Environmental Impacts of the Refugee Crisis


The Environmental Impact of the Refugee Crisis

By Anna Stockmore, Staff Contributor

Media outlets have largely ignored the environmental impacts of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. However, with the current influx of 2.1 Million Syrian refugees in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon and with total in-camp populations of almost half a million, the environmental impacts on these regions need to be addressed.[1]

Refugee settlements often have negative impacts on the environment. Temporary settlements “often occur in environmentally sensitive areas” where there are large areas of “open” land, such as near national parks, forest reserves, or agriculturally marginal areas.[2] Additionally, the size of these camps has a larger impact on the environment “than would be the case if several considerably smaller scamps…were set up.”[3] Refugees often stay in their asylum countries for long periods of time, having a prolonged impact on the environment.[4]

The UNCHR, which is tasked with addressing the environmental effects and impacts on refugees and the affected areas, notes that the most significant problems include: “deforestation, soil erosion, and depletion and pollution of water resources.” [5] Not only do the refugees have a negative impact on the environment, but the environmental deterioration has an adverse impact on refugees. For instance, the resulting low-quality water from an overload on the system can cause the spread of disease. Similarly, deforestation from cutting down local trees for firewood can force women and children to walk further to acquire wood leaving them vulnerable to assault, can result in illness from lower cooking times for boiling water, and can lead to malnutrition due to the sale of rations for cooking fuel.[6] The environmental impacts also affect “the social and economic welfare of local communities following the arrival…of refugees. These too may impact the environment, altering the rate and extent of local services available to people.”[7] Reversing this environmental harm is often costly and impractical; therefore, limiting the damage and “promoting options for sustainable development” from the outset is essential.”[8]

No two refugee crises are the same and there is no uniform response to their needs.[9] In Lebanon, a country smaller than Maryland, 11,000-15,000 Syrian refugees enter a week, making it difficult to accommodate refugees with housing resulting in unwalled shelters and settlements in flood zones.[10] As of March 16, 2016, there were over a million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon.[11] According to the Lebanon Environmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict in September 2014, there has been an increase of 15.7% in the amount of solid waste since the influx of refugees and increased pollution of surface and ground water.[12] Humanitarian agencies in Lebanon have attributed diarrheal disease with the poor water quality, which contained bacteriological levels ten times higher than the WHO guidelines.[13] In addition to human effects, the discharges of the untreated wastewater have had “negative effects on fish and wildlife populations due to oxygen depletion…including soil contamination…negatively affect[ing] agricultural crops.”[14] Lebanon has also studied the effects of the refugee settlements on fragile ecosystems citing that the number of temporary settlements has increased rapidly in flood-prone areas, agricultural land, and environmentally sensitive areas. Settling in these areas increases the risks of illegal and unsanitary disposal of solid waste leading to water resource pollution and intensifies the demand for fuel and firewood placing pressure on forest reserves.[15]

In Jordan, there are over 636,000 Syrian refugees registered, exacerbating the water shortage.[16] A report from the U.S. News and World Report reported, “the influx of refugees cost Jordan roughly $2.4 billion and has strained the country’s limited water supply.” [17] The BBC explained that in Jordan, “every drop of water is precious and some Jordanians have this perception—whether it is true or not—that Syrians maybe do not conserve water as best they could…”[18] The environmental impacts of the refugee influx in Lebanon and Jordan have largely been ignored by the media, as well as the UNHCR, whose last Environmental Impact Assessment in Lebanon was in 2014. As the refugee crises intensifies, countries and the UNHCR need to strategize and promote mitigation techniques before it is too late to reverse the damage to these nations and neighboring regions.


[1] UNHCR and the Government of Turkey, “Syria Regional Refugee Response” (16 Mar 2016) http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php

[2] ODI HPN, “The Impact of Refugees on the Environment and Appropriate Responses,” http://odihpn.org/magazine/the-impact-of-refugees-on-the-environment-and-appropriate-responses/

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, “Refugees and the Environment” (1 January 2001) http://www.unhcr.org/3b039f3c4.html

[6] ODI HPN, supra note 2.

[7] “Refugees and the Environment,” supra note 5.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] “Humanitarian Crisis: Impact of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, (2013), https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/humanitarian-crisis-impact-syrian-refugees-lebanon

[11] “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” supra at note 1.

[12] Republic of Lebanon & the European Union, “Lebanon Environmental Assessment of Syrian Conflict & Priority Interventions,” at 2 (September 2014) http://www.undp.org/content/dam/lebanon/docs/Energy%20and%20Environment/Publications/EASC-WEB.pdf

[13] Id. at 5.

[14] Id. at 6.

[15] Id. at 12.

[16] “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” supra at note 1.

[17] Andrew Soergel, “Refugees: Economic Boon or Burden?” U.S. News and World Report (15 Sept. 2015) http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/09/15/would-syrian-refugees-be-an-economic-boon-or-burden

[18] BBC News, “Viewpoints: Impact of Syrian refugees on host countries.” (24 August 2013) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-23813975