Qaabata Boru left his home in Ethiopia on a nearly 1,500-kilometer journey to Kenya as a political refugee. Upon arriving at the Kakuma refugee camp, he learned of the worrying conditions faced by its more than 200,000 inhabitants.
The community, which includes refugees from more than 20 countries, often lacks access to services such as clean water and nutritious food. A common building material in the camp is wood-iron sheets, which are vulnerable to dust storms and hailstorms. The refugee community must also endure the latent threat posed by Kenya’s increasing heat, combined with unprecedented drought and a lack of trees.
“It is hot, like burning,” Boru said. “The heat from the Sun drives radiation into the iron sheet, and people find it very hard to stay inside, even compared to standing outside in the Sun.”
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, scientists analyzed refugees’ exposure to extreme weather events in Kakuma and 19 other large refugee settlements. The results confirmed that refugee camps are exposed to harsher conditions than those found in the rest of the host country.
Worldwide, more than 6.6 million people live in refugee settlements (as of 2022). And although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has recognized that countries in East Africa and South Asia—areas that host some of the largest refugee settlements—are global hot spots of human vulnerability, little work has been done to measure the exposure of refugee settlements to extreme weather events.
Sonja Fransen and Alex Hunns, researchers at the Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, have visited refugee shelters for 14 and 6 years, respectively. Observing firsthand the vulnerability of the residents motivated them to map the weather conditions of the places they had seen.
Using climate and weather data combined with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data on the locations of the world’s 20 largest refugee settlements, Fransen and Hunns and their colleagues analyzed refugees’ exposure to extreme weather conditions between the 1980s and 2020.
The researchers compared rainfall and temperature data from the most populated areas of the countries with the camps’ locations using statistics, trends, and an event’s signal-to-noise ratio—a physical method used to compare the strength of a weather event’s signal to its natural variability. The analysis integrated both slow-onset and rapid-onset events to analyze stress and extreme weather.
The results showed that the camps are in areas much more exposed to extreme weather than the surrounding areas.
Refugee settlements in Kenya and Ethiopia, for instance, are in locations with average temperatures 7.7°C and 8.8°C higher than population-weighted national averages. Conversely, in Balochistan Province, Pakistan, settlements had 4.12°C lower annual temperatures compared to the national average.
Settlements such as Jamjang in South Sudan, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and Kakuma—which Hunns described as a “red burning desert”—had the highest number of consecutive days per season with extremely high temperatures.
Multiple extreme events affect the camps, Fransen and Hunns pointed out; dangerous deluges can also be common.
Extreme rainfall was highest in Bangladesh, where the Cox’s Bazar settlement experienced an average of 0.88 millimeter more rain per day than the national average. The impact on the shelter is not new; in 2021, UNHCR reported that more than 21,000 refugees were affected by flash floods and landslides in a more than 300-millimeter deluge. In that year, six refugees died, and the homes of thousands more were flooded or washed away.
The vulnerability of people living in refugee camps is exacerbated by increasingly frequent and intense weather events brought about by climate change. “Indicators are suggesting that this is happening now, and it will get worse,” Fransen said.
Although researchers call on international and national institutions to use research data to implement and fine-tune climate adaptation and sustainable development policies, they know that little or nothing will change until shelters are no longer considered temporary solutions to a permanent problem.
For Neil Adger, a human geographer at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, the new study is novel because climate researchers and decisionmakers have “overfocused” on the question of whether climate change is going to cause involuntary movement of people, not on those who have already been displaced by war or for religious or political reasons and who will now be affected again by climate change.
“The impacts of extreme weather events and potentially from climate change are going to amplify social inequality and amplify already existing vulnerabilities,” Adger said, and refugees “are clearly and unsurprisingly in the firing line.”
Refugees are part of a “doubly or exacerbated vulnerable group,” wrote Andrew Harper, special adviser to the High Commissioner for Refugees on climate action. “While they may have outrun the conflict, borders do not protect them from the ravages of an increasingly hostile climate.”
—Humberto Basilio (@HumbertoBasilio), Science Writer