Energy Access for Refugees

From energypedia


Every year, millions of people are forced to leave their country and live as refugees due to war and persecution. In 2013 the total number of refugees exceeded even those after World War II and this number has continued to rise since then. [1] According to UNHCR, there are around 102.5 million people who are forcefully displaced in 2022, which includes 21.7 million refugees, 4.7 million asylum seekers and 52.1 million internally displaced people.[2]

Setting the Context

“Without safe and reliable access to energy, it can be impossible to meet the basic needs of life.” [3]

Access to food, water, shelter and medical care are the immediate priorities for people who have been forcefully displaced from their homes, either due to war, conflict or natural disasters. However, access to reliable and safe energy is another very important essentials and one that in the past has not received a lot of attention. [3] Luckily this is starting to change and many humanitarian actors are acknowledging the crucial role of safe and reliable energy access for the betterment of refugees living condition as well as for generating employment opportunities.

Often, refugee camps are seen as temporary establishments with the hope that at some point the people living there will be able to return to their homes. Hence, long term investments, such as connecting the camps to the grid or providing them with expensive energy solutions are often discouraged. However, this is far from reality as on average, people spend 17 years in a refugee camp. [4] During this time, they usually have to rely on energy sources, such as biomass or kerosene for cooking and lighting  which are mostly used in an unsafe, unhealthy and inefficient way. [5] Replacing these energy sources or devices with sustainable energy solutions in camps would have numerous advantages for refugees as well as for the host community and the environment.

The figure below shows a typical displacement setting with camp characteristics and the types of services available in the camp and the surrounding host community.


Energy for Cooking

In camps in north Darfur, people on average “missed three meals a week when they had food but no fuel to cook" [6]

Most of the food distributed in refugee camps by humanitarian agencies need to be cooked before it can be consumed. However, the fuel needed for cooking is usually not provided. [6] Therefore, many refugees collect firewood from the area around the camp or trade/sell some of their food for buying fuel or eat under-cooked food, contributing to depleting forest resources as well as malnutrition respectively. Depleting firewood resources in the camp’s surroundings not only causes environmental problems, such as deforestation and spreading desertification, but also often leads to tensions between refugees and the host communities.

The dependency on firewood is also a gender problem. Collecting firewood is a task often performed my woman and girls. Especially in large camps they may have to walk for hours to find firewood, leaving them less time for other activities, such as looking after their children, working or supporting the refugee community. Furthermore, women and girls are often subjected to gender based violence during their search for firewood or get bitten/attacked by insects/animals [6].

Refugees who are unable to collect firewood have to buy fuel for cooking. This can be very expensive. For example, in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya it was estimated that, on average, families spend 24% of their income on energy. [3]

Cooking with biomass on open fires has severe negative health effects for refugees. The exposure to smoke from open fires is estimated to cause 20,000 premature deaths amongst refugees each year. [3] A study in Nepal showed that refugees are especially vulnerable to air born respiratory infections caused by smoke. They have a 10-17 higher rate of infection in comparison to people living in non-crisis settings. [6]  Furthermore, the risk of burns or setting fire to tents is also heightened by the use of open fires for cooking. [3]

Access to efficient and modern cookstoves can provide a solution to some of these problems. Since they consume less fuel, efficient stoves result in considerable savings for refugees in terms of money, and time spent collecting firewood. Through improved combustion, efficient stoves also minimize the health risks associated with air pollution caused by cooking.

Some stoves can also be used to cook with alternative fuels, such as ethanol. One example for this are the high performing ethanol cookstoves produced by the Ethiopian charity organization Gaia Association. These stoves are distributed to refugees living in the Jigjiga refugee camps. The ethanol is made from molasses, a by-product of the large sugar industry in the country. [7] By providing them with efficient stoves and ethanol fuel, the Gaia Association has freed refugees in the camp from their dependency on firewood, thus improving their quality of life.

Further information on energy for cooking in refugee camps can be found in the energypedia articles "Cooking Energy in Refugee Situations" and "Cooking Energy in Refugee Camps-Challenges and Opportunities"

Collecting Firewood.JPG


Energy for Lighting

Lack of lighting is another major problem in many refugee camps. After sunset, camps are often completely dark. This means that many activities can only be completed during the day. For example, children cannot do their homework in the evenings reducing their chances of completing their education. Not having lights in a refugee camp also creates safety and gender based violence issues. Many people, especially woman and children, do not feel safe walking around the camp after nightfall. [8] Meeting lighting needs by the use of kerosene lamps presents further hazard for the household members. Acute and chronic kerosene exposure causes respiratory problems, convulsions or dermatitis. [9]

Also, having lights and electricity to power electrical devices such as fridges and microscope is especially important in medical stations . Currently, many medical stations in refugee camps are powered by diesel generators, resulting in high fuel costs and environmental pollution. [10]

Connecting refugee camps to the national grid in order to provide them with lighting is often not a viable solution. This is due to their classification as temporary structures and also because refugee camps are often based in very remote locations and therefore a grid connection would be extremely expensive. Furthermore, many refugee camps are located in countries where even the local population often does not have access to electricity.

Hence, solar power can be a very good option for bringing lighting into refugee camps, in the form of solar street lights or pico-PV systems such as solar lanterns. While these technologies often have a higher upfront cost, they provide long terms savings. The fuel savings for a refugee family which owns a solar light can be significant. [11]

Many solar lanterns also have a USB ports, allowing refugees to charge their mobile phones. Mobile phones are often the only way for refugees to communicate with family and friends who live outside of the camp.

