In addition to the more than 8 million people who are on the run from political turmoil, ethnic strife and war, many more Africans are ecological refugees, fleeing from land degradation, drought, deforestation, natural disasters, and other effects of environmental changes.

Young girls gather in the yard of the school in Djabal camp (Chad) to register for the
next school year. The camp has three schools but no furniture, school 
supplies or stationary. © UNHCR/H.Caux

Thousands of displaced people wait in line to receive food rations just 
outside the IDP site in Kibati (north of Goma).
© UNHCR/P.Taggart/November 2008

The refugee crisis

Every day across the world people make the difficult decision to leave their homes because of war, persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, environmental disaster and poverty.

Political conflicts tragically destroy lives and livelihoods. They also have adverse impacts on surrounding environments and significant transboundary implications. Wars can destroy croplands, forests, waterways and their sources, and other natural resources, while refugees searching for safe havens can burden ecosystems. Available information suggests that a total of 67 million people had been forcibly displaced at the end of 2007.

A refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear or being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country..." (Source: UNHCR)

”Internally displaced persons (IDPs) and those forced to move within their own country because of war, persecution or environmental disasters, rather than cross national borders. (Source: UNDP)

This includes 16 million refugees, of whom 11.4 million fall under UNHCR's mandate and some 4.6 million Palestinian refugees under the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The number of IDPs is estimated at 51 million worldwide; some 26 million were displaced as a result of armed conflict and another 25 million were displaced by natural disasters. 
Three quarter of these displaced persons come from Asia and Africa. Since the 1950s, many nations in Africa have suffered civil wars and ethnic strife, thus generating a massive number of refugees of many different nationalities and ethnic groups.

The division of Africa into European colonies in 1885, along which lines the newly independent nations of the 1950s and 1960s drew their borders, has been cited as a major reason why Africa has been so plagued with intrastate warfare.

In Africa, the top refugee producing countries are Sudan (with 686,000 of its nationals outside the country), Somalia (460,000) the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi (about 400,000 each).

Environmental refugees

In addition to traditional refugees, there are also more and more environmental refugees, "people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardized their existence and/or seriously affected the quality of their life".

An inability to gain a livelihood due to environmental degradation, natural disasters, or development projects obligates environmental refugees to migrate from their homelands. Reasons for displacement include land degradation, drought, deforestation, natural disasters, and other environmental changes that interact destructively with poverty and population pressure. There are currently between 25-30 million environmental refugees worldwide, and their numbers are expected to swell to 200 million by mid-century, largely as a result of climate change. Unlike traditional refugees, environmental refugees are not recognized by the Geneva Convention or the UNHCR, and therefore do not have the same legal standing in the international community.

Environmental degradation can exacerbate conflict, which causes further environmental degradation, creating a vicious cycle of environmental decline, tense competition for diminishing resources, increased hostility, inter-communal fighting, and ultimately social and political breakdown.

Ecological warning signs related to conflict and its impacts include limited habitable space and decrease in agricultural production.

Dadaab Refugee Camp
The 1987 satellite image shows a fairly intact landscape dominated by shrub vegetation that is characteristic of the semiarid area. In the 2000 image, the Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera
refugee camps stand out distinctly, revealing the presence and impact of a high concentration of over 100 000 refugees on the environment. Shrublands have been reduced largely to bare spots with sparse and stunted shrubs and grasses while riverine vegetation has also suffered loss and degradation.
(Source: UNEP )

Impact of population displacement on the environment

The displacement of African refugees into slums, camps and informal settlements has been accompanied by major environmental damage to the often fragile environments where these settlements have developed. The most important side effects on the environment are:

• Deforestation and the fuelwood crisis in camp areas
• Land degradation in camp areas
• Unsustainable groundwater extraction
• Water pollution
• Uncontrolled urban and slum growth

On the other hand, displacement of people can also lead to regeneration of the land left behind and occasionally also of the wildlife. International wildlife experts have located massive wildlife population discovered in the south Sudan, where they apparently avoided unchecked hunting during more than 20 years of war.


Atlas of Our Changing Environment - Africa
Massive wildlife population discovered in Southern Sudan -
Protecting Refugees & The role of UNHCR
Refugees and Displacement -
Refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons - Amnesty International 
Relief Web


Chad and Darfur - Satellites supporting humanitarian aid
EOEdu Applications: Humanitarian Interventions

This page was written in 2009, as additional information to the poster series "10 years of Imaging the Earth"