Environmental and refugee crises go hand in hand and affect each other mutually. Climate change concerns such as floods, droughts or cyclones generate internally displaced people and refugees. It is estimated that, in the next years, thousands of people living in coastal areas and islands threatened by the rise of sea level will have to dislocate to other countries. Let’s take the example of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific: it has been shown that climate change phenomenon such as frequent floods has had an impact on food insecurity in the nation, and sea-level rise may ultimately submerge the islands in 50 years’ time. Interestingly, according to a recent study conducted by Van der Geest et al., even though there has been a significant increase in migration flows most of the population does not seem to move due to climate-related worries, but essentially for educational, work, or family purposes. On the other hand, if climate change is one of the reasons people have to seek asylum, at the same time, building refugee camps that keep on being expanded also has deep environmental consequences, especially when it is done in fragile, rural areas. As these sites are mainly constructed on a temporary basis, or so it is claimed, and the priority is to build emergency infrastructure, sustainable methods are often lacking or not even considered at all. Biswas & Quiroz (1996) mention the environmental impact of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire, with extensive deforestation in the area mostly to meet commercial purposes. Furthermore, refugees “use and pollute water, deplete wood supplies for fuel, and poach animals for food, often harming parks, nature reserves and World Heritage Sites”. Another clear example is the environmental impact in the Cox Bazar area due to the enormous influx of Rohingyas, a humanitarian emergency that the Bangladeshi Government has not been able to tackle on its own. A 2018 UNDP report emphasized the deteriorating environment in the region, namely “groundwater contamination; poor indoor air quality; loss of wildlife habitat; forest degradation” , among many others.

Furthermore, a recrudescence of the ecological footprint can worsen relations between the locals and the asylum seekers and contribute to a speech against their reception. For example, Berry (2008) highlights how “the Government of Tanzania has openly states that is the refugees who are mainly responsible for the incalculable environmental damage to the country and the destruction of water sources and natural vegetation within and around the camps”.When considering self-settlement or aggregation in refugee camps, some researchers believe that it is beneficial to have them in camps so “environmental damage can be contained rather than spread throughout the receiving region” , at the same time that it better controls the inappropriate use local resources. A counter back to this point of view is that constructing refugee camps also affects the natural fauna and flora of the site, namely the clearance of land to allow for shelter setup such as plastic tents. Moreover, the concentration of so many people in such a small geographical space leads to the overuse of resources and a greater likelihood of spreading diseases. In this line of thought, Jacobsen (1997) argues that “smaller camps would reduce environmental damage”. Realistically, reducing the size of camps is very unlikely because refugee numbers keep increasing and durable solutions – repatriation, local integration or resettlement are, for most, a utopian future. As stays in camps get protracted, it is important to invest in sustainable environmental practices. Considering the facts, a big percentage of refugees worldwide are dependent on biomass fuels for primary needs such as cooking and heating, which on the long term becomes environmentally unsustainable. The blame for environmental degradation should not be put on refugees themselves, nor should it be an excuse for countries to discontinue hosting more refugees. Instead, sustainable alternatives should be prioritized by camp managers. In this matter, some steps have already been taken in the Kigoma Region in Tanzania: in 2018 UNHCR and its partners carried out a distribution of brick, insert, mud, and rocket stoves to allow for more sustainable cooking methods and food security. The programme also included a training course for refugees to become acquainted with these practices. These “improved stoves also reduce air pollution and the risk of respiratory illnesses”, besides dismissing long daily journeys for the collection of firewood. This example of Tanzania demonstrates that UNHCR, partner international organizations, NGOs, and environmental protection organizations are taking a step to promote “green” refugee camps, even if these practices are mostly on a recommendation tone and not legally agreed. Naturally, none of this is possible if funding for this kind of programmes does not increase, but the establishment of environmental committees or evaluation groups, for example, could be advantageous as well. Environmental concerns should be crucial in order to promote a more sustainable living in camps. Failing to do so leads to a paradox: refugees flee from environmental or natural disasters, but create new ones wherever they move next.

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