larger context.

The project is overseen by an Advisory Board composed of regional experts in human rights, gender, forced migration, environmental management, and disaster risk reduction in the Horn of Africa.

Once the translation process of field data is complete, the team will begin analysis upon which they will craft policy recommendations that follow from the findings. In some instances, recommendations for specific policies to address major problems in natural resource management and to address existing environmental problems will be developed.  Good practices that can be replicated will be highlighted, with recommendations for pilot programs to test their effectiveness in the study sites.  In other cases, the team will identify and draw policymakers’ attention to issues requiring further investigation in order to develop sound policy. 

Following these consultations, the team will finalize the site reports and produce a final report synthesis that details findings about the experiences of refugees and local hosts regarding natural resource usage, their impacts on the environment, the impacts of the environment on the well-being of the refugees and local hosts, and potential strategies to improve policies and programs. The team will also prepare a stand-alone document with guidance on innovative environmental management options that are appropriate to protracted refugee situations. This document will include recommendations for pilot projects. The guidance will complement UNHCR’s Guidelines and UNHCR and CARE International’s FRAMEwork toolkit, focusing specifically on innovations that will support more effective resource management in protracted situations.

In July 2016, the team presented its preliminary findings at the 16th conference for the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration in Poznan, Poland. You can view our presentation and preliminary thoughts below. 

This project is being funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration. 

For further information, contact: Nili Yossinger