With more than 13 million people trapped in protracted refugee situations in more than thirty countries, the environmental impact of refugee camps on both refugee residents and host communities and ecologies has become a direct and operational area of concern. This is particularly the case where camp populations are as large, and often larger, than the local communities hosting them. Increased refugee camp populations are often hypothesized to trigger soil erosion, loss of habitat and wildlife, air pollution, water depletion and contamination, as well as energy and transportation problems. Decisions on site selection generally do not anticipate long-term settlement, and one of the crucial difficulties is the lack of land allocated for agricultural growth and production.
In an initial study funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration, the research team presented a comparative evidence-based assessment of this hypothesis based on fieldwork in primarily arid and semi-arid regions with harsh conditions and limited rainfall - Ali Addeh refugee camp in Djibouti and Aysaita camp in Ethiopia. The team carried out interviews with refugees and stakeholders in 4 languages and collected survey data from over 700 households. The interviews included questions about natural resource use such as fire, fuel and water, changes in natural resources over time, comparisons between home area and/or pre-camp context, organizational assistance, resource sharing, resource conflicts, perceived challenges, and best practices. This information was supplemented and cross-checked using a remote sensing and geospatial analysis-based survey of land cover and land use change over the period of encampment.
The results generated discussions of “climate conditions” versus natural resource usage, availability, and management policy and practices. The comparative results indicate that climate conditions and refugee camp emplacement have had relatively insignificant impacts on the existing natural resources, and conflict and competition in these two camps was not as pronounced as previously assumed. In both cases, however, the refugees were placed in an already environmentally-hostile arid location with minimal vegetation and variable access to sufficient water, particularly for livestock and growing vegetables, although some of the constraints are political rather than environmental. Moreover, heavy dependence on firewood for cooking, heating, and lighting has led to a variety of problems, including the need to travel long distances to collect (Aysaita) or import (Ali Addeh) wood as well as respiratory diseases related to wood burning. Camp waste and overfull latrines were also cited as areas of concern. Some of these issues also affect local host populations.
The findings also highlighted areas of concern about the integration of refugees, and potential opportunities for better information exchanges on capacity building, livelihoods, and education. Our recent publication in the Journal of Refugee Studies (see link below) explores these findings in greater detail.
In 2018, the research team received a grant from the Georgetown Environment Initiative to undertake a comparative study that examines the impact of protracted displacement on natural resources in a fertile climate, and recently completed fieldwork at the Meheba Refugee Settlement in the Northwest Province of Zambia.
In partnership with the UN Refugee Agency, the team used a multi-temporal environmental change assessment of the settlement utilizing remotely sensed images of Land Cover/Land Use change classification methods and then conducted ground-truthing of these data on site. The team also held focus group interviews with members of the refugee and local host communities regarding natural resource management and environmental change, using use in-depth open-ended questions to understand how refugees and local host populations in fertile climates manage natural resources in their respective communities, as well as potential options for changes in practice. The team further conducted in-depth interviews with other stakeholders, including camp managers; health services providers; key organizations; and local officials who are responsible for environmental resource management.
Analysis of the findings is now in progress.
For further information, contact: Nil Sarit Yossinger