Environmental concerns during refugee operations

Environment, 1 January 2001

UNHCR recognises three main phases of assistance to refugees "emergency", "care and maintenance" and "durable solutions" each of which requires specific attention. Environmental pressures too will differ between these stages, as well as from one situation to another. At each stage, however, consideration should be given to the basic principles outlined in UNHCR's Environmental Guidelines.

Emergency in the Making

UNHCR and other relief organisations must be able to respond to emergencies whenever and wherever they arise.Sometimes these events may be predicted, for example, following increased political tensions in a particular country. Even then, however, no one can foresee what the response of people will be to these problems the number of people involved, the direction in which they might flee for safety, or what the resulting impact on local settlements and the environment is likely to be.

The emergency phase is the most critical period for UNHCR operations and its field staff must be prepared for any eventuality. It is also probably the most critical time for environmental impacts, since the needs of homeless people must be given priority. Actions taken during this time to minimise impacts on the environment will have great importance for later phases of operations, and may have considerable bearing on the welfare of affected people.

Some environmental damage is unavoidable during the emergency phase, particularly where large numbers of people are involved. Roads may need to be constructed to reach inaccessible sites. Camp sites and shelters must be established to safely house and accommodate swelling numbers of refugees. Particular features which must be taken into account whenever refugees are gathered together include the availability of safe drinking water, avoiding areas of endemic disease, and areas at risk from flooding or landslides.

This, however, is also the time when maximum effort must be made to keep refugees away from ecologically sensitive sites such as national parks, World Heritage Sites (which can be of cultural and/or environmental importance), fragile ecological zones such as water catchment areas, and sites of local cultural and religious importance.

By confining the impact of refugees to a restricted area and protecting the environment to the greatest extent possible during emergency situations, UNHCR and other organisations will be better positioned to control and minimise the potentially damaging impacts of large gatherings of people on the environment.

Measures taken need not be complex or expensive. Painting marks on trees that refugees might cut is a simple way of demonstrating which trees they may cut and those which should remain standing. As long as refugees are clearly told which is which, and with limited controls, this can be an effective means of environmental protection and can avoid costly rehabilitation in later stages.

Caring for Refugees and the Environment

The shift from emergency to "care and maintenance" usually begins when the refugee population in a camp becomes relatively stable. Environmental activities developed during this phase should be proactive, taking a long-term approach to managing natural resources for the benefit of people and the environment. Management plans should be prepared and guidance provided to field staff on integrating environmental components into project and programme implementation.

Like the emergency phase, the duration of the care and maintenance support programme can vary considerably according to local conditions and requirements.

Reversing the Tide Going Home

One of UNHCR's most responsible actions is to find long-term, durable solutions to the problems created and experienced by refugees. While it may be difficult to eliminate all environmental impacts from refugee-hosting areas, given that a host country has been generous enough to make asylum provisions for the welfare of refugees, every effort should be made to overcome some of the main impacts.

Three different environmental issues are addressed during this phase, all of which need to be taken into account to restore environmental degradation and help ensure sustainable management of natural resources:

For rehabilitation projects to be effective, partner organisations as well as local communities and authorities must be involved in the planning and implementation process. Participation of local people is especially important since rehabilitation activities must meet the long-term needs of such communities. Development type organisations are expected to play key roles in this phase.

Environment-related tasks which need to be addressed during the final phases of support operations range from cleaning camp grounds and appropriate disposal of waste materials, to closure of latrines, removal of housing and other infrastructures and, where required, tree planting and development of other activities.