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Mainstreaming Environmental Concerns in Refugee Operations

Executive Committee Meetings

Mainstreaming Environmental Concerns in Refugee Operations

7 February 2000

Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme
Standing Committee
17th meeting
7 February 2000


1. While UNHCR has provided some assistance and support to environmental activities in refugee situations for many years, it was from 1993 onwards that a focused effort was made to highlight environmental concerns. Speaking at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the High Commissioner affirmed UNHCR's full support for the principles enshrined in the Declaration on Environment and Development, acknowledged UNHCR's role in this context in relation to refugee situations, and outlined the broad elements of a UNHCR policy on the environment.


2. In 1993, the Office of the Senior Coordinator on Environmental Affairs was established, with funding from the Government of Japan. Additional support for environmental activities has come from the Governments of the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, France and the European Union. From 1993 to mid-1999, the Environment Unit was headed by three successive Senior Coordinators for Environmental Affairs, each Coordinator being seconded from the Japanese Environment Agency fora period of two years. In 1999, the Environment Unit merged with technical staff from the former Programme and Technical Support Service (PTSS) to create an integrated Engineering and Environmental Services Section (EESS) within the Division of Operational Support.

3. Reflecting on this period in general terms, the main activities undertaken can be grouped into three phases: policy and programme development, programme implementation, and integration and mainstreaming. This conference room paper attempts to outline some of the main steps of this process and, in particular, to identify some of the most beneficial aspects of UNHCR's environmental work, as well as some of the challenges that lie ahead. A draft conclusion is contained in Annex 2 for endorsement by the Standing Committee.

Why the Environment Matters for UNHCR

  • The state of the local environment has an impact on the welfare of refugees.
  • Host communities should not suffer as a result of environmental degradation induced by the presence of refugees.
  • Avoiding or containing environmental damage helps protect the institution of asylum.
  • UNHCR has a moral obligation to manage refugee operations in ways that support sustainable development - post Rio follow-up.


Policy Development

4. In July 1994, Interim Guidelines for Environment-Sensitive Management of Refugee Programmes were introduced to reinforce environmental operations in the field. Although the Interim Guidelines were considered as a first positive step in addressing environmental issues, they fell short of providing clear directions, procedures and technical solutions. Furthermore, due to their interim nature, insufficient attention was given to them both at Headquarters and in the field.

5. At its forty-fifth session in October 1994, the Executive Committee adopted a conclusion on refugees and the environment with the aim of mitigating the environmental impact of the presence of refugees. In December 1994, UNHCR's Senior Management Committee decided to establish an internal Working Group on the Environment. The final report of the Working Group issued in July 1995, reviewed UNHCR's policy on the environment and proposed a number of refinements to it. It received the broad endorsement of UNHCR's Senior Management Committee. UNHCR's reformulated policy on the environment was approved at the forty-sixth session of the Executive Committee in October 1995. In parallel to this, an Environmental Coordination Group (ECG) was formed at Headquarters, with a view to enhance coordination amongst Divisions and Bureaux. A total of 15 staff members were drawn from various services to guide the emerging Environment Unit and promote environmental policy in a more comprehensive and coordinated manner.

6. With input from the ECG, the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines were published in 1996. These Guidelines were based on four key principles - integration, prevention before cure, cost-effectiveness, and local participation - and have remained the foundation of the Office's environmental work. The Standing Committee reviewed these guidelines in January 1997 (EC/47/SC/CRP.8) and expressed broad support for UNHCR's environmental policy and the activities undertaken to support it.


7. Activities have focused primarily on programme management and coordination within Headquarters, and support of field projects in association with Branch Offices. A range of activities have been supported, including:

  • Environmental planning;
  • Regional promotion and international coordination;
  • Environmental training;
  • Evaluation and promotion of appropriate environmental technology;
  • Maintenance of an environmental database and making use of remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology;
  • Environmentally friendlier procurement;
  • Environmental education; and
  • Development of sectoral environmental guidelines.

8. Since 1993, and in particular from 1996 onwards, the Environment Unit actively supported a number of model field projects, throughout the world. Intended primarily to introduce and implement UNHCR's Environmental Guidelines, these projects have also played an important role in raising awareness for environmental concerns during different stages of refugee operations.

9. Emerging from the 1996 workshop on Environmentally-induced Population Displacements and Environmental Impacts Resulting from Mass Migrations, and with funding from the Governments of the Netherlands, Switzerland and the USA, the Environment Unit coordinated the Towards Sustainable Environmental Management Practices in Refugee-Affected Areas (TSEMPRAA) project. TSEMPRAA's main objectives are to:

  • Draw lessons from past and ongoing environment-related projects, through case studies;
  • Convert these lessons into training materials for use by UNHCR and its partners;
  • Gain participation of field officers and others directly involved in environmental projects to develop these case studies; and
  • Produce practical guidelines for donors, partner agencies and others concerned.

