Refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya.

Refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Photo: Evan Schneider / UN Photo.


The importance of sustainability work in refugee camps

The root causes of people being forced to flee must be addressed in order for people to be able to return to their homes in the long run. In the meantime, people living in refugee camps need to be given ample opportunities to meet vital needs.

Goal 11 in Agenda 2030, which we highlight in this issue, aims to make the cities of the world sustainable. This includes that all the world's settlements, not just urban cities, should be sustainable places to live and work. It places demands on everything from access to clean water and sanitation solutions to the right to be able to move safely where one lives. One aspect that ends up a bit on the sidelines is the living conditions under which people on the run are forced to live in refugee camps.

- The first Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon were founded in 1948 and the camps in Algeria were founded in 1975. For 60 and 43 years, respectively, people have lived in conditions that are in every way unsustainable. The international community simply does not go in with the resources required for people to have their most basic needs met, says Kristin Ivarsson who is head of the association at Emmaus Björkå, an organization that works for international solidarity.

Goal 11 places a lot of focus on the development of sustainable urban cities, but far from all people live in urban environments.  UNHCR It is estimated that 68,5 million people are on the run and many of them end up in refugee camps. At Emmaus Björkå, they work with refugee camps in Lebanon and Algeria, among other places. Kristin Ivarsson believes that refugee camps by definition need to be temporary, as they are meant to be a short-term solution to more complicated circumstances from which people are fleeing. One of the biggest reasons why people remain in refugee camps is that these people lack civil rights in the country in which they are, Kristin Ivarsson further explains.

- The camps are not just a city-like place, they are part of a complex situation such as war, violence or natural disasters and often involve several different countries. To make the situation truly sustainable, the reason why the camps exist at all needs to be solved politically, says Ivarsson.  

Although refugee camps should be a short-term solution for three to four years, they rarely correspond to reality. When we at FUF interviewed Mazyar Rostami of the UNHCR during Almedalen 2017, he told about the situation in Kenya's refugee camp:

- The refugees have lived in the camps here for over 20 years. Everywhere in the world we are starting to see that you are a refugee for an average of 15 years. So it is not a short-term problem, says Rostami.

It is therefore also necessary to work with a certain sustainability aspect in refugee camps, even if this needs to be of a different nature than the conventional sustainability aspects that are most often highlighted in Agenda 2030. Such an aspect is, for example, psychosocial health, which the organization Clowns Without Borders works with . They highlight the importance of creating a context for the people who are in camps.

- In crisis situations, priority is often given to helping people survive, but after that many are often left in a vacuum. People go from having lived ordinary lives with work, school, family and social activities to having nothing to do during the day. Not getting your mind and body stimulated in different ways contributes to mental illness, says Karin Tennemar, communicator at Clowns Without Borders.

Tennemar describes how in their work with people in crisis they try to create hope for a better future.

- Meeting children in desire, play and laughter is not just for the moment, it affects them in the long run. It increases children's learning ability, creates community among themselves and forms new, happy memories to think back on when everything around is chaos. It strengthens their psychosocial health, she says.

UNHCR: s guidelines for planning refugee camps has been criticized from several quarters for focusing on the most basic. In addition to the fact that the camps risk functioning as a permanent solution for people on the run, the guidelines for the camps tend to focus on the most basic physical needs. Kristin Ivarsson highlights the limitations of seeing the planning of refugee camps from an urban planning perspective.

- It is dangerous to include refugee camps in an uncritical discussion about sustainable cities. You can turn the refugee camps into organic villages if you want, but it still does not help, the situation they are part of and the reasons why they exist are always unsustainable. It is much bigger than a question of urban planning, says Ivarsson.


This is a chronicle. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

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