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close this bookThe Environmental Impact of Sudden Population Displacements - Expert Consultation on Priority Policy Issues and Humanitarian Aid (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters - European Commission Humanitarian Office, 1995, 101 p.)
close this folder3. OVERVIEW OF POLICY ISSUES
View the document3.1. Environment and Sudden Population Displacement: Policy Issues for Humanitarian Action and Development programmes
View the document3.2. What Makes Emergencies Different? Inter-Relations of Development, Environment and Disasters
View the document3.3. Environmental Issues: UNHCR's Experience and Response

3.3. Environmental Issues: UNHCR's Experience and Response

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

1. Refugee Related Environmental Problems

Like any other mass population movement, the influx and subsequent settlement of refugees bring forth environmental consequences. The recent Burundi/Rwanda emergency and the incidence of Afghan, Mozambican, Cambodian and Ethiopian refugees in the past involved a caseload of millions. Prolonged presence of such populations in neighbouring countries tends to result in various forms of environmental problems, which usually accompany significant changes in the social and economic systems of the local communities.

The nature and the magnitude of environmental problems associated with refugees have intensified in recent years. As environmental factors, a couple of points can be singled out:

(i) environmental concerns have become increasingly serious in both quality and extent, and some issues such as declining biodiversity and deforestation are now of global concern, and

(ii) as a result, environmental awareness has considerably increased in developing countries, where most of the refugee related environmental problems have taken place.

However refugee related factors now seem decisive in aggravating environmental problems around many refugee camps. First, refugee populations have dramatically increased in the 1990s. In many new emergencies, refugee population concentrations are even considerably larger than the local population of the immediately surrounding area. Second, refugee populations are frequently located in environmentally sensitive areas, including in the vicinity of national parks and other protected sites. Third, refugees are tending to stay in countries of asylum for longer periods, which of course increases environmental impacts around the refugee camps.

Refugee related environmental problems are different from one place to another, mainly because environmental conditions, including carrying capacity of an area, are specific to the locality. Environmental problems commonly observed in refugee affected areas are deforestation, soil erosion and water depletion/contamination. These problems can be seen as the degradation of renewable natural resources around the refugee sites. Each of these problems is caused by a number of different refugee activities. For example, deforestation results from tree-felling for fuel, heating, lighting and construction materials as well as from delays or failures in shortage of remedial reforestation efforts.

These physical impacts create socio-economic impacts on refugees and on local communities. The effects of environmental degradation harm refugee women and children disproportionately, particularly those effects related to deforestation caused by fuel-wood gathering. Women must spend longer and longer hours seeking and carrying wood, entailing increased exposure to assault; children are forced to miss school; as fuel supplies become harder to obtain, cooking time may be shortened and water not boiled, leading to increased incidence of disease; refugee families may be forced to sell part of their food rations to obtain the fuel needed to cook the remainder resulting in under-nutrition. Basically the same social impacts may be imposed upon host populations, particularly the poorest, who are most dependent on the surrounding environment for a livelihood and for fuel. Competition with the refugees for scarce resources such as fuel-wood, fodder and water could result in conflicts and violence, as the environment is degraded.

The local poor may feel economic impacts most directly, as the refugees' demands force up prices for food and fuel. However much larger and longer economic hardship is caused by deforestation, denudation of vegetation and water resource depletion, which result in loss of pasture and agricultural land. In serious cases local infrastructure including dams and roads could be damaged, which, together with impacts on pasture and agriculture, could totally disrupt the past pattern of economic activities of the area. The huge economic cost of such destruction often goes unrecorded. Even when the needs of nationals are correctly presented, the international community's generosity towards refugees often does not extend to their severely affected hosts.

The recent Rwanda emergency has added a new dimension to the refugee related environmental problems. The eastern Zaire region of North and South Kivu hosts approximately one million Rwandan refugees. The turmoil and acute health problems at the initial emergency phase were well documented by the media in the summer of 1994. With their prolonged stay in the region, the damage caused by their heavy pressure on the region's natural resources is prevailing over corrective action.

The Kivu region of Zaire is characterised by high volcanic mountains and several lakes, being located in a branch of the Rift Valley. The mountain tropical climate and the varied geographical settings have provided unique flora and fauna to the region, known worldwide. Two World Heritage Sites exist in the region, namely Virunga National Park and Kafuzi Biega National Park. Given the scarcity of under-utilised land and in accordance with the Government's policy, refugee camps were set up along the Rwandan border area, with several camps adjacent to these national parks.

In view of the emergent situations, this choice was unavoidable, as such a mass population can hardly be moved to areas remote from the initial points of influx, and as the paramount concern was to save lives in face of the highest mortality rates ever recorded in such an emergency. The settling of refugees in well serviced sites near an airport, towns, water resource and roads was of overriding importance. This siting has, however, posed an increasingly severe environmental problem: notably damage to the Virunga National Park. Environmental problems caused by the refugees have for the first time assumed a global importance, because of the threat to the unique biodiversity supported by the Virunga National Park.

There are some basic explanations for characteristics of environmental problems associated with refugees. The first is that states have an obligation to admit asylum seekers, and practical and political - not environmental - considerations will often determine where refugees are settled. Thus some environmental impacts are unavoidable in particular when refugee influx is massive. The second is that the highest priority in a refugee emergency must be to save lives. All other longer-term considerations, including conservation of the environment, are subordinated to that vital task in the early days of an influx. The third point relates to uncertainty. Uncertainty about the number of refugees who will occupy a site, and about the duration of their stay impedes proactive planning, which is the key to the prevention-oriented environmental interventions. The last point is motivation. Refugees have little if any motivation to conserve the surrounding environment, because the land around them do not belong to them. Refugees tend to see their stay in the area only temporally. Abstract notions of global or even local environmental stewardship are not relevant to refugees, who are often still traumatised by their experience.

