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Progress report on the guidelines on refugees and the environment

Executive Committee Meetings

Progress report on the guidelines on refugees and the environment

11 September 1995


1. The Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme, at its forty-fifth session in October 1994, adopted a conclusion on refugees and the environment, with the aim of mitigating the environmental impact of the presence of refugees (A/AC.96/839, para.25). Therefore, 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 (July 1995) reviewed UNHCR's policy on the environment and proposed a number of refinements to it. The resulting, more focused, policy was developed on the basis of UNHCR's past experience in environmental matters and an assessment of the effectiveness of the Interim Guidelines for Environment-Sensitive Management of Refugee Programmes (July 1994). The Working Group Report also elaborated a series of practical steps to assist UNHCR to integrate environmental concerns into day-to-day programmes. The Report of the Working Group received the broad endorsement of UNHCR's Senior Management Committee.

2. This paper sets out UNHCR's reformulated policy and desired operational outcomes concerning environmental matters associated with refugee situations. It takes as its point of departure the Final Report of the Working Group on the Environment.


A. General

3. This policy applies to environmental issues associated with the presence of refugees. Among the major environmental problems associated with refugee situations, are deforestation, soil erosion, depletion and degradation of water resources, as well as the socio-economic impacts of such problems on refugees and local communities. It is hoped that the reformulated policy and operational outcomes set out below, to be introduced in a step-by-step manner over the coming three to four years, will enable UNHCR to make a focused, meaningful contribution to resolving these refugee-related environmental problems.

B. Basic environmental principles

4. The basic environmental principles listed below are in accord with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and the spirit of Agenda 21, adopted at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

1. Integration

5. Environmental concerns need to be reflected in major activities. Separation of environmental activities from mainstream operations tends to be ineffective. Real integration of environmental concerns into the planning and implementation of UNHCR's programmes is to be pursued.

2. Prevention

6. Prevention of damage to the environment, rather than its rehabilitation, should be the norm, because the natural environment possesses intrinsic value which cannot be recreated or replaced by humanity.

3. Cost-effectiveness

7. An approach based on cost-effectiveness is essential to achieve the most productive mix of actions. This means that total costs, including environmental costs for all actors concerned, should be minimized. Judicious implementation of preventive environmental measures can substantially reduce the total real cost of refugee operations.

4. Participation

8. To make environmental measures sustainable, participation of all concerned is essential. Thus refugees and local populations must be fully involved, together with implementing agencies on the ground, in setting environmental objectives, planning and implementing activities. Particular attention must be given to poor and vulnerable people, including women and children, who suffer disproportionately from refugee-induced environmental problems.

C. Organizational principles

1. Integration

9. All environment-related action required during the emergency and care and maintenance phases should be an integral part of UNHCR's response, and budgeted under Special or General Programmes as applicable. This is essential to ensure consistent environmental damage prevention and limitation in the field. Other environmental requirements, such as rehabilitation, would receive limited UNHCR funding, under Special Programmes, and be covered by special consolidated appeals, or by other bilateral or multilateral development funding sources.

2. Role of actors concerned

10. The role of actors in addressing environmental concerns specific to refugee situations should be defined according to their relationship to environmental problems linked to refugees, and to the resources they may contribute to developing solutions to those problems. In light of this principle, it is considered that host Governments and UNHCR should take lead roles; refugees and local populations should be involved in environmental planning and projects; coordination with and assistance from other United Nations agencies and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be promoted; and, in cases where environmental damage is extensive, development funds should be sought.

3. Emergency phase

11. Since major components of camp operations, such as site selection and layout, are decided at this stage, UNHCR's operations in the emergency phase must be designed to take environmental factors into account effectively.

4. Care and maintenance phase

12. Sound environmental management must be introduced and maintained at this stage. For this purpose, guidance must be provided to field staff on integration of environmental components in programming and project implementation. Such guidance must be flexible enough to allow for major differences in local conditions.

