Refugees deserve clean energy too

by T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Radha Muthiah | UNHCR
Friday, 20 June 2014 14:47 GMT

In this 2012 file photo, a woman prepares food in Jamam refugee camp in Upper Nile, South Sudan REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

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Women refugees in the DRC are spending over five and a half hours every time they go out to search for firewood for cooking, lighting and other uses

By T. Alexander Aleinikoff and Radha Muthiah

Fashion icon Gisele Bündchen has walked many runways, but recently she took a walk of a drastically different kind: To learn about the challenges that families face when they don’t have modern energy services, Gisele joined a group of Kenyan women as they walked more than five miles in the heat to collect wood to use for cooking their families’ meals.

These challenges associated with a lack of modern energy are especially pronounced for refugee families. From Syria to South Sudan to the Central African Republic and now Iraq, right now there are more than 40 million people who have been forced from their homes. On World Refugee Day, their needs should be at the top of the global conversation – and energy must be an important part of the dialogue.

What does it mean when refugees and displaced people don’t have access to modern energy to cook?

Many families have to go hungry because they don’t have the fuel to cook the meals distributed to them in humanitarian shelters.

Many others have to burn solid fuels in open fires and basic stoves to cook, light and heat their shelters and temporary homes. This puts them at risk for life-threatening health problems from polluting smoke, injuries and burns. According to the World Health Organization, 4.3 million people die each year from exposure to the toxic smoke produced by cooking with open fires and inefficient stoves.

And disturbingly, physical violence and sexual assault are common when girls and women leave temporary camps to forage for firewood and fuel for household cooking.

Recent assessments in the Democratic Republic of Congo by the Women’s Refugee Commission show that women are spending over five and a half hours every time they go out to search for firewood for cooking, lighting and other uses. This chore is labor-intensive, physically exhausting, time-consuming, and even worse, a personal safety threat.

Not enough has been done to reduce the risks women and children face in humanitarian contexts when it comes to energy for cooking and lighting. Today, on World Refugee Day, we send the message that now is the time to take action to meet the energy needs of displaced people around the world.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have partnered to provide safe access to fuel and energy for crisis-affected people in order to protect their health and safety and improve quality their life.

Our partnership focuses on meeting the pressing energy needs of the world’s most vulnerable people, working together with the many countries, organizations, and private sector stakeholders that will implement the recommended actions in UNHCR’s global safe energy strategy. Our common goal: to ensure reliable and safe access to energy for families living in humanitarian settings – especially women and girls.

We will train staff working in humanitarian camps on safe energy, create an online hub to share best practices, and conduct research on which solutions work best. Importantly, we will also help bridge the gap between the humanitarian community and the commercial cooking community so the right products and approaches are available to those in need.

We live in an unstable and interconnected world. The inconceivable hardship faced by refugees and other displaced people may feel far away, but it is, in fact, at our global doorstep.

Every day a woman or young girl wakes to cook a meal with cleaner household solutions in hand, we will know that she and her family are healthier and safer. We have solutions to improve lives. Today, our opportunity and our obligation is to get those solutions to society’s most vulnerable people so the act of cooking doesn’t kill.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff is the Deputy High Commissioner for the United Nations Refugee Agency and Radha Muthiah is the executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves