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By: Gene Fifer (edited by Gabe LePage)

This article is from ECHO Asia Note # 38.

[Editor’s Note: This article seeks to address the broader challenges of food security in refugee camp environments, of which there are many within our Asia region, while offering individual practical options that may be implemented to address the need for nutritional diversity in these challenging settings.  For further questions or feedback please feel free to contact the author at etf26@cornell.edu]

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Figure 1: Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordon. (UNHCR Photo Unit, Creative Commons Attribution License)

Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Internally Displaced People

Forces causing dislocation and flight from danger are on the increase worldwide. On an average day, 44,000 people are displaced and seek refuge within their own country, neighboring countries, or other continents. In 2017 alone, 1.2 million refugees fled Myanmar, 6.3 million fled Syria, and 2.6 million fled Afghanistan. The total number of people displaced due to civil conflicts exceeded 68 million at the end of 2017. This total included 25.4 million refugees (i.e., those crossing national borders), 3 million people seeking official asylum in other countries (also called political refugees), and 40 million internally displaced people Eighty-five percent of these refugees fleeing violence relocate to developing countries or regions with populations struggling with food insecurity and poverty. Over half of the refugees are under 18 years old as well (UNHCR, 2018). 

The severity of the migration crisis goes far beyond the 68 million people classified as refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people (IDPs) since this number does not include regional and international migration due to hunger, poverty, and lack of opportunity. It excludes people fleeing crime and gang violence in their home countries, drought and famine, land seizures and forced relocation, and natural and environmental disasters (FAO et al., 2018). Hundreds of millions of people are on the move seeking safety, food, and opportunity. According to the International Organization for Migration, the total number of international migrants was over 257 million by the end of 2017 (International Organization of Migration). 

Accidental Cities on the Margin

Refugee camps are almost always located on sparsely populated “waste” land, so the host country does not need to displace a large population. For example, reports suggest that the government of Bangladesh may plan to settle 400,000 Rohingya refugees on Hatiya Island—an uninhabited river island prone to flooding and typhoons (bdnews24.com).  This wasteland is usually hot, dry, and dusty, and the addition of thousands of families in high-density housing with inadequate waste disposal creates a harsh environment. The camp environment, or “Accidental City,” is a microcosm of the conditions that exist in urban slum areas where non-refugee migrants settle in their own countries and other countries (Figure 1). 

Places of refuge and resettlement are usually plagued by their own set of difficulties including inadequate food supplies, poor water quality and quantity, a harsh environment, and resentments and fears within the host population. Emotional and psychological issues from trauma plague many, if not most, refugees. Not only are people suffering needs of food and shelter, but they have lost kinship networks, cultural ties, and geographical familiarity. Deforestation due to firewood collection and rangeland damage due to livestock creates conflict with host communities. (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009). All of these factors make a refugee feel they do not belong. 

This article demonstrates ways in which gardening, agriculture, and land restoration can be integrated into refugee camps to provide resources, utilize resident expertise, build skills and livelihoods, and address many of the physical and psychological difficulties faced by these communities of necessity. 

Current Policies & Limitations

Food rations for refugees in camps have changed since the 1970s to protect against caloric deficit and reduce the high refugee mortality rates of that decade. Rations were changed from “survival” levels of 1200-1800 kcal/person/day to “minimum” rations of 1900 kcal/person/day to the present level of at least 2100 kcal (Mason, 2002). The rations consist of wheat or maize, vegetable oil, salt, and sugar. They are sometimes supplemented with pulses, fortified corn-soya blend, peanut butter, and tomato paste. All are non-perishable items. Unfortunately, these starch heavy diets remain micronutrient deficient and result in epidemics of scurvy and pellagra (WHO and UNHCR 1999; 2000).

UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) recognize the need for more diverse and nutritious diets but are hampered by budget deficits and food shortages. Prolonged conflicts and frequent environmental disasters, with subsequent increases in refugees, have been acknowledged by donors and funding is at a record high. But the 2018 budget shortfall is 25% below projected needs (Columbus, 2018).
UNHCR decided to promote vegetables in diets in 2007 and started some gardening pilot projects (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009). The intent was to include home gardening into its nutrition and livelihoods strategy, but budgetary constraints and the increasing demands of new camp establishment have slowed implementation. Exacerbating the problem are land policies of most host countries that do not allow refugees to farm outside camp boundaries. The intensifying refugee and migrant crisis keeps relief agencies focused on providing the basic needs of shelter, water, medical care, and basic food rations, and unable to transition to the recovery or rehabilitation phases that usually follow disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis. More permanent construction for housing and clinics needed for prolonged crises are being delayed as well.

Signs of Hope 

The biggest challenge to overcome when initiating programs is the idea that planting food crops means giving up hope on returning home or being resettled more permanently. One way to overcome apprehension of putting down roots is to use gardens as learning tools in adult education classes or extension projects that focus on how new techniques can be used back home. Acquiring these skills at a camp is like going to school and then applying the techniques in other situations, including urban gardening and cityscapes. 

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Figure 2: Ayesha Khatun is an outreach worker in Balukhali camp in Bangladesh serving Rohingya women for the Multi-Purpose Women’s Centre. Source: UN Women/Allison Joyce, Creative Commons Attribution License

An important step in normalizing gardening for residents is to recruit refugees with farming experience and enthusiasm to be trainers of other refugees. Learning from others of one’s own culture and shared hardships is often easier. These “mobilizers” are analogous to lead farmers in mainstream agriculture development projects (Figure 2). Mobilizers are hired as teachers but also demonstrate gardening with their families and act as mini demonstration farms in various areas of the camps. These dedicated community members also act as resident liaisons and distributors of tools and seeds (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009). 

Land Planning 

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Figure 3: Rohingya children collect firewood outside Balukhali camp, Bangladesh. Source: UN Women/Allison Joyce, Creative Commons Attribution License

The most obvious need in planning for agriculture in camps is to allow land to be set aside for the purpose, and buildings and tents to be sited to allow for garden space. Equally important are considerations of how and where wastewater will be created and locating growing areas near these sources. Food scraps and human and livestock wastes can be utilized as fertilizer if waste treatment and composting facilities are designed and located to transform them into a valuable resource. Energy supplies for cooking and heat must also be planned for and space made available and accessible for fuelwood collection and production (Figure 3). Camps need to plant firewood tree species quickly to prevent conflicts with neighboring farmers and charcoal producers. Space for nurseries to grow seedlings for demonstration areas and training purposes will need to be made available (Corbett, 2009). Nursery caretakers are often children and the elderly since they can raise seedlings in schools and activity centers with infrastructure already in place for their needs. 
NGOs can take a role in addressing these land issues. The Border Consortium, an NGO in Thailand, aims to increase land tenure of both local and displaced peoples (TBC Strategy, 2017). The Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees, another NGO in Thailand, trains community members to manage their own waste management systems, including planting trees to prevent soil erosion (COERR). 

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Figure 4: Tent entrance in Kurdistan. Source: Mustafa Kyayat, Creative Commons Attribution License

Practical Agricultural Options for the Camp Setting

Doorstep Gardening

Personal gardens that supplement a refugee family’s meals can be adapted from many designs. The types of gardening suitable for situations with limited space, soil, water, and labor fall under several terms including urban, rooftop, container, or doorstep gardening (Price, 1996). Figure 5 illustrates the typical “doorstep” of a refugee family. These styles and methods draw on long histories of urban agriculture that evolved around the world wherever cities developed (Price, 2018). Metropolitan areas that develop favelas, slums, or shantytowns around their outskirts often invent new practices to deal with harsher conditions and fewer resources. These forms of micro-agriculture incorporate recycled materials for pens for raising small animals, for planting containers, and for raised bed construction. Resourceful water collection systems are created from recycled scrap to save and channel rainwater and grey water to gardens. 

Other innovative methods have evolved in response to meeting the needs of the elderly, the chronically ill, those with physical disabilities, and orphans. These include keyhole gardens and homestead gardens that help people with limited mobility or who must stay at home to be caregivers (Merrey and Langan, 2014). Keyhole gardens use a raised bed system to produce vegetables near waist height for those who cannot bend over, need support to stand, or are visually impaired but can feel their way around the bed. These “doorstep” gardens make adding fresh vegetables and herbs to meals far easier. 

Multi-Story Gardens

These old and new garden strategies suit the constraints faced by refugees who live in rows of tents or shack/shelters with only the space directly outside their cooking and sleeping space available for production. The unique recycling streams of refugee camps have contributed to more innovations. Grain sacks and cooking oil cans are the waste products of bulk food distribution in camps and have been used to create multi-story gardens (Global Service Corps). Sacks and cans are filled with rocks, soil, and compost that can be planted and watered easily. These are arranged in many ways to use space efficiently and are easily rearranged to fit the family’s changing needs (Figure 5). 

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Figure 5: Watering a multi-story sack garden in Haiti. Source: Colleen Taugher, Creative Commons Attribution License

Multi-story gardens projects offer dietary diversification, nutritional education, and self-sufficiency. The empty 50 kg cereal sacks and 18-liter metal or plastic “jerry” cans allow adequate space for root systems of most common vegetables. Smaller cans are also used as water channels inside bags to allow easy watering with grey water. The cans are filled with rocks and placed on top of each other in the center of upright bags with holes drilled in the sides and bottoms to allow for slow water movement. The soil surrounding the cans receives moisture throughout the day. 

Seeds are planted in the soil around the top of the bag or nursery seedlings are transplanted into them. Holes are cut into the sides of the bags, and some of the seedlings from the top of the bag are transplanted along the sides to create a vertical plant tower (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009). The proximity of the MSGs provides ease of maintenance, reduces the risk of theft, and water needs can be closely monitored. They can also be decorative and help to demarcate outdoor living space or animal pens. MSGs have been a proven success in camps in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Aceh Indonesia. Commonly grown vegetables in MSGs are sweet potato, carrots, beets, green beans, tomato, cabbage, leafy greens, okra, peppers, eggplant, onions, cooking spices, medicinal plants, and ornamentals (Tsadik, 2009).


Community Gardens for Families

Community gardens that are used for family production assign growing areas according to the allotment system used in many European cities (Surls, 2001). Allotment style gardening results in immense diversity from bed to bed and facilitates learning between residents and sharing seeds of diverse varieties. Establishment of beds, compost piles, fencing, and shed construction are often group activities that build cohesion. This type of garden promotes the sharing of tools, potting materials, and animal husbandry responsibilities. 

Family gardens are good teaching and demonstration sites for sustainable farming techniques such as crop rotation, green manure crops, mulching, drip irrigation, natural soil fertility, and pest control techniques (FAO, 2005). These methods can be introduced as supplies and materials are brought in or produced. Allotment gardening has health and therapeutic benefits in addition to those of doorstep gardening since it offers a social activity with opportunities for sharing and connecting (Figure 6) (Hawkins et al., 2013). Schools or community centers make great locations or land must be set aside in the camp design.

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Figure 6: Community Garden at Oure Cassoni camp, Chad. Source: UNHCR/F. Noy, Creative Commons Attribution License
Broad-Scale Agriculture

Budget shortfalls and larger refugee populations make large-scale crop production an increasing necessity for camps, and not just an afterthought or extra. This will require farm planning and design in new camps and introducing farm programs into existing camps. UNHCR, Red Cross, Red Crescent, and WFP do not have the mandate, personnel, or funding to create an agrarian sector within camps. Multilateral Agencies and NGOs should be encouraged to initiate or increase programs with the necessary expertise and funding to promote refugee innovation and self-sufficiency (FAO et al., 2018).

Resource limitations and health concerns that apply to gardening also apply to farming in camps. Non-toxic, low-resource, and inexpensive methods must be used whether or not they are called sustainable, organic, ecological, or conservation agriculture. Techniques include intercropping, crop rotation, composting, green manure cover crops, mulching, Zai holes, and various watering strategies. The most commonly grown cereal crops grown in UNHCR camps are maize, wheat, millet, and sorghum. Common vegetables include kale, spinach, squash, okra, peppers, tomato, onion, and cabbage. Pulses and seeds include peanuts, cowpeas, lentils, sesame, and sunflower (Weimer, 2008). 

