Cover Image
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

Criteria for Site Selection

· Land may be scarce in the country of asylum and no site may be available that meets all of the desired criteria. If, however, the site is clearly unsuitable, every effort must be made to move the refugees to a better site as quickly as possible. Both the problems which result from a bad site, and the difficulties inherent in a move, increase with time.


22. The social and cultural background of the refugees must be a primary consideration and will be an important determinant of the most appropriate type of site and shelter. In many circumstances, however, choice will be limited and land that meets even minimum standards may be scarce. For uninhabited sites or areas where refugee settlement is proposed, it is wise to establish why the site was not already in use, and examine whether the reason - for example, no water or because it floods in the monsoon - does not also exclude use by the refugees.

Water Supply

23. A specialist assessment of water availability should be a prerequisite in selecting a site.

The availability of an adequate amount of water on a year-round basis has proved in practice to be the single most important criterion, and commonly the most problematic

A site should not be selected on the assumption that water can be found merely by drilling, digging, or hauling. Drilling may not be feasible or may not provide water in adequate quantity and quality. No site should be selected where the hauling of water will be required over a long period.

Size of Camp Sites

24. While there are recommended minimum area requirements for refugee sites, these should be applied cautiously and with flexibility. They are a rule of thumb for an initial calculation rather than precise standards.

Ideally, the recommended minimum surface area is 45 m2 per person when planning a refugee camp (including garden space). However, the actual surface area per person (excluding garden space) should not be less than 30 m2 per person.

The figure of 30 m2 surface area per person includes the area necessary for roads, foot paths, educational facilities, sanitation, security, firebreaks, administration, water storage, distribution, markets, relief item storage and distribution and, of course, plots for shelter. The figure of 30 m2 does not include, however, any land for significant agricultural activities or livestock. Although agricultural activities are not usually a priority during emergencies, small vegetable gardens attached to the family plot should be included in the site plan from the outset. This requires a minimum increase of 15 m2 per person, hence, a minimum of 45 m2 overall land allocation per person would be needed.

25. Large camps of over 20,000 people should generally be avoided.

The size of a site for 20,000 people should be calculated as follows assuming space for vegetable gardens is included:

20,000 people × 45 m2= 900,000 m2 = 90 ha (for example a site measuring 948 m × 948 m).

26. If possible, there should be a substantial distance between each camp. The distance depends on a number of factors: access, proximity of the local population, water supplies, environmental considerations and land use.

27. Refugee settlements should have potential for expansion to accommodate increase in the population due to natural increases or new arrivals. The excess of births over deaths means that the population could grow as fast as 3 to 4% per year.

Land Use and Land Rights

28. In most countries land for the establishment of refugee sites is scarce. Often, sites are provided on public land by the government. Any use of private land must be based on formal legal arrangements in accordance with the laws of the country.

Note that UNHCR neither purchases nor rents land for refugee settlements.

Headquarters should be consulted at once if this is a problem.

29. Once a possible site has been identified, the process of site assessment should always include clarification of land-ownership and land rights. Almost invariably, land rights or ownership are known, even though these may not be well documented in public record, or may not be obvious. Nomadic use of range-land, for instance, requires huge areas and may not look used.

30. The refugees should have the exclusive use of the site, through agreement with national and local (including traditional) authorities. Traditional or customary land use rights are very sensitive issues, and even if there may be an agreement with the national government to use a site, local groups may disagree with the site being used even temporarily. Clarification of access rights and land use restrictions is also necessary to define the rights of the refugees to:

i. Collect fuel-wood, and timber for shelter construction as well as fodder for animals;

ii. Graze their animals;

iii. Engage in agriculture or other subsistence activities.

Security and Protection

31. In principle, the granting of asylum is not an unfriendly act by the host country towards the country of origin. However, to ensure the security and protection of the refugees, it is recommended that they be settled at a reasonable distance from international borders as well as other potentially sensitive areas such as military installations.

