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Flüchtlingscamp in Bangladesch

Refugee camps: challenges and assistance on site

108.4 million people worldwide are on the run according to the United Nations (UNHCR as of December 2022). Around 62.5 million of these refugees are internally displaced persons (IDPs) - people who have been forced to flee within their home country and are seeking protection. 35.3 million are refugees who have fled to another country. 5.4 million are asylum seekers. Of the people who cross their country's borders, around 70% flee to neighboring countries. Around half of all refugees settle in cities or urban regions after fleeing in an attempt to build a new life there (as of 2020). However, refugee camps, which often emerge with refugee movements, are the first point of contact for many people after a usually dangerous and exhausting journey. Ideally, these camps provide them with basic medical care, temporary accommodation, food, drinking water and access to sanitary facilities.

In reality, however, the situation in many camps is precarious. Refugees often have to stay there for months, years or even decades before a decision is made on their future whereabouts or a return to their home country is considered. In 2022, around 67% of all refugees remained in "protracted refugee situations". However, the refugee camps are not intended for a permanent stay with appropriate living conditions. The situation is particularly critical in refugee camps such as Cox's Bazar (Bangladesh), Zaatari (Jordan), Kakuma or Dadaab (Kenya). Hundreds of thousands of refugees in Greece, Italy and Türkiye are also dependent on humanitarian aid, for example in the Mavrovouni camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, which was set up after the devastating fire in the Moria camp. Uganda, on the other hand, leads the way as a positive example with its pronounced hospitality and comparatively progressive refugee policy. The country is the sixth largest host country in the world (as of 2022). Refugees from South Sudan, Burundi and Somalia are given their own plot of land in a settlement upon arrival, which they can live on and cultivate. This way, the government aims to minimize accommodation in refugee camps as far as possible.

How do refugee camps form?

Refugee camps are formed with the aim of providing refugees with immediate protection and emergency relief. People on the run often spend days, weeks or months without sufficient food and drinking water before arriving in the camps, exhausted and sometimes in a life-threatening state of health. Ideally, the priority is to provide emergency medical care, food and drinking water to ensure people's survival

In a best-case scenario, a suitable location must be found for a safe refugee camp. It should not be too close to the border with war zones but should still be easily accessible on foot from crisis regions. Access to clean drinking water is particularly important, as is the ability to reach the camp by large vehicles or by plane to ensure that people can be properly provided for. However, many shelters are set up in a makeshift manner overnight and therefore offer neither sufficient protection nor sanitary facilities. This is what happened in 2017 in Bangladesh in the Cox's Bazar region: the first emergency shelters here grew into what is now the world's largest refugee camp

Refugee camps often become a place of refuge for affected people for many years and therefore a kind of hopeless final destination. In addition to acute emergency relief, it is then necessary to create conditions in the camps in which a large number of people can live together for an indefinite period of time. This is already a reality in the Bidibidi refugee camp in Uganda. Around 200,000 refugees, mainly from the neighboring country of South Sudan, live there in independent settlements (as of 2023). Uganda's refugee policy is based on the principle of "helping people to help themselves" and provides housing. The residents can wash at public wells and plant vegetables in small gardens in front of the shelters to provide for themselves. Nevertheless, displaced people in Ugandan refugee camps do not have it easy: they often cannot find a job, are heavily burdened or stigmatized by their traumatic experiences and, like parts of the Ugandan population, suffer from the effects of climate change, food shortages, etc. 

Why do people flee?

The reasons for flight and displacement are diverse and often closely related: war and violent conflicts such as in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen or Ukraine result in many people fleeing in fear of their lives. Other reasons for displacement are political, ethnic, religious or gender-specific persecution. Increasingly, natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and extreme droughts are also triggering refugee movements. Humanitarian aid organizations such as Malteser International are committed to helping people in need as part of their refugee relief by covering basic needs. We do this in cooperation and coordination with (local) partner organizations and aid workers on the ground by providing shelter, water, food, protection and medical care in refugee camps, for example. 

Challenges and risks in refugee camps

In many refugee camps, people live in unacceptable conditions. Often there is neither running water nor electricity. There is also often a lack of sufficient funding for food, which is why rations either have to be restricted or reduced to a very one-sided diet. Overcrowded camps, inadequate sanitary facilities, poor hygiene conditions and insufficient access to clean drinking water increase the risk of disease outbreaks, including diarrheal diseases, skin or viral infections. In addition to the physical consequences, the mental health of displaced people is at risk

There is also a shortage of qualified staff in many camps, particularly for medical and psychosocial care. Pregnant women and unaccompanied children are particularly at risk in overcrowded refugee camps. Many sick people must wait a long time for medical treatment and women do not always have access to adequate prenatal care. Protection, especially for women and girls, can often not be guaranteed in camps. They are permanently at risk of gender-based violence. Safer spaces, lockable and nearby showers and toilets for women and girls are only available in very few cases. 