Green & Sustainable Landscapes

Establishing refugee camps in response to civil conflicts and disasters involves clearing land, fencing the perimeter, erecting tents, and building roads as fast as possible without consideration for aesthetics. The attractiveness of camps can be altered over the years, and sometimes decades, of a camp’s life. Improving how the environment looks has other equally valid outcomes. Shade trees reduce temperatures, lower wind speeds, and reduce airborne dust. Trees also provide fruits, nuts, medicines, and bee forage. One NGO working in refugee camps takes its name, the Lemon Tree Trust, from its efforts to promote lemon production in camps, in addition to home gardens (Lemon Tree Trust). Olive and banana trees thrive in very different growing conditions, but there are many camps in these environments.

Bushes and living fences are good replacements for ugly wire fences and cement walls. Hedges can also provide food, flowers, and dust reduction. Herbs and flowers in containers, along borders, and surrounding buildings add beauty and can supply cooking herbs and tea ingredients.

Beyond the Camp – Agroforestry

Many camps cannot provide charcoal or propane for cooking, and residents must go outside the camp to collect fuel. Camps are often located in areas already experiencing deforestation, fuelwood shortages, and overgrazing. Competition for fuel and pasture sometimes leads to confrontation and violence, causing the host country to withdraw support or increase security to keep refugees within the camp enclosure (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009).

Traditional reforestation efforts are ineffective in such situations since commonly planted timber species do not provide the multiple benefits needed by camp residents and locals. Also, tree plantations are planted and protected from use to allow for long time periods until economic maturity. Agroforestry systems can provide the multiple products and services required including livestock forage, wildlife habitat, fuelwood, construction poles, fruits and nuts, erosion control, as well as space for crops interplanted among woody species (UNHCR, 2005). 

An agroforestry strategy for managing the natural resources around camps also provides opportunities for refugee employment in nurseries to produce seedlings of various species, tree planting, tree thinning, controlled fuelwood and pole harvesting, and cut and carry forage systems for livestock (Martin and Scott, 1992). Intensive penned livestock production can also create jobs for milking, food processing, and compost production. The manufacture of fuel-efficient cook stoves in camp workshops can create jobs and reduce total fuel demand (UNHCR, 2005).  

Protracted refugee situations need not inevitably lead to environmental degradation and can be a stimulus to landscape restoration and multiple use agriculture that contributes to host communities (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009). Agroforestry can decrease soil erosion, lessen flooding and drought cycles, and provide wildlife habitat for game meat. Refugees flee instability and need a secure environment in which to rebuild their lives. Host communities also face many challenges, and resources mobilized by international efforts can provide benefits to them as well through land restoration. 

A Model for Agricultural Extension and Community Development

There are unique challenges and conditions in camps pertinent to agricultural education not found in communities of origin, but many issues are the same. All agricultural extension should be inclusive, participatory, and culturally respectful. The lessons learned from decades of community-based and farmer-to-farmer extension services can be applied to working with migrant and refugee populations.
A sustainable livelihood and resilience strategy integrates agricultural, vocational, and extension education into camps, since, unfortunately, many migrants face recurring disaster and hostility situations, or at best must prepare for multi-step resettlement journeys (Adam-Bradford et al., 2009). Camps are staging areas to prepare families for future challenges, not just minimal crisis intervention. Camps can also function as focal points for extension services for surrounding communities, many without prior access to extension.

To plant, grow, and harvest food is a restorative therapy, an enriching activity, and a practical pastime. Empowering and equipping refugees to care for the land and make a livelihood from it not only helps the refugees themselves to recover from their loss, but improves lives in the local community as well. To quote Nohad Kalash, a Syrian refugee in the Domiz Refugee Camp in Kurdistan, “Without green the world is meaningless. Where there’s green, there’s happiness” (Beck, 2017).

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