The OAU Convention states: "for reasons of security, countries of asylum shall, as far as possible, settle refugees at a reasonable distance from the frontier of their country of origin"1.

1Article II, paragraph 6 OAU Convention.

Exceptions should only be made to this rule where the interests of the refugees would be better served, for example if there are good prospects for early voluntary repatriation, and security and protection considerations allow.

Topography, Drainage and Soil Conditions

32. Where water is readily available, drainage often becomes a key criterion. The whole site should be located above flood prone areas, preferably on gentle (2 to 4%) slopes. Sites on slopes steeper than 10% gradient are difficult to use and usually require complex and costly site preparations. Flat sites present serious problems for the drainage of waste and storm water. Avoid areas likely to become marshy or waterlogged during the rainy season.

33. Soils that allow swift surface water absorption are important for the construction and effectiveness of pit latrines. The subsoil should permit good infiltration (i.e. allowing water absorption by the soil, and the retention of solid waste in the latrine). It should be noted that very sandy soils which are good for infiltration are sometimes poor for the stability of the pit. Where drinking water supplies are drawn from ground water sources, special attention must be given to preventing contamination by pit latrines. The pit latrines must not reach into the ground water. The groundwater table should be a minimum of 3 m below the surface of the site.

34. Avoid excessively rocky or impermeable sites as they hamper both shelter and latrine construction. If possible, select a site where the land is suitable at least for vegetable gardens and small-scale agriculture.


35. The site must be accessible and close to sources of necessary supplies such as food, cooking fuel and shelter material. Proximity to national services is desirable, particularly health care services. Roads must be "all-weather" providing year-round access. Short access roads to connect the main road with the site can be constructed as part of the camp development. There may be advantages in choosing a site near a town, subject to consideration of possible friction between local inhabitants and refugees.

Climatic Conditions, Local Health and Other Risks

36. Settlement areas should be free of major environmental health hazards such as malaria, onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) or tsetse fly. A site may have unseen and/or irregular (but often locally known) risks such as flash flooding, or serious industrial pollution. For sites in dust prone areas, regular dust clouds can foster respiratory diseases. Emergency and temporary shelter need protection from high winds, however, a daily breeze is an advantage. Climatic conditions should be suitable year-round and careful account should be taken of seasonal variations: a suitable site in the dry season may be untenable in the rains. Likewise, mountainous areas may be suitable in summer, while in winter the temperatures may fall way below freezing. Seasonal variation can have a considerable impact on the type and cost of shelter, infrastructure, heating fuel and even diet. As far as possible, refugees should not be settled in an area where the climate differs greatly from that to which they are accustomed. For example, settling refugees from malaria-free high ground in a marshy area where the disease is endemic can be disastrous.


37. The site should have a good ground cover (grass, bushes, trees). Vegetation cover provides shade, and reduces erosion and dust. During site preparation, care should be taken to do as little damage as possible to this vegetation and topsoil. If heavy equipment is used, indiscriminate bulldozing or removal of top-soil has to be avoided at all costs. If wood must be used as domestic cooking fuel or for the construction of shelter, the refugees should be encouraged not to cover their needs at the site or in the immediate vicinity. Rather, a more dispersed pattern of wood collection should be encouraged, in coordination with local forestry authorities (see section on site planning and management of natural resources below). A quick survey of vegetation and biomass availability for these purposes should be undertaken. The site should not be located near areas which are ecologically or environmentally protected or fragile.

Site Selection Methodology

Obtain agreement among the planning team on site selection criteria;

i. Prioritize the criteria list;

ii. Obtain suitable maps and other information showing topography, road networks, land use and water sources;

iii. Determine site characteristics through site visits, identifying any potential flaws that would exclude use of the site (e.g. no water, flood-prone);

iv. Make simple estimates of the surface area of each of the potential sites, e.g. use vehicle trip-meter to estimate distances, or, if feasible, use other methods such as Global Positioning System (see chapter 11 on population estimation and registration);

v. Assess the implications of different layouts on the potential sites and rank the sites on the basis of the criteria list.