• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Q&A: In search of cheaper, safer fuel for refugees

News Stories, 16 May 2008

© Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children
Erin Patrick at a site for internally displaced people in Northern Darfur, Sudan.

GENEVA, May 16 (UNHCR) For refugees living in camps in countries such as Chad, Ethiopia, Nepal, Sudan and Thailand, firewood is a vital resource that provides them with fire for cooking and heat for warmth. But its exploitation can cause environmental damage, while women and children who seek out firewood often put their safety at risk. Erin Patrick of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women & Children is an expert on the issue of safe fuel and energy in humanitarian settings. As coordinator of the commission's Fuel and Firewood Initiative since 2005, she has worked around the world, interviewing and conducting focus groups with hundreds of refugee and internally displaced women on their cooking fuel needs and preferences. Earlier this month, she flew to Geneva to attend the final meeting of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings. She took time to talk with UNHCR Associate Public Information Officer Cécile Pouilly. Excerpts from the interview:

Why are fuel and firewood so important in refugee situations?

The food that the World Food Programme [WFP] and its partners distribute to refugees and internally displaced people has to be cooked in order to be edible, which means that firewood or some sort of cooking fuel is a requirement. Everybody agrees that food is a necessity. If the food cannot be eaten without being cooked, then the fuel to cook that food is an equal necessity.

Tell us about the Fuel and Firewood Initiative

The Women's Commission launched the initiative about three years ago, following reports about the huge number of rapes and sexual assaults being committed in Darfur particularly against women while they were out collecting firewood.

It was meant to be a relatively short project, but the more we researched the problem, the more we realized that in addition to being a huge protection problem it is also an environmental problem, a health problem, a livelihood problem. We realized that we needed much more effort and attention on the subject and that's when we really began the Fuel and Firewood Initiative and our efforts to get UN agencies like UNHCR and other partners involved.

Is it a global problem? What is the situation in most refugee camps?

In one way or another, it's a problem in all refugee camps. It's an environmental problem.... A constant concern for UNHCR and other environmental actors is that when a camp is in place for year after year, the circle of deforestation around the camp will inevitably continue to grow and grow.

It's also a health problem, in the sense that burning firewood and other biomass products indoors causes indoor air pollution, which leads to respiratory infections that kill more children every year than malaria. When you add all those different components the sexual violence, physical assault, environmental devastation and health problems then it is truly a significant problem in every refugee camp in the world.

Are the people who can help fully aware about the scale of the problem?

No, unfortunately I don't think so. The humanitarian community and the public at large are becoming more aware of the fact that it is a problem, but I don't think there is sufficient attention to it yet.

What kinds of technologies and products are you looking at?

There are many options, but there is no magic bullet fuel that would solve the health problems, the protection problems, the environmental problems in every single refugee camp in the world. What we've been finding is that often the best solutions are being developed outside of humanitarian settings. One of our tasks is to take these technologies and figure out if they are useful and how they can be adapted to the humanitarian sphere.

Some of the ideas we've been looking at include fuel-efficient stoves, which range from the most basic ones created from mud and animal waste to some really amazing devices that UNHCR and others have been promoting, like the Save 80 Stove [which uses smaller pieces of wood not traditionally collected and burned and can save up to 80 percent of the firewood normally used in the stoves used by refugees].

With the UNHCR office in Ethiopia, we've also been looking at a sugar cane molasses-based ethanol that is used with a clean cook stove in a project managed by a national NGO, the Gaia Association. This reduces the need to collect firewood and causes less indoor air pollution. And we've been looking at different types of solar cookers, including the very large, fast-cooking parabolic cookers used in the camps in Nepal and the simple cardboard models that are being promoted in Chad and elsewhere.

Do you face any resistance from people opposed to new technology?

It's incredibly important to hold discussions with beneficiaries before any new technology is introduced.... For people who have been uprooted and lost everything, the one thing they are left with, that reminds them of their life at home, is cooking and the family fire. We talk with the people to determine what their preference is and what their needs are. We talk about what they will and won't use and why, so that we can come up with a technology or fuel that meets as many of their needs and priorities as possible.