10. Several major outputs from this project were published in 1998. Selected Lessons Learned is a synthesis of experience gained in environmental management in refugee operations worldwide. Key Principles for Decision-making highlights issues to enable decision-makers reach conclusions and take appropriate actions on issues connected with environmental management. The findings from field missions have also contributed to the development of a training module, which is now being used for self-study within UNHCR, as well as among implementing partners. Environmentally-Friendlier Procurement Guidelines and separate environmental guidelines on Forestry, Domestic Energy and Livestock were published.

Integration and Mainstreaming

11. The above-mentioned activities created a solid platform on which to advance. Mainstreaming environmental concerns in UNHCR operations became a priority in 1998 and was addressed by encouraging the integration of environmental components into Operations Management System (OMS) tools, the Global Appeal, Global Report, Country Operations Plans, the Emergency Handbook and similar outputs. A questionnaire was also widely distributed to the field in 1999 to determine interest and needs with regard to environmental support activities in different countries. Other awareness raising tools were also produced, again with a particular audience in mind. Among these were:

  • Environmental News, a newsletter with contributions from the field and Headquarters;
  • Working for People and the Environment, an interactive website (accessed through UNHCR's public information homepage) outlining some of the key activities being undertaken; and
  • An environmental training video.

12. Furthermore, other activities include the development of a monitoring initiative for environmental activities. Based on the concept of a Score Card - which is a simple means of recording change in a given issue or feature, such as the number of surviving seedlings per season - this initiative is now being tested in the field. The results from this and other mapping-related activities will feed into UNHCR's Environmental Database, which uses geographical information system technology to analyse and present the data in appropriate forms for various end users.


13. Five areas stand out where the effectiveness of UNHCR's efforts to mainstream environmental concerns has been demonstrated:

  • Developing policies (Environmental Guidelines, Environmentally-Friendlier Procurement Guidelines, and environmental guidelines on Domestic Energy, Forests and Livestock);
  • Developing and implementing new approaches and practices to suit emerging needs;
  • Providing technical support to the field;
  • Placing environment on the refugee agenda; and
  • Raising awareness of environmental issues through formal and non-formal environmental education, as well as through targeted publications. More recently, awareness is raised through the above-mentioned website (for an external audience), which is being revised and expanded.

14. The following factors have contributed to the success of UNHCR's efforts to mainstream environmental considerations in its programmes:

Playing a Catalytic Role

15. Environmental management is not a new concern, but it is often overlooked in refugee situations. In addition to being an important stimulus, a small Unit dedicated to developing and promoting suitable responses to environmental concerns has sent a strong message to the field - to UNHCR's offices as well as to implementing partners - that environment matters in refugee operations.

Working from a Sound Foundation

16. Although it was time-consuming to prepare and secure broad agreement, the benefit of having an approved institutional policy and guidelines was a major contributing factor in recognizing environmental concerns. This was not only important at Headquarters level, but also in the field and among implementing partners and government agencies. In this respect, promotion of environmental concerns also benefited from the fact that UNHCR had intervened in this arena for several years beforehand, so many of the issues were not new. The High Commissioner's personal support and advocacy also gave environmental policies an important status, on a level with other programme policy issues.

Having Funds with which to Launch Environmental Initiatives

17. Having funds to actively support promotion of the Environmental Guidelines was undoubtedly a major contributing factor to the acceptance and implementation of recommended environmental practices and actions. In some cases, this was reinforced by having an interested and able person on the ground, who effectively assumed responsibility for ensuring environmental inputs to projects and other activities.

Having Flexibility to Work

18. Having funds on hand meant that the Environment Unit and EESS could respond quickly and efficiently to requests from the field - from the provision of a global positioning system (which costs around $ 40) to projects with a budget of more than $ 600,000. The range and variety of projects and activities supported by the Environment Unit and EESS are evidence of the benefit of that flexibility. Such activities include:


  • Environmental management training for UNHCR and implementing partner staff;
  • Reforestation and promotion of domestic energy conservation;
  • Evaluation of appropriateness of environmental technologies; for instance, paper poles, grass stoves and solar cookers;
  • Environmental education and awareness raising; and
  • Environmental assessment and monitoring by a variety of techniques, including remote sensing.

Country specific

  • Afghanistan: Alternative shelter materials; biogas; improvement of solid waste disposal.
  • Azerbaijan: Soil and water analysis of a polluted site hosting internally displaced persons.
  • Ethiopia, Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania: Environmental monitoring using Geographical Information Systems (GIS).
  • Sudan: Agro-forestry, reduction of domestic energy consumption.
  • Thailand: Soil erosion control and forest protection on a relocation site.
  • Zimbabwe: Permaculture (integrated sustainable design system for camp settlement).

