Rough Terrain for Refugees

When People Flee Civil War and Drought, the Environment is Often a Casualty

Survival is the highest priority for the nearly 10 million refugees in the world (21 million if you include internally displaced persons and asylum-seekers). While international relief agencies struggle to protect people displaced by wars, drought and civil unrest, they often neglect the environmental devastation that follows in the world’s overcrowded refu-gee camps.

Refugees from Darfur are living in crowded camps in Chad and competing for resources with locals.

In 2005, the United Nations En-vironment Programme (UNEP) issued a report saying, "Many refugee camps are now surrounded by vast stretches of barren land no longer capable of supporting life."

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer says that relief agencies need to focus on this problem. "While urgent human needs must take precedence over environmental concerns in times of crisis," he says, "the link between human welfare and the environment is becoming more apparent, and the two can no longer be viewed in isolation."

Tanzania, for instance, has experienced widespread deforestation as refugees scoured forests surrounding camps for fuel. In Guinea, refugees have depleted charcoal stores and thinned out local forests, seeking firewood and hunting for bush meat. The deforestation in Ethiopia at the hands of refugees has led to devastating soil erosion. With no shade, rains deplete soil of fertility and wash it into rivers, causing dangerous mud streams, floods and landslides, as well as rendering the soil useless for crops. And refugee camps grap-ple with air and water pollution, as well as issues of sanitation and garbage.

According to Joel Charny, Refugees International vice president of policy, "These people are coming from a place of conflict and poverty to another place of poverty. It’s rare for people to cross from a poor to a rich country or a desolate to a lush area." Host countries often resist supporting displaced persons, which may push refugees into isolation and contribute further to environmental problems.

Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, held after World War II, countries are obligated to protect people from human rights abuse. But while agencies like the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) oversee the protection of refugees, their watchful eye can only extend so far. A big problem from both an environmental and human rights standpoint is warehousing, or confining refugees to camps.

"Countries think if refugees stay in the camps they will get more aid, and they also worry about how having refugees working will impact their economy," says Ben Sanders, policy and research assistant for the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "It’s illegal to deny refugees the right to work and to move freely. Refugees should never be forced to stay at the camps if they don’t choose to."

The environmental stresses associated with refugee camps could be alleviated by allowing refugees to spread out and integrate into the local economy. However, says Sanders, "Environmental concerns are not the major concerns of the host countries." Locals often expect to maintain the same lifestyle, even with increased demand for natural resources.

"The refugees are really caught in the middle," says Charny. "They are certainly not conspiring for ways to destroy the environment. Refugees will do anything to survive, whether that’s cutting down trees or foraging."

While it’s clear that the environment is not a frontline concern, it’s not completely forgotten. Both World Refugee Day (June 20) and World Environment Day (June 5) push for environmental solutions. UNHCR held activities for this most recent World Environment Day in Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda and Pakistan, including informational seminars on horticulture, alternative energy and tree-planting. Some fuel alternatives such as parabolic solar cookers (simple stoves that can be made with anything from aluminum foil and umbrellas to clay, cardboard and metal) have been surfacing in African refugee camps.

The solar cooker concept is not new, but only recently have engineers improved the design to make them cheaper to produce, lighter to transport and easier to use. The UNHCR has been supporting efforts to integrate fuel-reducing cooking devices into the refugee camps. But some women are still foraging for wood, as it maintains an income, and others are just not ready to abandon their traditional ways.

These steps toward environmental sustainability are commendable, but small. Yet, as the displaced masses living in camps face life-or-death situations, it’s difficult for them to focus on a peripheral problem like environmental degradation. Says Charny, "The refugee community, which in-cludes the agencies helping the re-fugees, is emphasizing first and foremost survival. That might, in the big picture, be short-sighted, but it’s understandable."

—Rachel Anderson