Small Wars Journal

“Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?” - Part II: Case Studies

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 12:41am

“Refugees and Climate Change: A Cause for Hope?” - Part II: Case Studies


J. David Thompson


This is the second paper in a five-part series. Part I: Introduction can be found here.


Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan


The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (“Jordan”) offers some of the best examples of how States can make positive impacts at the intersection of environmental and refugee policies. Jordan hosts the second highest number of Syrian refugees per capita—right behind Lebanon.[i] Even though the country is not a signatory of either the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Additional Protocol, a memorandum of understanding establishes cooperation between UNHCR and the Government of Jordan.[ii] There are over 761,100 registered refugees in Jordan.[iii] Of these, 671,074 are Syrian, 67,425 are Iraqi, and the others come from Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and other countries.[iv] Over 83% of Syrian refugees live in urban areas—outside of camps.[v] Further, 85% live below the poverty line of $95USD (about 67 Jordanian Dinar) per month.[vi] If the U.S. were to host an equal number of refugees per capita, that equates to over 60 million refugees.[vii] [viii] This significant influx of people strains Jordan’s civil infrastructure. It further has economic challenges with a steady supply and increased demand.


Azraq Refugee Camp


Azraq Refugee Camp (“Azraq”) is one of the main refugee camps in the Jordan hosting Syrian refugees. Azraq opened April 30, 2014, and currently hosts 40,615 Syrian refugees.[ix] It is 14.7 square kilometers.[x] It is ninety kilometers south of Syria and seventy-five kilometers north of Saudi Arabia.[xi] Nearly 22% of these Syrian refugees are under five years old.[xii] There are just under 9,000 shelters in the camp—all equipped with electricity.[xiii]


Thanks to a partnership with IKEA’s Bright Lives for Refugees campaign, Azraq is the first refugee camp in the world powered from renewable energy.[xiv] A Saudi-funded solar plant provides year-round electricity to the camp.[xv] On average, each shelter in Azraq uses 1.8 to 2.7 kWh per day.[xvi] This is enough to power lights, a refrigerator, television, a fan, and to charge phones.[xvii] This renewable energy project saves UNHCR over $2 million dollars every year.[xviii] It cuts the camp’s carbon dioxide emissions by 4,500 tons per year.[xix]


A project between the U.S. Army, USAID, State Department, UNICEF, and UNHCR cleaned dirty water to provide potable water and water for agrible crops.[xx] [xxi] When U.S. forces began leaving Afghanistan, a lot of property was going to be destroyed. This project repurposed a wastewater treatment plant from Kandahar Airfield instead of demolishing it.[xxii] In addition to providing clean drinking water for the camp, the project provided water for agrible crops for the adjacent town. By providing water for agrible crops, it further lessened the burden of the refugee camp on neighboring farmers and herders. Even though Jordanians are known for their hospitality, this also helped ease community tension. Some local nationals become irritated when they see refugees having free access to things they have to buy.


Zaatari Refugee Camp


Zaatari Refugee Camp (“Zaatari”) is the largest camp for Syrian refugees inside Jordan. Just under 80,000 Syrian refugees currently reside in Zaatari, 20% of them being below five years old.[xxiii] Zaatari is located in Mafraq governorate in the north of Jordan.


Thanks to a $17.5 million dollar project (€15 million), nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees receive electricity for up to fourteen hours per day.[xxiv] The 12.9 megawatt solar plant provides enough energy so that shelters may power lights, a refrigerator, a television, fans, and recharge a phone.[xxv] The project reduces carbon emissions by 13,000 tons per year, and it saves UNHCR $5.5 million per year.[xxvi] Further, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) trained 150 refugee electricians.[xxvii] These electricians connect households to the distribution network, ensure connections are safe and reliable, and amend faults in households.[xxviii]


The projects in Azraq and Zaatari combine to save UNHCR approximately $7.5 million each year in energy costs. The projects help refugees have higher standards of living, which enables them to make better uses of their time. This eventually enables refugees to rebuild Syria post-conflict.


Refugees Outside of Camps


Only 17% of registered Syrian refugees in Jordan live in camps.[xxix] Nearly 30% of those living outside of camps live in the capital, Amman.[xxx] This means that the overwhelming majority live in either rural or urban areas—stressing current infrastructure. They benefit from environmental benefits as would the rest of the society. Jordan already has one of the lowest levels of water availability per capita.[xxxi] The influx of more people strains this valuable resource—often driving up prices.


