Refugees and the Environment
Environment, 1 January 2001
Crossroads of Life
Imagine yourself at a border – an invisible line separating the laws of one country from another, a line which, if crossed, will change your life, perhaps forever. But crossed it must be. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, are forced to follow this path each year.
And these are just a fraction of the world's 31.7 million refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR.
The spontaneous movement and displacement of large numbers of people may have significant impacts on the environment. Arriving in an alien situation, refugees face hunger, fatigue, humiliation and grief. Their first concern is to look after themselves, most often to find food and shelter. Trees are felled to provide support for rudimentary shelters. Dead wood is collected to build a fire for warmth and as fuel for cooking.
With only a few families involved, the environmental impacts are unlikely to be too serious or long-lasting. With thousands of desperate people, however, the results can be disastrous for the environment.
What is bad for the environment is ultimately bad for human welfare.
Why Care for the Environment?
Environmental problems exist throughout the world, but many reach an exaggerated scale where large numbers of people are forced together through a common sense of survival.
Among the most significant problems associated with refugee-affected areas are deforestation, soil erosion, and depletion and pollution of water resources. Other considerations which must be taken into account include changes in the social and economic welfare of local communities following the arrival, or during prolonged residency, of refugees. These too may impact the environment, altering the rate and extent of local services available to people – today and in the future.
UNHCR is aware of the potential environmental impact of refugees. Competition for natural resources such as fuelwood, building materials, fresh water and wild foods is an immediate concern. Environmental degradation or conflicts between refugees and resident populations may, if not addressed, undermine the effectiveness of UNHCR's programmes and, equally important, influence the future decision of governments to offer asylum to refugees.
Refugees, however, cannot be expected to put environmental considerations ahead of their own safety and welfare. This is where UNHCR and other organisations lend a helping hand, helping confine the impact of refugees to as low a level as possible and assisting host countries with rehabilitation and clean-up operations.
Scale of Environmental Concerns
Environmental degradation is a worldwide phenomenon – virtually every nation on Earth is experiencing some form of habitat destruction or degradation.
On a global scale, the impacts of refugees on the environment is not significant. At the height of the refugee crisis in Tanzania in 1994-1996, a total of 570 square kilometres of forest was affected, of which 167 square kilometres was severely deforested. An environmental impact assessment carried out in Zimbabwe in 1994, when Mozambican refugees had returned to their homelands, showed a reduction of 58 per cent in the woodland cover around camps. Yet, countries like Côte d'Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of the Congo experience higher levels of habitat loss each year through uncontrolled logging and clearance of land for agriculture – 2,900 and 1,800 square kilometres of forest per annum, respectively.
Such figures are not intended to dispute the fact that concentrated groups of displaced people do have a negative impact on the environment, but merely to help put things in perspective. For most countries, the loss of any forest cover may be a major issue because of habitat degradation, the loss of ecosystem functioning and, often, reduced levels of income or a lower quality of life. Reversing the loss or environmental damage in such a case is a costly and not always practical solution. For this reason, limiting damage to the environment, and preserving and promoting options for sustainable development remains of concern to UNHCR.
UNHCR has become increasingly concerned about the state and well-being of the environment around refugee camps and resettlement areas. Experience has shown that the welfare of people – whether refugees or local inhabitants – is closely linked with the well-being of the environment. In fact, the two cannot be separated.
No two refugee situations are the same: some emergencies flare up overnight; others build momentum gradually over a period of weeks or months. The outcome, however, is inevitably the same – large numbers of people forced to flee from their homes, abandoning their former lives, their possessions and, often, their families and friends.
There is no uniform response to such needs: each refugee operation requires a distinct approach, tailored to the specific conditions and requirements of that time. Requirements for protecting the environment therefore vary from one country to another and from one situation to another, depending on local social, cultural and environmental conditions, as well as on opportunities and constraints.
UNHCR's mandate is to protect the rights and dignity of refugees, a task it has undertaken for almost half a century. In recent years, it has also taken steps to safeguard the environment around refugee operations and to encourage management of natural resources with a view to long-term sustainability – a task in which UNHCR plays an important co-ordinating role, drawing expertise and assistance from other organisations. To co-ordinate implementation and support of its field-based activities, in 1996 UNHCR prepared Environmental Guidelines which lay out its operational policy and principles.
Like refugees, UNHCR needs the continued support and assistance of others. If you would like to receive further information on how you can help, please contact your local UNHCR offices or UNHCR Headquarters.