The number of refugees and persons of concern in the world by the end of 2015 was 65.3 million.
Currently host to over 800,000 refugees, Uganda is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Bidi bidi refugee camp. Located in northern Uganda, the camp was opened just last year in August to accommodate refugees from South Sudan. The camp is now home to about 270,000 people.
A UNHCR report states that about 2,500 refugees keep trickling in on a daily basis. By March 2017, an average of 2800 refugees arrived in Uganda each day. Just three months into the year, estimates of refugee influx rose from 300,000 to 400,000.
What does this mean for the environment?
The impact of an influx of people in a short span of time within a small area space is the same everywhere and can be devastating to the environment. Bidi Bidi was just bush, but by the beginning of 2017, it was dotted with a network of feeder roads and shelters with an overwhelming population.
In refugee camps, there can be activities of indiscriminate tree cutting to create shelters, collect wood to build fires for warmth or fuel for cooking or till the land to survive. Authorities should take immediate concern because effects of environmental degradation are difficult to reverse.
Over ten years ago, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came up with environmental guidelines for countries hosting refugees and returnees to cater for the management of natural resources alongside sustainable settlement of refugees.
Increased populations breed competition for available resources. The quest for survival is instinctive and no refugee is expected to choose between living and protecting the environment. Nor should host countries choose between letting refugees in and protecting the environment.
An overpopulation model
The dynamics of an influx of refugees in a given area are the same with those of over population. Over population is where the number of people doesn’t match the available resources in a given area.
The distinction between a refugee influx and over population is that while the former is usually triggered by war, famine, disease, or environmental disaster, the latter is caused over a longer period of time and usually arises out of economic growth. An example is people migrating to urban areas or countries to get better jobs, better medication or improve living standards.
The effect of population pressure on available resources is the same in both cases.
Increased pressure on natural resources causes depletion of the same. A given area can only have sufficient resources to cater for water, agriculture, housing, infrastructure needs of a given number of people.
However, the need to survive with no available alternatives will push people to find ways to keep living. In times of crisis, one is naturally less prone to think about the consequences of his actions for surviving.
Hence come the depletion of forests, reclamation of swamps, destruction of ecosystems to ease pressure on land for agriculture and housing, poaching for food or to earn a living. For example, in Tanzania the refugee crisis in 1994-1996 saw a total of 167sq kilometres of forest severely deforested, mainly for agriculture.
For food, refugees often turn to agriculture depending on how long they stay in a given refugee camp and if they have access to land. The land will be used until its completely degraded causing soil erosion and its consequent effects like soil infertility and, depending on the landscape, even landslides. In Pakistan, where there are over 2 million refugees, the land was heavily used for grazing, and woodlands destroyed for fuel, causing accelerated soil erosion.
Pollution, especially of water sources and the air is eminent. Clean water is essential for human survival as water is needed for the daily survival of humans and animals. If it becomes inadequate, people will resort to using any means to acquire it. Peru and Brazil among other countries have entered into armed conflict because of water shortages.
A bigger population comes with increased use of oil and its products, industrialisation, transport, which congests the air with dangerous fumes that can spill to water sources. The most eminent example is China. China’s Guangzhou city is the most populated and one of the most polluted cities. In Africa, such congested environments create slums which have a close likeness to refugee camps in terms of housing and available public services like water and electricity.
Conflicts between refugees and resident populations on access to natural resources are bound to occur especially if these refugee settlements are unplanned for.
Environmental problems are further interwoven with the economic and social welfare problems of refugee influxes. The rate and extent of provision of local services to the locals is definitely affected especially since poor countries are host to over 80% of the world’s refugees and persons of concern. This means the meagre economic resources must be split to accommodate the bigger population. Economic amenities such as schools, hospitals and infrastructure would be stretched hence impacting on the quality of service provision.
What is the solution?
Planning. Every country should be able to anticipate a refugee crisis or an over population situation. The constant wars and continuously growing world population, currently at 7.5billion people, should keep governments on their toes.
It is unfortunate that countries prone to attracting refugees have high population growth rates and are mostly developing countries. These countries cannot facilitate the betterment of the situation either due to their financial or political inability.
As the situation is now, it seems that host countries should be making a choice between their environment and the people in need. This should never be the case especially for countries that endorse international human rights standards and acknowledge the great threat that is climate change and the damage to our environment.
The solution would lie in making sure that every host country endorses UNHCR’s Environmental Guidelines in anticipation of these situations especially the refugee crises. This way, it becomes easier to facilitate harmonious management of locals, refugees and the environment.