5. Durable solutions

13. The environmental damage left by refugees must be repaired, when necessary, in the light of future development plans for the area concerned. For this purpose, appropriate planning should be undertaken, involving all major actors. A mechanism should be set up to sustain rehabilitation activities on a long-term basis. In the case of local integration, refugee settlement projects need to be developed, incorporating environmental concerns to ensure sustainability.


14. To implement the organizational principles outlined above, a number of operational outcomes have been identified. These outcomes will find concrete expression in Guidelines which will be developed for the Office. The major outcomes may be summarized as follows:

A. General

1. Integration

  • Inclusion of a section on environmental management in the UNHCR Manual.
  • Incorporation of environmental concerns into sectoral guidelines/manuals, in line with established UNHCR environmental policies.
  • Preparation of a user-friendly environmental source book of ideas for implementing environmental projects.
  • Further promotion of environmentally friendly procurement.

2. Coordination

  • Consultation meetings with host Governments, donor institutions, other United Nations agencies and selected NGOs.
  • Closer coordination within UNHCR Headquarters.

B. Emergency phase

1. Integration

  • Inclusion of environmental concerns in the Handbook for Emergencies.
  • Inclusion of an environmental specialist in the emergency team, in situations where potentially serious environmental impacts are expected.
  • Inclusion of environmental preservation in special appeals, as an integral part of refugee assistance operations.

2. Coordination

  • Establishment of a working relationship with the host Government's environmental authorities.

3. Training

  • Training of emergency team staff in environmental principles of site selection, design and emergency operations.

4. Information

  • Creation of an environmental database, which should provide up-to-date information for emergency planning purposes.

C. Care and maintenance phase

1. Integration

  • Fielding of an environmental coordinator for those refugee situations deemed to have serious impacts on the environment.
  • Preparation of an Environmental Strategy and Action Plan, whenever necessary, with the help of environmental coordinators in the field. The former should be reflected in the Country Operations Plan and the letter in programming.
  • Establishment of a local environmental task force for regular coordination among major actors concerned.
  • Inclusion of a section on environment in the budget submission, to ensure that the country's Environmental Strategy and Action Plan are translated into the programming cycle.
  • Inclusion of a section on environment, where necessary, in Letters of Instruction.
  • Inclusion of an environmental clause in all related project agreements with host Governments and implementing partners.

2. Technology

  • Promotion of applied and action-oriented research to foster new technical solutions to environmental problems.

3. Coordination

  • Coordination of policy and planning with other United Nations agencies, to ensure coherent environmental activities in the field.
  • Involvement of donors in the early stages of refugee operations concerning the environment.

4. Participation

  • Full involvement and utilization of NGOs according to their specific technical capacities concerning the environment.
  • Involvement of refugees and local communities in the planning and implementation of all environmental projects and activities.

5. Training/Education

  • Development of staff training modules and the establishment of a staff training programme for the field and Headquarters.
  • Planning and implementation of environmental education programmes, both formal and informal.

6. Information

  • Inclusion of environmental data in UNHCR statistical reports, and the SITREP reporting system.
  • Gathering and dissemination of refugee-related environmental information.
  • Promotion of public information activities and materials, to publicize the efforts of UNHCR and its partners to address refugee-related environmental problems.

D. Durable solutions

1. Limited rehabilitation schemes

  • Introduction of an environmental rehabilitation scheme, with contributions from UNHCR and the host Government.
  • Development of an environmental rehabilitation plan to keep a sound coordination among all related activities.

2. Large-scale rehabilitation schemes

  • Preparation of an environmental rehabilitation programme in collaboration with the host Government, other United Nations agencies and donors, where extensive rehabilitation is needed. UNHCR's role should be limited to taking a lead role in setting up large-scale environmental rehabilitation programmes, making modest financial contributions to their initial activities and projects, and playing a catalytic role in attracting other resources.


15. The above reflects the increasingly focused UNHCR policy on refugees and environmental issues. It also lays the basis for practical, definite guidelines to give effect to that policy.