Professor Susan Martin, Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration, and Mark Giordano, Associate Professor and Director of the Program in Science, Technology and International Affairs, are conducting a State Department-funded research on the environmental impact on refugee camps. The Caravel sat down with Professor Martin to discuss the research.
How is the natural resource consumption pattern of refugee camps? Is it significantly different from that of regular human societies?
It’s not so much of the problem that the resource use in refugee camps is different. What happens is that refugee camps are usually sided in locations where there are very small local populations. And a refugee camp can be the size of small or even a large city. So the principal issue is the sudden influx of a large volume of people.
Also, governments assume that refugee camps will be temporary and often don’t think through the long-term consequences. But the average duration of stay for refugees is 17 years or longer, and the cumulative effect on the environment is very destructive. So in this research project, we aim to find better resource management systems that reflect the reality of refugee camps.
What are some problems that host countries suffer from?
The problems are often about the location of the camps. Very often, refugee camps are erected in parts of the host country where people are very poor and have little political power. These local hosts are already living very marginal lives, and the sudden influx of refugees and aid workers leaves a big impact on their lives. Sometimes it’s positive—they might get jobs or access to health care provided to refugees. But sometimes the welfare programs are not open to local residents, while the hosts are seeing trees cut down and borders becoming more porous.
Is there a country that effectively manages resources for both local residents and refugees?
The Kenyan government appears to be trying to get on top of this issue. They have had this large refugee camp in the Kakuma province since the early 1990s. Back then, there was very little understanding of the potential environmental impact. But as they plan to extend the duration of the camp, the Kenyan government plans to conduct an environmental impact assessment and develop appropriate action plans.
Then do you think adequate measures to prevent such environmental problems will increase the willingness of the local residents to accept refugees?
I think so. In fact, one of the things we’re looking into this project is the viability of a common resource management system that involves both local populations and refugees. But governments are not always willing to accept such cooperative programs, because they think the international community, not individual governments, has the responsibility for refugees.
Based on your research, what are your recommendations for European countries now suffering from a refugee crisis?
European governments should be able to provide temporary protections until they can sort out who are refugees by legal definition and who aren’t.
In the mean time, it would be useful to have legal ways to admit refugees from places where they are now coming from. If Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey don’t have enough access to education and job, but there are very few legal ways of getting out of these countries. That’s why a large number of people are resorting to irregular, highly risky measures to get to Europe.
The U.S. could be doing more as well. We could resettle refugees in the U.S. and provide more assistance to refugee-hosting countries. Europe should also encourage its neighbors to provide better services to refugees, including some work options. Because these countries that are primary destinations for refugees have very high unemployment rates, s they would not want to increase competition in the labor market. So they need development aid to help their local populations at the same time they need humanitarian aid to help the refugees.