GIZ EnDev Nepal Boy with Light-reduced02.jpg

Financial Implications

According to an assessment by the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC) in 2005, in humanitarian setting, refugees are provided with food and shelter but rarely with cooking fuel. Energy access for refugees is a basic humanitarian need but has been mostly ignored/undermined. Additionally, a global total of USD 2.1 billion is spend per year for energy access among displaced people. The majority of this cost is borne by the refugees themselves.[10]

Environmental Degradation and Health Implications

80% of the 8.7 million refugees and displaced persons in camps worldwide, rely on traditional biomass for cooking and have no access to electricity.  They rely mostly on forest nearby the camps for firewood. As a result, 64,700 hectares of forest are cleared and burned every year in areas near refugees camps. [10] This result in increased competition between refugees and host communities for the dwindling forest resources and accelerating environmental disasters like flooding, increased desertification etc.[12]

Burning traditional biomass for cooking is one of the major cause of indoor air pollution. The WHO estimates that around 20,000 forcibly displaced people die prematurely each year from diseases caused by indoor air pollution.[13]

Gender Based Violence (GBV)

In most of the refugees camps, women and children are mainly responsible for collecting firewood and in many cases, they travel up to 20 km into unsafe areas to collect firewood. This could lead to cases of sexual assault and robbery among women and children while collecting firewood. In most cases, the women and children, do not report the sexual assault as they are afraid of social stigma as well as further persecution by the police and the local security authority. [13]

For women, communal sanitation facilities (latrines, bathing areas) can be a set up where they face GBV and harassment especially when they visit the facilities after dark. They could face harassment while:

  • on the way to the facilities
  • while using the facilities
  • inside the facilities
  • voyeuristic "peeping" while they use the facilities

This publication sheds lights on the risk of GBV in and around sanitation facilities and how access to lighting could reduce it.

Implementing Solutions

Providing refugees with sustainable energy solutions, such of efficient stoves, alternative fuels and solar lighting, could have potential huge positive impacts on their lives as well as on the environment and the host communities. Furthermore, sustainable energy solutions could result in huge potential savings for humanitarian agencies. Introducing improved cookstoves and basic solar lanterns could save USD 323 million a year in fuel costs in return for a one-time capital investment of USD 335 million for the equipment. It would also save around 6.85 million TCO2 per year.[10]

However, humanitarian efforts and business approaches to this topic need to be coordinated. Especially in developing economies there is a risk of disrupting emerging private sector energy markets through the free distributions of products. [11] Therefore, humanitarian aid should always be carefully planned and, wherever possible, local establishment should be integrated so that the host community can also benefit.

Another important point to consider is that energy solutions need to be appropriate for the target community. They should be adapted to take into account factors such as cooking habits and social structures amongst the refugees in a camp. [5]

Currently there is still not enough funding in place for sustainable energy solutions in crisis settings. Energy needs to become more of a priority in humanitarian aid projects, especially considering the huge impacts that unsafe and insufficient energy access can have on the lives of refugees. Another problem is the lack of data available on this topic. Energy projects need to be better documented. This will allow new projects to build upon previous experience, enabling better and more efficient solution to be developed in the future. [3]

Recently, FAO has released a new handbook on assessing the woodfuel supply and demand in displacement settings. The methodology presented in this handbook presents global data sources that are applicable in any country and are tailored for data collection in and around displacement camps.[14][15]


Publications dealing with the issue of energy access for refugees :

Further Information


  1. Global refugee figures highest since WW2, UN says. (2014, June 20). Retrieved December 9, 2015, from
  2. UNHCR (2020). Global Appeal.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Chatham House, n.d. Moving Energy Initiative. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 June 2016].
  4. Pyper, J., 2015. Solar Power to Light Up Syrian Refugee Camps in Jordan. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 16 June 2016].
  5. 5.0 5.1 GVEP International, n.d. The Moving Energy Initiative: Sustainable Energy for Refugees and Displaced People. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 June 2016]. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "GVEP International, n.d. The Moving Energy Initiative: Sustainable Energy for Refugees and Displaced People. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 15 June 2016]." defined multiple times with different content
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Arnold, K. et al., 2016. Energy in Emergency Settings. Boiling Point, Issue 68, p. 1.
  7. Tsehayu, W. T. & Getaneh, D., 2016. Clean and safe energy for cooking: Ethiopian Jigjiga refugee camps. Boiling Point, Issue 68, pp. 16-19.
  8. Bleadale, M., 2012. Light Years Ahead, Geneva: UNHCR.
  9. Health Protection Agency (2006): Compendium of Chemical Hazards: Kerosene (Fuel Oil) fckLR[Online] Available at: [Accessed 04 April 2017]
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Lahn, G., & Grafham, O. (2015). Heat, Light and Power for Refugees Saving Lives, Reducing Costs. Chatham House Report for the Moving Energy Initiative. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Lahn, G., & Grafham, O. (2015). Heat, Light and Power for Refugees Saving Lives, Reducing Costs. Chatham House Report for the Moving Energy Initiative." defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Lahn, G., & Grafham, O. (2015). Heat, Light and Power for Refugees Saving Lives, Reducing Costs. Chatham House Report for the Moving Energy Initiative." defined multiple times with different content
  11. 11.0 11.1 Kleiman, S., 2016. "With Light there is more life": Energy access for safety, health and well being in emergencies. Boiling Point, Issue 68, pp. 2-5.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) in Nyarugusu, Tanzania: A Rapid Assessment Report. (2014).
  14. FAO (2016):