Jordan aims to become a green economy by 2020.[xxxii] Amman, the capital, pledged to become zero carbon by 2050.[xxxiii] This led to a number of employment opportunities for Jordanian and Syrian men and women, which helps with social cohesion.[xxxiv] There are current projects to retrofit homes to be more energy efficient.[xxxv] As retrofitting homes employees both Syrians and Jordanians, it puts people in Jordanian households that may have never met previously. As they work together and interact, they start to view each other in ways they may not have considered.


The Ministry of Interior extended a campaign to formalize the status of refugees living in urban areas.[xxxvi] A formalized status addresses the interconnectivity of issues. This legal status gives refugees access to services that they may otherwise not have, like cash-based assistance. UNHCR continues to transition from in-kind distributions to provisions of cash-based humanitarian assistance.[xxxvii] This enables refugees to meet the interconnectivity of issues (ie. environment, healthcare, nutrition, and education). For example, instead of one refugee needing to go to UNICEF for education, WFP for nutrition, WHO for healthcare, etc., the refugee receives a provision of cash. Cash-based assistance is the cheapest form of humanitarian assistance as it has the lowest overhead. Biometric registration helps prevent fraud and abuse of the system. Jordan provides a clear example of how a country can positively integrate refugees.




Lebanon is another country that hosts a significant number of Syrian refugees. It hosts nearly 1 million Syrian refugees—not to mention the number of Palestinian refugees residing in Lebanon.[xxxviii] Lebanon hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees per capita.[xxxix] If the U.S. hosted an equal number of refugees per capita, the U.S. would host nearly 180 million. Lebanon is not a signatory to either the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Additional Protocol.[xl] Because of such, the Government of Lebanon argues, the Government does not officially recognize Syrians as refugees.[xli] [xlii] This unfortunate decision prevents Lebanon from maximizing the positive impact that refugees can provide. While many Lebanese citizens continue to exemplify the utmost hospitality, the country as a whole suffers from poor policy decisions by the government.


There are no formal Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. As such, refugees typically live in overcrowded settlements. The Government of Lebanon and host communities helped provide basic services to refugees.[xliii] These services include: health, sanitation, water, education, and electricity.[xliv] Having such a proportionally high influx of people places a great burden on the people of Lebanon.[xlv] Lebanon already faces a significant issue with how to dispose of trash and waste.[xlvi] Human Rights Watch calls the waste situation “a national health crisis.”[xlvii] Adding nearly 1 million people—and the accompanying waste—stresses this already fragile system.


The Government of Lebanon thought the refugees would only have temporary residency. Thus, the Government failed to provide space for camps, failed to integrate refugees into communities when the Government did not provide camps, and does not give refugees formal status. Compared to Jordan, where the Government of Jordan welcomed refugees and tried to find solutions, the Government of Lebanon tried to limit the welcoming of refugees.  As such, the government cannot capitalize on projects—like solar energy or water treatment—aimed to assist refugees. This is a clear example of how policy became self-fulfilling.




In August 2017, the Burmese military (Burma is also referred to as Myanmar) began “clearance operations” against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.[xlviii] Within a couple months, over 700,000 Rohingya, who were already stateless in Myanmar, sought refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.[xlix] The number continued to grow over the next months, and now more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees reside in Bangladesh.[l] The Rohingya situation is one of the few refugee crisis across the world where nearly all of the refugees live in formal refugee camps. Conversely, over 70% of refugees worldwide live outside of formal camps.


In Cox Bazaar, which is the main refugee camp, there are five recently installed solar-powered safe water systems.[li] These systems provide potable water to 40,000 refugees.[lii] UNHCR plans to expand the project as part of a larger effort by humanitarian organizations to use green and non-polluting technologies.[liii]


Given a rapid influx of nearly one million people into a relatively small area, there is significant deforestation in Bangladesh. Desperate families cut down trees to make shelters and provide fuel for heating.[liv] The impact is harrowing. The forest loses nearly four football fields worth of trees (700 metric tons) each day.[lv] According to UN estimates, at current rates, the forest around Cox Bazaar will be completely destroyed by the end of 2019.[lvi] Venturing into the forest and the deforestation led to violent encounters between refugees and elephants.[lvii] Elephants trampled several people, leading to death or severe injury.[lviii]


