The large scale movement of people from one place to another is a profound human tragedy but it is also profoundly environmentally destructive. Existing environmental problems are exaggerated when large numbers of people are forced to move from one place to another. The United Nations’ (UN) World Refugee Day is observed on June 20 each year. According the the UN there are more than 30 million refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR. UNHCR and other organisations try to help confine the impact of refugees with rehabilitation and clean-up operations.
The spontaneous movement and displacement of large numbers of people has significant impacts on the environment including deforestation. Trees are felled to provide support for rudimentary shelters, wood is collected to build a fire for warmth and as fuel for cooking. Problems associated with refugee-affected areas are not limited to deforestation, they also include soil erosion, and depletion and pollution of water resources.
Research on the environmental impacts of refugees demonstrate that huge sections of land can be adversely impacted. For example, at the height of the refugee crisis in Tanzania in 1994-1996, a total of 570 square kilometres of forest was affected, of which 167 square kilometres was severely deforested. An environmental impact assessment carried out in Zimbabwe in 1994, when Mozambican refugees had returned to their homelands, showed a reduction of 58 per cent in the woodland cover around camps. The loss of any forest cover is a major issue because of habitat degradation, the loss of ecosystem functioning and, often, reduced levels of income or a lower quality of life.
The welfare of people – whether refugees or local inhabitants – is closely linked with the well-being of the environment. In fact, the two cannot be separated.