Counting the cost

AO-maajo-camp-mogadishuInternally displaced Somali women in the Maajo camp in Mogadishu © UNHCR/S Modola

The presence of refugees, and the demands they impose on the economy, services, infrastructure and resources, is a matter of great concern for many poor countries.

In 2014, the number of people forced to flee from their homes across the world exceeded 50 million for the first time since the Second World War. The exponential rise in displaced people is stretching host countries - as well as aid organisations - to the limit.

An ever increasing flow

Ethiopia recently overtook Kenya to become Africa’s leading refugee-hosting country, with a total population of almost 630,000; around a third of these are South Sudanese, escaping the violence which re-erupted in December 2013. The current conflict has driven nearly a million people into camps around Eastern Africa, adding to refugee populations already swollen by persecution and conflict in Eritrea and Somalia. In Kenya, the world’s largest refugee complex is situated around Dabaab - a town in the semi-arid North Eastern Province of Kenya - which hosts over 340,000 displaced people from Somalia.

Besides conflict and political instability, millions of people are forced from their homes and land by climate-related, natural disasters. Some are displaced by sudden onset storms and flooding, others by longer term climate hazards such as drought and desertification. In 2009, the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters. With climate change likely to increase environmentally-induced migration and displacement by many more millions in the coming decades, low-lying Pacific islands, in particular, are already considering their options. In July 2014, the President of Kiribati, home to 110,000 people scattered across 33 small islands, completed the purchase of 20 km2 of land on Vanua Levu, one of Fiji’s islands, as a potential refuge for its people for when islands are lost to rising sea-levels.

For poor countries, however, the presence of refugees as a result of conflict or natural disaster and the resulting demands on severely strained economies, services, infrastructure and resources compound the challenges faced by communities and governments. In 2014, for example, conflicts in Central and West Africa put severe strain on the already limited food supplies amongst host families and in refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad and Niger. With an increasing succession of emergencies to respond to, meeting the needs of displaced populations is becoming ever more challenging. In Eastern Africa, for example, the UNHCR received only 37% of the requested €475 million needed to assist the 2 million people displaced by the fighting in South Sudan during 2014.

Environmental concerns

Nevertheless, with little resources on which to depend, external assistance (particularly for those living in camps) is a necessity as people forced to flee their homes often have little or no assets. But, providing sufficient shelter, water and sanitation services, health and nutritional care to ever increasing numbers of refugees is a logistical as well as financial issue for governments, as well as aid agencies.

The establishment of refugee camps, for instance, relies on the generosity of the host governments for the timely identification of suitable land. In 2015, the need for additional land to settle increasing numbers of South Sudanese refugees will be a priority. However, whilst Ethiopia maintains an open-door policy and land has already been allocated for 23 camps in various districts along its borders, torrential rain during the last rainy season in 2014 resulted in severe flooding in many of the camps, particularly in the Gambella region, further hampering aid efforts. In addition, whilst Gambella is one of Ethiopia’s most sparsely populated areas, access to its land and water is contested and, because of its fertility, the federal government has earmarked the state for commercial agriculture.

In other regions in Africa, refugees are commonly settled in semi-arid, agriculturally marginal areas. Most camps tend to be large, for logistical and political reasons, with camp populations at least partially dependent on their surroundings for water, food, shelter and medicine. As a result, the impact on the environment can be significant in terms of firewood and wildlife, land deterioration and soil erosion, water pollution and availability of groundwater. In Uganda, disputes over environmental resources have led to the formation of district security committees to help resolve issues over deforestation and access to water around the Adjumani refugee camp, which hosts 50,000 people in northern Uganda, and to encourage refugees and local communities to respect law and order.

Besides the impact on the natural environment, the presence of refugees may also disrupt local food prices and the labour market. Whilst this may be beneficial for local farmers, who can hire low cost workers from the refugee camps and sell crop surpluses for increased income, there can be negative impacts on local household food security and those who compete for employment as unskilled labour. On the other hand, jobs are often created by humanitarian agencies needing local employees, social services may increase, even for local communities, and markets can benefit from the trade with refugees

Fueling recovery

Positive innovations in recent years to reduce the impact of refugees on resources includes the introduction of solar cookers. For example, more than 50,000 people in four refugee camps in eastern Chad are using locally made solar CooKits. Elsewhere, in Eastern Africa for example, an integrated cooking approach has been introduced to refugee camps, which involves the use of solar cookers, fuel-efficient woodstoves (to use at night) and a heat retention cooker, reducing the use of fuelwood by at least 40%. In Kenya and Ethiopia, UNHCR, WFP and local partners have implemented multi-storey gardens to provide food for home consumption and a surplus to sell. The approach requires little labour and particularly instils self-reliance amongst women and the youth. In Mauritania, around 50 small gardens in the Mbera refugee camp are now part of Slow Food’s 10,000 Food Garden’s project receiving support to grow local food crops (see also Interview on page 12).

A new report, published in 2014 by Humanitarian Innovation Project based at the University of Oxford, also challenges myths on the dependence of refugees and their impact on local economies. Refugee economies: Rethinking popular assumptions reports on research in Uganda which reveals that refugees are part of complex and vibrant economic systems, that they are often entrepreneurial and, if given the opportunity can help themselves and their communities, as well as contributing to the host economy. Not all countries are as accommodating as Uganda in their approach to refugees. Nevertheless, the report challenges common perceptions and presents some food for thought regarding the complex issue of how best to support refugees and prompt positive, rather than negative impacts on the communities that host them and the environment that supports them.

Susanna Thorp

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