To mitigate the deforestation, UN agencies in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh began distributing liquid petroleum gas (LPG) stoves and gas cylinders to vulnerable families.[lix] The LPG stoves and gas help lessen the need for firewood, thus saving forests.[lx] Additionally, LPG burns cleaner.[lxi] In poorly ventilated homes, smoke from firewood causes significant health risks—particularly to women and children who spend large amounts of time indoors.[lxii]




Not all green development comes from governments and international institutions. Refugees themselves found ways to make a positive impact on their own communities. The continent of Africa offers several examples of how the private sector found ways to assist refugees and make a profit. There are serious challenges and concerns: deforestation and desertification, access to water, clean cooking, reuse and recycle, and sanitation. That also means that there are huge areas for opportunities and innovation.

Tatah Brika, a Sahrawi refugee, attended university in the Canary Islands.[lxiii] Having grown up in a mud house with a metal roof, he, his family, and community suffered whenever heavy rains came.[lxiv] In university, he found a way to alleviate suffering for his people.[lxv] He started making homes by reusing discarded plastic bottles.[lxvi] Each home required around 5,500 bottles, taking anywhere from one week to twelve days to build.[lxvii] His work caught the eye of camp officials at UNHCR, who helped him build more houses.[lxviii] These houses are more durable, which allows them to better withstand seasonal rains, floods, and elements.




Kenya hosts a number of refugee situations: Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Sudan, and others. Altogether, there is approximately 468,835 registered refugees in Kenya.[lxix] Nearly 55% of these refugees are from Somalia.[lxx] Another 25% are from South Sudan.[lxxi] Additionally, there is an issue of statelessness in Kenya and some surrounding countries.[lxxii]


Through a partnership with ENI (an Italian energy and gas company), AVSI (an international non-governmental organization), the Ministry of Energy, and local officials, Dadaab Refugee Camp received solar panels and computers.[lxxiii] Only about a quarter of the camp, which started in 1991, has regular access to energy. The new solar panels and computers help students study after dark. Solar energy also helps provide lights at night, which increases security—particularly for women and children.




Throughout Africa, people combine to spend over $40 billion on charcoal a year.[lxxiv] A Rwandese company found a way to save consumers time and money while simultaneously cutting carbon emissions. Inyenyeri, a Rwandese company, offers an alternative to charcoal. It gives stoves to refugees who buy compact wood pellets.[lxxv] Eric Reynolds, founder of Inyenyeri, believes that he can make a profit by serving the poorest people in the world.[lxxvi] By giving the stoves to refugees, he creates a market for the fuel. The Inyenyeri stove burns longer than firewood and does not create smoke.[lxxvii] It also saves time because people, predominantly women, do not have to cut and haul firewood. This further helps prevent against deforestation.


Worldwide, close to 3 billion people use open fires for cooking.[lxxviii] The impact of smoke on health includes: cataracts, heart disease, and respiratory illnesses.[lxxix] In many countries these ailments kill more people than malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis combined.[lxxx] Nearly 4 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution from inefficient cooking practices.[lxxxi] Nearly half of the deaths caused by pneumonia in children under five comes from household air pollution.[lxxxii] The Inyenyeri stove helps solve these problems. It cuts up to eight tons of carbon dioxide emissions per household per year.[lxxxiii] It also reduces biomass used by 90%.[lxxxiv] While Inyenyeri seeks to make a profit, it also benefits the environment and public health.


As an added competitive advantage, the Government of Rwanda seeks to phase out charcoal burning.[lxxxv] [lxxxvi] Criminal gangs using child labor control large portions of the market and supply chain.[lxxxvii] Governments across the world seek ways to limit the impacts of carbon emissions and climate change. Entrepreneurship and the private sector turn these efforts into profits.


End Notes


[i] UNHCR, Jordan: Fact Sheet.

[ii] UNHCR, Global Focus: Jordan.

[iii] UNHCR,Jordan: Fact Sheet.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Albright, M., Interview.

[viii] See also International Rescue Committee at 8:30.

[ix] UNHCR, Jordan: Azraq Fact Sheet.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Id.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Id.