Providing Technical Assistance

19. The newly established EESS offers technical assistance to help ensure that environmental concerns are taken into account in project design and implementation. In part, this is a follow-up to a 1998 global request to UNHCR field operations enquiring where assistance was needed with the planning and implementation of environment-related aspects.

Effective Partnerships

20. Regular links have been maintained with implementing partners, such as UNESCO's Programme of Education for Emergencies and Reconstruction for environmental education. Fostering inter-agency cooperation was also an important aspect of the TSEMPRAA project. The Steering Committee included implementing partner agencies such as NGOs, and government officials, United Nations organizations including the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and donor representatives. Moreover, the few meetings and workshops organized around this activity served as a useful forum for these actors to share their experiences in the area of environmental management of refugee operations. This model is now being applied again to a three-year project with the Fonds Français pour l'Environnement Mondial (FFEM) to develop a framework for environmental assessment and monitoring in refugee situations.

21. Involving others in refugee-related environmental work has helped shape the policies of other organizations. For example, the Lutheran World Federation's Environmental Guidelines (1997), the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency's Guidelines for Environmental Assessment in Development Work (1998), and the World Food Programme's 1999 Environmental Review Guidelines, each acknowledges UNHCR's environmental work. These relationships with United Nations agencies and NGOs are mutually enriching, as lessons learned are shared and applied more widely.

22. UNEP is a crucial partner of UNHCR. In line with its mandate to develop global, regional and national environmental strategies, UNEP can provide technical expertise in assessment and monitoring of environmental projects. UNHCR has recently been associated with UNEP in such activities in Guinea and Kosovo.

Outreach Materials

23. The production of public awareness materials has helped raise the profile of UNHCR's environmental work. Refugees and the Environment - Caring for the Future, translated into many languages, was followed by the outputs of the TSEMPRAA project - Refugee Operations and Environmental Management: Selected Lessons Learned, targeted at field staff and partner organizations, and Key Principles for Decision-making, a distilled version of the former publication targeted specifically at decision-makers. Government officials, implementing partners and UNHCR field staff frequently refer to these publications in planning and implementing activities in the field of environment.

Practical Training Materials and Support to the Field

24. UNHCR's experience with environmental issues is now also being promoted through training workshops for UNHCR and implementing partner staff. The first workshop was held in Addis Ababa (for the Horn of Africa and East Africa) in October 1998. This was followed by workshops in New Delhi for South Asia, Johannesburg for Southern Africa and Nairobi for the Great Lakes region.

25. The various lessons learned have also helped define areas in need of improvement. They have included:

  • Delays with translating the Environmental Guidelines into practice;
  • Africa has remained a major focus of environmental interventions, which is possibly a reflection of the needs at the time, although the need for broader geographical coverage is now being addressed;
  • Mainstreaming environmental issues is now underway; there is a need for more thorough and detailed training workshops, and by the closer integration of the concerns of EESS into the OMS structure;
  • Comparatively few environmental coordinators have been placed in field operations;
  • and Monitoring environmental activities has remained a weak element of field programmes, but this aspect is increasingly being addressed and will be further strengthened in the coming months by maintaining and, where possible, extending environmental coordination functions.


26. While much has been achieved, there is still a great deal to be done, particularly to maintain the momentum that now exists and to provide continued support to the field, including implementing partners. Among the identified needs are the following:

  • There remains a constant need to ensure that the "environment" is not considered as an add-on, but that it is taken into account at crucial times during each refugee operation. While a successful start has been made to mainstream the environment into UNHCR's operations, this vital activity should not be viewed as having been completed;
  • UNHCR, in particular EESS, must continue to be in a position to respond to requests for assistance from the field in a timely and orderly manner;
  • Closer integration is required of physical and technical work with ongoing and planned environmental activities. Technical staff in the field, particularly physical planners, water and sanitation engineers and specialists in agriculture and forestry, need support to ensure that their knowledge of environmental management principles is regularly updated;
  • More systematic integration of environmental concerns into UNHCR's management instruments, including Country Operations Plans, project submissions, Letters of Instruction, handbooks, manuals and guidelines;
  • Integration of environmental concerns into training workshops and modules; and
  • Continued collaboration with other specialized agencies.

27. One of the strongest arguments for caring for the environment during all phases of a refugee operation remains the defence of asylum. Assisting hosting countries to enhance their capacity to receive refugees is a priority for UNHCR. In the future, the Office will continue to work with its partners to prevent and mitigate environmental damage associated with the presence of refugees, translating its policy commitment into action and results in the field.

(Note: Annexes not included in this online version. See your nearest UN Depository Library.)


* Key events and activities at a glance are contained in annex.