Patchy, expensive energy causes misery and death for refugees

by Joseph D'Urso | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 17 November 2015 00:01 GMT

Families displaced by fighting between the Congolese army and M23 rebels in Bunagana in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, prepare dinner in a field with other displaced families in the Ugandan town of Bunagana, 491 km (305 miles) west of the capital Kampala October 31, 2013. REUTERS/James Akena

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80 percent of the 8.7 million people in camps have little access to energy, and many lack lighting at night

LONDON, Nov 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Refugees around the world face huge problems accessing energy, making them far more likely to die from the cold or heat, choke on fumes from charcoal or firewood, or be attacked after dark, according to research published on Tuesday.

There are nearly 60 million people displaced around the world, and they tend to pay disproportionately high costs for energy from inefficient, unreliable and often dangerous sources.

"I think there's been little awareness in the way in which energy impacts all part of refugees' lives," co-author Owen Grafham, an energy researcher for London-based thinktank Chatham House, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Around 80 percent of the 8.7 million people who live in refugee camps around the world have "absolutely minimal" access to energy, with many lacking any form of lighting at night, Grafham's research found.

"Exposure to extremes of cold and heat are ... killers for people living in flimsy, temporary shelter," said co-author Glada Lahn, a senior research fellow at Chatham House.

"The current lack of provision for energy undermines the fundamental aims of humanitarian assistance."

The study, said to be the first ever global analysis of its kind, was published by the Moving Energy Initiative (MEI), a collaboration between thinktanks, charities, the British government and the United Nations' refugee agency.

Partnerships between aid agencies, governments and private providers is vital to improve access to energy for host communities as well as refugees, MEI said, pointing out that the vast majority of refugees live in cities, not camps.

The energy which displaced people use tends to be incredibly expensive - in Dadaab in Kenya, the world's largest refugee camp, people spend around 24 percent of household income of energy, the study said.

This energy is often dangerous. Dependence on primitive fuels such as firewood and charcoal, which 80 percent of those in camps use for cooking, causes early death for around 20,000 displaced people each year according to the research, mainly from respiratory or heart conditions.

The use of open fires and candles in ramshackle, flammable homes is also a common and avoidable source of death, while children are sometimes poisoned by accidentally drinking kerosene from water bottles.

Women and girls who collect firewood late at night are at risk of attack - within a five month period in 2004-05, Médecins Sans Frontières reported treating nearly 500 Darfuri women and girls in Sudan who were raped while picking up fuel.

"It is imperative to find humane, creative and cost-effective ways to respond to the needs of so many individuals, most of whom are women and children," said former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in the foreword to Tuesday's report.

"Improving access to clean, safe and sustainable energy offers a promising way forward."

Energy is often overlooked in the humanitarian system compared to issues like water and shelter, said Michael Keating of the MEI at a briefing in London, citing interviews with Syrians who said access to cheap energy was their top concern.

(Reporting By Joseph D'Urso; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit

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