[xviii] IKEA Foundation, Renewable Energy Boost for Azraq Refugee Camp.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Disclosure: the author was one of the U.S. Army representatives for the project.

[xxi] USAID, Addressing Impacts of the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

[xxii] Id.

[xxiii] UNHCR, Jordan: Zaatari Fact Sheet. 

[xxiv] Taylor, L., Jordan switches on world's largest solar plant in refugee camp.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] UNHCR, Jordan: Zaatari Fact Sheet.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] UNHCR, Data Portal: Jordan.

[xxxi] World Health Organization, Jordan: water is life.

[xxxii] UNHCR, Jordan: Fact Sheet.

[xxxiii] Suliman, A., Brick by brick: green homes build cohesion between Syrian refugees and Jordanians.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Id.

[xxxvi] UNHCR, Jordan: Fact Sheet.

[xxxvii] Id.

[xxxviii] UNHCR, Operational Portal: Lebanon.

[xxxix] UNHCR, Global Focus: Lebanon.

[xl] UNHCR, States Parties to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol.

[xli] Karam, J., Gebran Bassil: Lebanon does not accept Syrians as 'refugees'. "Lebanon does not accept Syrians to be refugees, not one of them," Gebran Bassil at U.N. General Assembly.  

[xlii] This is not to say that the Government of Lebanon and the people of Lebanon have not been incredibly hospitable and compassionate during the crisis. Many families opened their homes, communities, and volunteer their time to assist Syrian refugees.

[xliii] UNHCR, Lebanon: Fact Sheet.

[xliv] Id.

[xlv] Id.

[xlvi] Galer, S., (2018), Lebanon is drowning in its own waste.

[xlvii] Human Rights Watch, The Health Risks of Burning Waste in Lebanon.

[xlviii] Public International Law and Policy Group, Documenting Atrocity Crimes Committed Against the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, pg. iv.

[xlix] Id.

[l] UNHCR, Data Portal: Bangladesh.

[li] Mahecic, A., (2019), Innovation, green tech and sunlight help secure safe water for Rohingya refugees.

[lii] Id.

[liii] Id.

[liv] International Organization for Migration (IOM), (2018), UN Agencies, Government Distribute LPG Stoves to Rohingya Refugees, Bangladeshi Villagers to Save Remaining Forests.

[lv] Id.

[lvi] Id.

[lvii] Peri, D., Fatal elephant attacks on Rohingya refugees push Bangladesh to act.

[lviii] Id.

[lix] IOM, Government Distributes LPG Stoves to Rohingya Refugees.

[lx] Id.

[lxi] Id.

[lxii] Id.

[lxiii] Brown, A. and Gamal, R., Using plastic bottles to build refugee homes.

[lxiv] Id.

[lxv] Id.

[lxvi] Id.

[lxvii] Id.

[lxviii] Id.

[lxix] UNHCR, Kenya: Fact Sheet.

[lxx] Id.

[lxxi] Id.

[lxxii] Id.

[lxxiii] Rono, B., Solar Energy Boost Learning in Refugee Camp.

[lxxiv] Inyenyeri.

[lxxv] UNHCR, Rwanda: Clean Cook-stoves Increase Refugee Lives.  

[lxxvi] Goodman, P., Toxic Smoke is Africa’s Quiet Killer. An Entrepreneur Says His Fix Can Make a Fortune.

[lxxvii] UNHCR, Rwanda: Clean Cook-stoves Increase Refugee Lives.

[lxxviii] World Health Organization (WHO), Household air pollution and health.

[lxxix] Goodman, P.

[lxxx] Id.

[lxxxi] WHO, Household air pollution and health.

[lxxxii] Id.

[lxxxiii] Inyenyeri.

[lxxxiv] Id.

[lxxxv] Goodman, P.

[lxxxvi] Similar work is done in Chad as Chad hosts a significant number of Sudanese refugees. See See also

[lxxxvii] Id.

About the Author(s)

J. David Thompson is a Civil Affairs Major. He has a Juris Doctorate from Washington Lee School of Law. He also holds a BS in Economics and MBA-Leadership from Liberty University. Outside the military, he's worked at the UN Refugee Agency, Department of Defense, and Physicians for Human Rights – Israel. Follow him on Twitter @jdthompson910