If that is completely impossible, then we try to introduce new technologies very slowly and build community support over time. That's how UNHCR and its partners in Nepal, for example, were able to introduce solar cookers. Lots of demonstrations were held, slowly building community support, always allowing that there would be another fuel option. This took place over years and such an approach is the only sustainable way to really change a population's fuel source.

Tell us more about the work of the Women's Commission

We focus on policy and advocacy solutions, specifically for refugee and internally displaced women and children. In addition to the work on fuel and firewood, we work on reproductive health, gender-based violence, youth and education. We also have projects in other areas, including protection, livelihoods, and detention and asylum.

We are not an operational organization. We don't have field offices. What we do is recognize particular gaps or particular problems that we see, that are specific to refugee women and children ... and conduct field missions to assess the problems on the ground and to meet with the victims and survivors of the problems we're evaluating. We put a huge emphasis on making sure that their voices are reflected in our work and in the solutions that we recommend.

You are here to attend the final meeting of the task force on safe access to firewood and alternative energy in humanitarian settings. Tell us more

The task force started in May 2007 with a one-year mandate. It began as an initiative from the Women's Commission. After initial research, we realized that addressing the question of fuel and firewood required a major inter-agency effort and, because of the multi-sectoral nature of the problem, we decided that we needed to have an inter-agency standing committee (IASC) task force. The IASC is the main humanitarian coordination body that involves the UN, NGOs and the Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement.

The task force is co-chaired by UNHCR, WFP and the Women's Commission.... We focus on eight issue areas where there is a very clear and strong linkage to fuel: protection/gender-based violence; environment; health; food and nutrition; food security; development and livelihoods; shelter; information, education and communication; and camp coordination and management.

We're working on three main outputs and we want to make sure that they are practically oriented and geared towards the field. The first output of the task force is a matrix on the role and responsibilities of agencies for ensuring a coordinated multi-sectoral fuel strategy in humanitarian settings.

Our second output is a decision-tree diagram on the factors that affect the choice of a fuel strategy in a specific setting. We are targeting field actors, like site planners, camp managers people who are the first responders and who will be tasked with developing a fuel strategy: Do we use firewood? Do we promote fuel efficient stoves? Do we bring kerosene from an outside source?

The last output of the task force is the International Network on Household Energy in Humanitarian Settings, which is an informal web-based network open to local and international NGOs, UN agencies, research institutes basically anybody that has an interest in this issue. There is no set requirement for becoming a member, you can use it entirely for your own benefit to get the technical information or to share your own work and experiences with the issue. We welcome all those who are interested in helping solve this critical problem.




How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.


Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video StatementPlay video

2015 World Day against Trafficking in Persons: ICAT Video Statement

The second annual World Day against Trafficking in Persons is being marked on 30 July 2015. To mark this special day, the Principals of eight of the world's key organizations working to tackle this crime have come together to issue a special statement. Together, these eight heads of organizations are urging more to be done to help the millions of women, men and children who fall victim to one of today's most brutal crimes, and to join forces to improve trafficked persons' access to remedies that respond to their individual needs. This video includes statements from the following members of the Inter-Agency Coordination Group against Trafficking in Persons (ICAT): ILO, INTERPOL, IOM, OHCHR, UN Women, UNHCR, UNICRI and UNODC.

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015Play video

Colombia: Helena Christensen gets to know Maribeth for World Refugee Day 2015

The Danish photographer visited UNHCR's work in Colombia and met with women who show great strength and courage in one of the world's most protracted conflict-ridden hot spots.
Rwanda: Flight from BurundiPlay video

Rwanda: Flight from Burundi

In recent weeks, the number of Burundian refugees crossing into Rwanda has increased significantly. According to the Government of Rwanda, since the beginning of April, 25,004 Burundians, mostly women and children, have fled to Rwanda. Many said they had experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.