With more than ten 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.
Funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration, this report presents a comparative evidence-based assessment of this hypothesis based on fieldwork in Ali Addeh refugee camp in Djibouti and Aysaita camp in Ethiopia.
The research 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 to 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 team presented the findings to the Thematic Working Group on Forced Migration of the World Bank’s Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD)’s Conference and Policy Forum on the Impacts of Refugees and IDPs on Host Communities this past June.