The impact of environmental degradation on refugee-host relations: A case study from Tanzania

from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 31 Dec 2007

While the majority of literature in the field of refugee studies centres on refugees specifically, recent years have seen an increasing amount of research that looks beyond the refugee communities to the other groups and individuals also affected by refugee emergencies. In particular, these studies look at how the host communities -the communities living in the areas where refugees eventually settle, either formally or informally - are impacted by a rapid and often unexpected influx of refugees.

Sometimes refugees bring positive changes to host communities, such as economic growth or the funding of various development projects by international aid organizations that have come to the area in response to the refugee emergency. However, the influx and presence of refugees has also been shown at times to have negative impacts on individuals within a hosting community, or even on the community as a whole. In light of this, it is important to not only investigate the impact of the presence of refugees on the hosting communities, but also to consider how these impacts have then influenced the overall relationship between the two groups. In particular, it is important to determine what might contribute to a contentious or even conflictual relationship. A better understanding of this can ultimately assist those working with refugees in other situations, to plan and implement projects that may lessen the likelihood of such conflict.

One of the most frequently cited negative impacts in recent years, emphasized in particular by the host country governments, is environmental degradation and natural resource depletion. However, it is not only the host governments that claim that refugee camps cause environmental degradation: over the past several decades, there has also been a growing acceptance by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations working with refugees, as well as by independent researchers, that the presence of refugees often leads to environmental degradation and natural resource depletion both within and around the refugee settlements. As written in the UNHCR manual entitled Key Principles for Decision Making: 'Evidence shows that large-scale dislocation of people, characteristic of many recent refugee crises, can create adverse environmental impacts. The scale and suddenness of refugee flows can rapidly change a situation of relative abundance of local resources to one of acute scarcity' (Engineering, 2005: 3).

Environmental degradation and the associated resource depletion have been shown to sometimes create or exacerbate conflict between groups competing for these increasingly scarce resources (Homer Dixon, 2000; Schwartz, et al. 2001; Kahl, 1999). Although this type of conflict is not inevitable, it is still important to investigate whether the environmental degradation associated with the presence of refugee camps has influenced the overall relationship between the refugees and the host communities and in what ways.

Environmental impacts are only one of many factors that will influence and shape the relationship between the refugees and hosts: the combination of factors differs greatly in each refugee situation. Recognizing this, I chose to pursue an in-depth case study on the effects of environmental degradation on the refugee-host relationship in Northwestern Tanzania, and do not argue that all refugee-host relationships develop in the same manner. However, my research findings may still prove useful for researchers, governments and refugee practitioners, as they can compare and contrast the situation in Tanzania to other refugee situations and may take some lessons from my research.

I selected Northwestern Tanzania to pursue my research for several reasons. First, at the end of 2005, Tanzania was home to the fourth largest refugee population in the world, at 602,088 refugees (403,854 receiving assistance from UN High Commissioner for Refugees-UNHCR) (UNHCR "2005," 2006). Second, the majority of refugees in Tanzania live in UNHCR managed camps. Therefore, unlike in some parts of the world where refugees live among and have integrated with the local communities, in Tanzania there is a clear distinction between the refugee and host populations. In other words, people that define themselves as refugees do not also define themselves as part of the local community, and members of the local communities draw a clear distinction between the local Tanzanians and the mainly Burundian and Congolese refugees (Veney, 2003: 141). Third, several recent publications from various sources - academic and professional - have reported widespread environmental degradation and resource depletion in Northwestern Tanzania. In addition, the Government of Tanzania openly and frequently blames the refugees and the presence of the camps for all environmental problems in theNorthwestern Tanzania region (Rutinwa, 2007: 4).

In sum, I selected to do my research in Tanzania because of the large refugee population, clear distinction between the refugee and host communities and the numerous reports on the existence of environmental degradation. Thus, the conditions in Tanzania are such that environment-related conflict is likely (Martin, 2005: 3). The questions that I sought to answer during my research and which I discuss in this paper are as follows: Is conflict relating to the environment present between the refugee and host communities in Northwestern Tanzania? If so, what is the nature of this conflict? What factors are present that either exacerbate or mitigate such conflict? And finally, what else might be done, both in Tanzania and other refugee-affected parts of the world, to ensure that such conflict is mitigated or prevented entirely?

The first section of the paper outlines my methodology, particularly the methods I used when doing my field research in Northwestern Tanzania. The second section of this paper focuses on the background to the refugee situation in Northwestern Tanzania. Specific issues discussed include the refugees' identities and the background to the conflict that led to the refugee emergency. In addition, I will describe the camps in Kibondo District in Northwestern Tanzania and various changes to Tanzania's refugee laws since the refugees first settled in the country.

This is followed by a description of Northwestern Tanzania's natural environment, with a focus on the changes that have occurred over the years, particularly following the coming of the refugees. In addition, this section will discuss the environmental problems present in the region, both within the refugee camps and in the surrounding villages and rural areas. Similarly, I will discuss how these changes and problems have affected the host communities.

The following section of the paper reviews other literature on refugee-host relationships, both generally and in Northwestern Tanzania specifically. While the amount of literature on refugee-host relationships is still relatively small, a number of researchers and scholars have written substantial and useful articles on the subject. Particularly relevant and useful for my research is the work by several scholars who have researched the impact of the presence of refugees on the host communities in Northwestern Tanzania. While the environment is alluded to, or briefly mentioned in this research, there is no in-depth study on the role of the environment in shaping the relationship.

The next section describes my own research on this subject, which took place in Kibondo, Northwestern Tanzania, over a period of approximately four and a half months. In this section I will describe and analyze the discussions, focus group meetings and interviews I held with individuals living in the area, in order to determine whether the environmental change described in the earlier section of my paper has in fact shaped or influenced the refugee-host relationship, and if so, in what ways.

The final section of the paper offers some conclusions from my research and some recommendations, which may be useful for other scholars researching refugee-host relations or for those individuals and organizations working directly with refugees and other displaced populations.