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close this bookHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
close this folder12. Site Selection, Planning and Shelter
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentOverview
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentOrganization of Response
View the documentCriteria for Site Selection
View the documentSite Planning: General Considerations
View the documentSite Planning: Specific Infrastructure
View the documentShelter
View the documentReception and Transit Camps
View the documentPublic Buildings and Communal Facilities


1. Providing a place to live is a natural consequence of granting asylum. As the layout, infrastructure and shelter of an emergency camp will have a major influence on the safety and well-being of refugees, these factors must be coordinated with the other vital sectors involved in the humanitarian response: community services, water, environmental sanitation, health, education, food distribution, logistics, forestry, and the environment.

2. Most refugee operations last much longer than initially anticipated, therefore cost-effective and sustainable infrastructure and shelter should be planned from the start. The expected life-span of a camp will influence site selection, camp planning and the implementation of a refugee operation.

3. The role and responsibility of the national authorities in site selection is obvious and of fundamental importance. Equally, the refugees themselves must be involved as early as possible; ideally, the needs of the refugees should determine the location, size and layout of the site. In practice a compromise has to be reached between the needs of refugees and external factors, both practical and political.

4. Good site selection, planning and shelter will:

i. Save lives and reduce cost;

ii. Minimize the need for difficult, corrective measures later;

iii. Make the provision of utilities, services and infrastructure easier and more cost-effective;

iv. Ensure most efficient use of land, resources and time.

5. Emergency refugee settlements generally fall into one of three categories:

i. Dispersed settlement;

ii. Mass shelter;

iii. Camps.

Dispersed Settlement

6. This type of arrangement is where the refugees find accommodation within the households of families who already live in the area of refuge. The refugees either share existing accommodation or set up temporary accommodation nearby and share water, sanitation, cooking and other services of the preexisting households.

7. Accommodation is often found with extended family members or with people of the same ethnic background. This type of arrangement may occur in both rural or urban settings. The advantages of this type of settlement are:

i. Quick to implement;

ii. Limited administrative support is needed;

iii. Low cost;

iv. Fosters self help and independence;

v. It has less impact on the local environment than camps.

8. The disadvantages of this type of settlement are:

i. The host families and communities can become overburdened and impoverished;

ii. It can be difficult to distinguish the host population from the refugees. This may pose problems where population estimation and registration are required;

iii. Protection problems may not be as easy to detect as when the population is more concentrated;

iv. Shelter and other forms of assistance are likely to be needed by the host population as well as the refugees.

Mass Shelter:

Public Buildings and Community Facilities

9. This type of settlement is where refugees find accommodation in pre-existing facilities, for example, in schools, barracks, hotels, gymnasiums. These are normally in urban areas and are often intended as temporary or transit accommodation. The advantages of this type of settlement are:

i. They are not continuously inhabited during normal use and refugees can be accommodated immediately without disrupting accommodation in the hosting area;

ii. Services such as water and sanitation are immediately available, though these may be inadequate if the numbers are large;

iii. The need to construct additional structures specifically for the refugees is avoided.

10. The disadvantages of this type of settlement are:

i. They can quickly become overcrowded;

ii. Sanitation and other services can become overburdened;

iii. Equipment and structure can be damaged;

iv. Buildings are no longer available for their original purpose, thus disrupting public services to the hosting population;

v. Lack of privacy.


11. This type of settlement is where refugees find accommodation in purpose built sites where a full range of services, for example water, sanitation, are provided, usually exclusively for the population of the site.

12. High density camps with very large populations are the worst possible option for refugee accommodation. However, this may be the only option because of decisions by the host country or simply because of a lack of alternatives. They are common in areas with little or no pre-existing infrastructure or where the size of the refugee population is such that it would put an intolerable strain on the local resources if the two other types of settlement mentioned above were used.

13. The advantages of this type of settlement are:

i. Services can be provided to a large population in a centralized and efficient way;

ii. There may be economies of scale in the provision of some services compared with more dispersed settlements;

iii. The refugee population can be easy to identify and communicate with;

iv. Voluntary repatriation can be easier to organize.

14. The disadvantages of this type of settlement are:

i. High population density seriously increases health risks to the population;

ii. High risk of environmental damage in the immediate vicinity of the camp;

iii. High population concentrations, particularly close to international borders, may make the population vulnerable to protection problems;

iv. Large camps may provide a hiding place and support base for armed groups who should be excluded from refugee status. It may be difficult to distinguish these groups from the normal refugee population and thus they may continue to benefit from assistance.