The Role of Energy in Empowering Refugees

Owen Grafham speaks to Gitika Bhardwaj about why providing universal energy access to refugees is crucial to improving their livelihoods and that of their host communities.

Interview Updated 21 July 2023 Published 6 August 2018 4 minute READ

Owen Grafham

Former Assistant Director, Environment and Society Centre

Gitika Bhardwaj

Former Editor, Communications and Publishing

There are over 70 million forcibly displaced people globally, over 25 million of which are refugees, which is more than ever before. With ongoing wars in Syria and South Sudan, and continuing violence in Afghanistan and Myanmar, how do you see the ‘refugee crisis’ unfolding given the state of global conflicts around the world?

Unfortunately it’s likely that we will see increasing numbers of people being displaced by conflict over the next few years. These crises, as you’ve mentioned, show no signs of ending and international resolution mechanisms are not coming up with the solutions needed.

Interestingly, most of the 70 million people are not ending up in Europe, as many Europeans think they are. 85 per cent are living in developing countries. These are the countries shouldering the greatest burden and it is these countries that we, in the developed world, need to be supporting.

This is especially important since the dynamics in these regions are changing. Growing anti-refugee sentiments are emerging in developing countries including in Pakistan, Iran, Jordan and Lebanon and a lot of this tension comes down to citizens believing that refugees and migrants are a drain on the natural resources of the host country whether this is water or energy or land.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals commits the world to providing affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. How attainable is this global political commitment for forcibly displaced people?

Currently, 1 billion people around the world don’t have access to electricity and over 3 billion people are still cooking with solid fuels. Then, the number of forcibly displaced people globally is more than the size of Australia and Canada, combined.

Recent research from Chatham House has shown that over 90 per cent of those people living in refugee camps don’t have access to electricity and over 80 per cent are cooking with the most basic fuel available which is wood. This shows that refugees and displaced people are one of the most likely groups to be left behind in the global drive for better energy access. That’s a lot of people without access to energy.

But I am confident that solutions are emerging and there is a lot of positive political momentum at the moment. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, for example, is focused on trying to move from the idea that refugees are a burden and instead think of how their knowledge and skills can contribute towards their host countries.

Bold commitments have also emerged from a new Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and a Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) which both consider energy and environmental issues.

In addition, the UN’s Agenda for Humanity calls for changing people’s lives and I see access to energy as a practical measure to bridge the humanitarian and development divide and help displaced communities to achieve self-reliance.

This political change, as well as numerous exciting projects emerging on the ground, gives me hope that providing affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services for all displaced people by 2030 is attainable.

Why is focusing on energy access an important part of the refugee question rather than other concerns such as food security or healthcare?

Energy access is an enabler. When you think about it, it’s basically impossible to go about your daily life without some kind of access to energy. Whether that means cooking, lighting your home, studying at night, checking your phone, driving a car, powering tools or listening to the radio – all of these activities require energy.

It’s also a life or death issue when people are living in temporary – often flimsy – shelter. There have been a lot of child deaths in Europe and the Middle East over the last few winters and extreme heat can be just as bad. That’s why it’s important that the humanitarian system thinks more about energy in their budgets so that people can lead better lives.

Having access to energy also empowers people to forge their own livelihoods and live their lives with dignity. Energy access might mean the difference between being able to start a business and not. For example, you can imagine being a barber who could plug in a razor for the first time. You can imagine being a miller who is able to mill with power for the first time. You can imagine being a tailor who is able to sew with a sewing machine for the first time. Having access to energy gives people the power to start businesses, attract more customers and exert more control over their lives.

With the share of renewable energy growing in global energy consumption, what else could be done to provide universal energy access through the renewable energy sector, given that over 1 billion people around the world live without electricity?

This is an interesting question. The falling cost of renewable energy solutions, particularly solar, means that renewables are becoming increasingly price-competitive against traditional fuels all over the world.

There is amazing progress in the off-grid renewables market. Innovative business models are gaining traction and helping to bring energy products to those who have not traditionally been able to afford them. But the businesses and companies at the coalface of this challenge face significant barriers.

If we want to support the transition to renewable energy then governments need to think about ways they can adapt their policies to be more welcoming. Whether that’s about tariffs or subsidies or improving access to financing streams or even reducing barriers on imports and exports, there’s a whole range of things governments can do to incentivize renewable energy businesses and companies to start working within their territories.

But it’s often not just about providing energy – it’s about making sure that people use energy productively – and this is where much work is needed in order to make sure that people around the world who are gaining access to energy know how to best make use of it.

What are the biggest opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, for example, how far do you think divisive political discourse against immigration could be a challenge to delivering the universal energy access agenda?

There is a lot of attention on energy access at the moment so it’s important that we take advantage of this while the international community is focusing on the universal energy access agenda.

There are also a number of political commitments emerging which are focused on the positive role refugees and displaced people can have in their host communities.

In addition, there is a chance for humanitarian agencies to benefit enormously if they think about how renewable energy can improve their work. Chatham House research estimates the humanitarian system could save over $400 million dollars a year by moving away from diesel. So humanitarian agencies can save money and save lives too.

One of the biggest challenges is that governments are not certain that these humanitarian contexts are permanent. Many governments think that the refugees hosted in their territories will eventually return home. While this is the goal of many refugees as well, MEI research suggests that the average amount of time a refugee lives in a refugee camp is 18 years, meaning most refugees will stay in the country hosting them for a considerable amount of time. However, this is both a challenge and an opportunity because this gives us the opportunity to deliver better solutions for refugees and the communities hosting them.

But governments are not always interested in long-term solutions. For example, the Kenyan government was looking to close down the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya while the MEI was working there which was a tricky time for us because we weren’t sure whether we would be able to continue our work.

However, I feel that the political momentum is shifting towards thinking about solutions that draw upon the diverse skill-sets of refugees, enabling them to make a positive contribution in their host communities.

For example, Uganda, which has the largest refugee camp in the world, Bidi Bidi, has taken in an enormous number of South Sudanese refugees over the last couple of years and has granted land, working rights and freedom of movement to those refugees, recognizing that the only way for them to make a positive contribution to Ugandan society is to give them the chance to flourish by building new lives.

In addition, Jordan has opened up certain areas for refugees to work legally, so I’m positive that the overall momentum is strong, particularly in developing countries who are hosting the largest share of refugees.