2. UNHCR's Response

The social and environmental problems prevailing in the refugee receiving areas of the host countries have prompted new policy and programme formulation by UNHCR. As early as 1984, UNHCR's governing body adopted “Principles of Action for Developing Countries”, addressing UNHCR's role in refugee related development type projects. Under these principles, “projects aimed at repairing or improving a host country's economic and social infrastructure to help cope with the presence of refugees” were covered, to give effect to soil conservation, watershed protection and reforestation activities in the refugee affected areas. A notable project was that launched in Pakistan with the World Bank (IGPRA I, II, III: 1984-1994), coupling these activities with income generation schemes for refugees and the local community.

Although less significant in scale, projects similar to IGPRA have been introduced in other refugee-hosting countries since then. Recent examples are found in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe with increasing orientation to environmental protection and rehabilitation. Some reforestation projects were carried out with indigenous tree species; wherever possible they involved refugees themselves and locals. Most of the other projects included preventive measures as well, such as introduction of fuel efficient stoves, provision of fuel, for example kerosene or crop residues, and environmental education initiatives. The High Commissioner's speech at UNCED (1992, Brazil) drew attention to the problems and to these efforts.

Following UNCED, UNHCR's specific policy on environmental matters was a subject of discussion by its governing body. In July 1994, UNHCR adopted the “Interim Guidelines for Environment-Sensitive Management of Refugee Programmes”, which set the stage for further policy development. The fundamental principle enunciated in the Interim Guidelines was the integration of an environmental perspective into UNHCR programme planning and implementation. The Interim Guidelines introduced the following four measures to strengthen UNHCR's response to environmental concerns. UNHCR took measures to:

1. institute environmental reporting, surveys, monitoring and studies;
2. define environmental criteria for selection and planning of a refugee site;
3. promote environment oriented projects and programming; and
4. define and mobilise the technical and operational support required from Headquarters.

These Guidelines were qualified as interim because more reflection and discussion, based on further studies and experience, was thought to be necessary before elaborating definitive guidelines. UNHCR's environmental policy is still consolidating. With the prevailing situations in Zaire and elsewhere, it is clear that most refugee relief operations in developing countries need a significant environmental component. However, the role of UNHCR in these activities with a humanitarian not development mandate, the way to promote active participation of development assistance agencies, means of cooperation with host governments, other UN agencies, bilateral aid programmes and relevant NGOs, are only some of the issues to be addressed before formalising the comprehensive environmental strategy to which UNHCR is committed.


I. Introduction

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. Therefore, in December 1994, the 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.

II. The Policy

2.1. General

3. This policy applies to environmental issues associated with the presence of refugees. Among environmental problems associated with refugee situations, the major ones are: deforestation, soil erosion and depletion and degradation of water, 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.

2.2. 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.

2.2.1. 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.

2.2.2. Prevention

6. Prevention should be the norm, rather than cure, because the natural environment possesses intrinsic value which cannot be recreated or replaced by humanity.

2.2.3. Cost-effectiveness

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

2.2.4. 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 the poor and vulnerable including women and children, who suffer disproportionately from refugee-induced environmental problems.

2.3. Organisational Principles

2.3.1. Integration

9. All environment-related action required during the emergency and care-and maintenance phases should be an integrated part of the response of UNHCR and budgeted accordingly 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 bi- or multilateral development funding sources.

2.3.2. 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

(i) host governments and UNHCR should take lead roles;

(ii) refugees and local populations should be involved in environmental planning and projects;

(iii) coordination with and assistance from other UN agencies and international NGOs should be promoted; and

(iv) in cases where environmental damage is extensive, development funds should be sought.

2.3.3. 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.

2.3.4. 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.

2.3.5. 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.

III. Operational Outcomes

14. To implement the organisational 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 Organisation. The major outcomes may be summarised as follows:

3.1. General

3.1.1. Integration

Inclusion of a section on environmental management in the UNHCR Manual, particularly in chapter 4

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

3.1.2. Coordination

Consultation meetings with host governments, donor institutions, other UN agencies and selected NGOs

Closer coordination within UNHCR Headquarters

3.2. Emergency phase

3.2.1. 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.

3.2.2. Coordination

Establishment of a working relationship with the environmental authorities in the host government

3.2.3. Training

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

3.2.4. Information

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

3.3. Care-and-maintenance phase

3.3.1. 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, wherever necessary, with the help of environmental coordinators in the field. The former should be reflected in the Country Operations Plan and the latter 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

3.3.2. Technology

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

3.3.3. Coordination

Coordination of policy and planning with other UN agencies, to ensure coherent environmental activities in the field

Involvement of donors in the early stages of refugee operations concerning the environment

3.3.4. Participation

Full involvement and utilisation 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

3.3.5. 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

3.3.6. 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 publicise the efforts of UNHCR and its partners to address refugee-related environmental problems

3.4. Durable solutions

3.4.1. 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.

3.4.2. Large scale rehabilitation schemes

Preparation of an environmental rehabilitation programme in collaboration with the host government, other UN agencies and donors, where extensive rehabilitation is needed. UNHCR's role should be limited to taking a leading 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.

IV. Conclusion

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.