Globally, there are currently around 71 million forcibly displaced people who have been driven from their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Worldwide, one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds.

Not only do these communities suffer the trauma of leaving their homes, but they also risk arriving in temporary camps that do not have adequate infrastructure to support the number of families arriving at their gates.

The nature of emergencies is such that temporary camps are erected quickly without knowledge of how many people they will end up housing. As such, infrastructure such as food supply or waste sanitation systems are often quickly put under immense strain yet poor water and sanitation systems raise the risk of significant health issues like communicable diseases and malnutrition.

Waste volume values and waste composition differs widely from camp to camp around the world. For example, a 2009 report found that in South Algeria, organic waste was absent in the waste stream in their Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps, and instead the main waste stream was made up of plastic, rubber, wood, textile and metals. This contrasts with examples identified by the Applied Research Institute at Loughborough University that studied IDP camps in the Palestinian Territories who found that organic waste accounted for 59% of the whole waste stream, followed by cardboard and paper (12%) and plastic (12%). In Kenya, animal dung was found to constitute the highest percentage of solid waste by volume (50%), followed by putrescible waste (25), rags and scrap metal (15%) and paper (9%).

In essence, refugee camps require waste systems that are unique to the population they cater to and robust enough to remain efficient for as long as the camp needs them to run. However, this is often not the case.

Waste is often seen as a secondary issue in emergency contexts, especially if the host government sees the camp as a temporary arrangement. Whilst the UN’s Refugee Agency has set out a number of standards for dealing with waste in an emergency, the challenge to ensure these standards are upheld in the long term is immense. For example, despite programmes and standards being in place, international agencies working in the camps often approach waste management in a fragmented, uncoordinated manner, adopting collection methods that are not uniform and sometimes not appropriate for an environment that can change rapidly due to increasing numbers of refugees and the progression of seasons.

However, in some displacement camps, things are changing.

In 2018, the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh reported more than 200,000 cases of acute diarrhoea, as well as respiratory infections and skin diseases like scabies – all related to poor sanitation and hygiene. To manage the problem, over seven months, Oxfam engineers and Rohingya refugees built a huge waste management system which was specially designed for the steep, hilly terrain and to have the cheapest possible operation and maintenance costs. The result was the largest human waste treatment plant ever built in a refugee camp. The industrial-scale plant, funded by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, can process the waste of 150,000 people. 

Being able to treat large volumes of human waste on site, rather than having to transport it elsewhere, was a big step forward in how to safely and sustainably dispose of such waste in emergencies whilst protecting the health of this population. 

Oxfam water and sanitation engineer Salahuddin Ahmed who worked on the project said: “Safe sanitation is vital to prevent outbreaks of disease but disposing safely of human waste in the world’s biggest refugee camp is a major challenge. This ecological plant will help to keep refugees healthy by treating 40 cubic meters of waste a day – a huge amount. The initial investment is well worth it because the plant is cheap and easy to run and could last for 20 years – benefitting local communities when this emergency is over. We expect to replicate this model in future crises.” 

Displacement camps also generate mountains of plastic waste. Where it has previously ended up in nearby city landfill sites, some camps are now utilising the waste and recycling it and turning it into useful material that can help make their surroundings more pleasant. For example, the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan is home to around 80,000 people who’ve been forced to leave their homes in war-torn Syria. As well as providing clean safe water and sanitation in the camp, Oxfam has helped launch a recycling project that’s fighting landfill and poverty simultaneously.

The project takes recyclable plastic waste such as water bottles, buckets, plastic packaging, scrap metal and cardboard from around the camp, to the recycling centre where it’s separated, cleaned and then prepared to be sold on. Although the project has been designed to tackle a waste issue, its success means that it currently provides an income for around 180 men and women. 

Those that work on the project have used their expertise with hugely inspiring results. “Former tailors are making rugs for the winters out of old clothing, engineers are making mechanical toys for our children, and farmers have built multiple greenhouses from recycled bottles to grow fresh vegetables,” explains Jasem Al-Wrewir, one of the refugees working on the project.

Such is the success of the project that it has encouraged more than 95% of households in Zaatari to recycle, keeping a fifth of waste from the camp   - over a thousand tonnes every month - out of local landfill sites.

Displaced people are victims of circumstance. They may be highly qualified or highly skilled and yet political or social issues in their home community force them to abandon careers and businesses built up over decades. Applying their latent skills to help build a better environment in their new location, whether it is temporary or not, provides purpose, meaning and even an income that can help them rebuild their lives and navigate a path for the future.

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