Energy and migration - Where do we go from here?

February 2018


The world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since the second world war and an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. 

Refugee camps have been established in many corners of the developing world and the term “Refugee Crisis” has buzzed across the media in recent years. However, refugees are not the crisis, they are a result of crisis situation. Also, the discussion misses one essential point: Globally, the largest portion of refugees are hosted and accommodated in developing countries, which themselves are structurally poor, struggling with resource scarcity and low incomes.

Energy use by displaced people is economically, environmentally and socially unsustainable. Children and women bear the greatest cost, as they are often the ones cooking over smoky fires or travelling long distances to collect fuel for cooking and lighting. Diesel and cooking fuels are among the largest expenditure for humanitarian organizations, blocking large sums of money that could be directed towards services such as education or healthcare. It is clear that we need to urgently find a more sustainable and safer way to meet these very basic energy needs. Yet, so far, energy is not even addressed as a specific topic on the humanitarian agenda and not yet considered as a distinct area of intervention with specific procedures or monitoring systems. Policies and frameworks for efficiency improvements or productive application of renewable systems are not in place.

In an effort to address this growing need, 120 participants from the private sector, donor organizations, NGOs, foundations and implementers of development projects came together recently to begin the formulation of a Global Plan of Action with the objective of bringing the topic of sustainable and clean energy higher up on the humanitarian agenda.

Presently, we view the Global Plan of Action as an evolving initiative that will go through several stages. Over the next five months, we have two goals. Firstly, to raise this issue to a higher level politically and secondly, to coordinate the initial group work necessary to create the plan. The following two concrete outputs are envisioned to meet these goals:

The creation of a brief high level political document to underline the importance of the issue while advocating the need for a Global Plan of Action and also formal commitments to make it successful. This document will contribute to the review of Sustainable Development Goal SDG7 and will be launched at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in July 2018.

The development of a working-level roadmap. This roadmap and a series of key actions as identified by the working groups initiated at the Energy for Displaced People Conference in Berlin will form the basis of the Global Plan of Action.

Breaking up a “diesel first” mentality is high on the agenda. In humanitarian organizations, procedures are laid out for procuring/tendering quick and cheap energy sources. As responsible authorities from host countries often do not acknowledge that refugees might have to stay for extended periods, planning horizons are limited to 3 or 5 years. However, renewable energy solutions are actually more cost effective over longer planning horizons and actually break even with diesel after 7-10 years.

It was also agreed that room needs to be created for longer term planning through new funding avenues and programmatic approaches in host communities. If humanitarian expenditure lines do not allow for the high upfront investments necessary to set up a solar grid, then energy providers must be given the financial means to set up services where required, and for a customer base that might have a low prospect of economic (and demand) growth.

Alternatively ways must be found to introduce energy systems into host communities, with a focus on sharing the benefits with refugees. Either by allowing refugee settlements to procure energy or energy systems from the host communities, or even by providing employment/income opportunities through value chains that link host and refugee communities.

Furthermore, new systems should be considered that do not require fixed installations and could therefore be  re-used by host communities after a refugee settlement is eventually dismantled. During the event, private sector enterprises were given the opportunity to present their technologies. Interestingly, all of these entrepreneurs originally developed their products for other markets, and found relevance for them in the refugee context only recently. For example:

From attending this event I felt that there are a number of interesting ideas in terms of how we can use decentralized renewable energy in a migration context however, a number of fundamental barriers exist which relate to camp management and regulation. A collaboration between all the stakeholders and a clear commitment from governments and the political divisions will be required in order to bring energy access - which is a fundamental and basic human need, to these vulnerable communities.

SNV has recently started to deliver an access to energy project in Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya.

The project aims to implement a market-based approach to deliver clean, safe and affordable cooking solutions to over 16,000 people and provide more than 21,000 people with access to solar energy for lighting and phone charging. The project will  be a crucial first step  into a humanitarian context for SNV's Energy Sector. 


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Jan Söhlemann

Knowledge and Innovation Development - Energy in Agriculture & Informal Settlements