Natural disasters also put refugees in several camps in danger. In Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh, for example, heavy rainfall, flooding, storms and landslides occur regularly during the monsoon season. This repeatedly destroys or damages the refugees' shelters. The effects of COVID-19 in refugee camps have further exacerbated the danger for the residents

The largest refugee camps in the world

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Cox's Bazar is home to the largest refugee camp in the world. It is located in Bangladesh on the border with Myanmar and is made up of many individual camps, which together form a mega camp that hosts over 900,000 people (as of October 2023). The residents are mainly Rohingya, an ethnic group from Myanmar. The Muslim minority is persecuted and displaced in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. 

Dadaab, Kenya

Dadaab camp in Kenya is made up of three individual camps inhabiting a total of over 300,000 people (as of 2023). Many refugees arrived in the 1990s from the neighboring countries of Somalia and South Sudan and have since had children and grandchildren in the camp. A cholera outbreak in October 2022 exacerbated the situation in the refugee camp considerably. 

Bidibidi, Uganda

Bidibidi camp in Uganda is home to around 200,000 refugees. Most of them come from neighboring South Sudan (as of 2023). Bidibidi is more of a settlement than a camp. The people living there receive tools, seeds and training in agriculture so that they can largely provide for themselves. 


How we help people in refugee camps

As a relief organization, Malteser International is committed to helping refugees and displaced persons worldwide. In refugee camps, such as in Syria, Uganda, Thailand and Bangladesh, we have been working for several years to ensure humane living conditions in the camps. One example is our work in the world's largest refugee camp in Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh. 

Together with our partner organization GK, we have set up health stations there, where we take care of the basic health needs of the Rohingya as well as the local host community, provide psychosocial support and combat malnutrition. This also includes measures such as health and hygiene training and referrals to local clinics.  

We are also particularly active in the area of mother and child health. Our long-standing refugee relief work in Thailand, for example, includes ante- and postnatal care for pregnant women, vaccination of children and provision of therapeutic food for malnourished children. We also ensure a reliable supply of clean drinking water in our projects, for example through water deliveries or the installation of wells, water tanks and water supply systems. In Syria, our emergency relief for internally displaced persons following the severe earthquake in February 2023 included the distribution of food and the construction of emergency shelters in addition to medical care. 

We are also supporting displaced people in refugee camps in north-west Syria. In the regions of North Aleppo and Idlib, almost 2 million of the approximately 2.87 million refugees live in or outside refugee camps. With a total population of 4.55 million people in north-west Syria, well over half are refugees (source: OCHA, 2023). The camps are overcrowded and only offer very limited support due to the precarious supply situation. Due to the ongoing war in Syria since 2011, as well as the earthquake disaster in 2023, the few relief organizations working in the region, such as Malteser International and their partner organizations, are constantly encountering obstacles.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war, we began supporting the people in north-western Syria, particularly with medical care. This support was further expanded after the devastating earthquake. Together with partner organizations, we support hospitals, basic health centers and mobile medical teams. In addition to supplying drinking water, we are helping people in need to grow fruits and vegetables, thereby promoting their ability to provide for themselves. In addition, we are providing psychosocial support to Syrians. We also distributed blankets, tents, mattresses and food in the earthquake region over several months. 

We are directly dependent on your support for our humanitarian aid worldwide. Your donation enables us to provide vital relief supplies such as food, clean water and medical care. You also help us develop long-term solutions and provide refugees with the support they urgently need. 

Donate to support our work in refugee camps

Refugee aid: This is how we help

Countless people around the world are forced to flee their homes and seek refuge due to conflicts, persecution and natural disasters. 

There is no end in sight to the refugee movement – on the contrary: experts estimate that climate change, armed conflicts and social inequality will further exacerbate the situation. Malteser International is working with local partners to provide relief for refugees and displaced persons. 

Learn more about our refugee aid

On the run: Health must not be left behind

All too often, access to adequate healthcare and respect for human dignity of refugees are neglected. We believe that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, should have the right to access healthcare. To mark World Refugee Day on June 20, we launched a digital campaign in 2023 entitled "On the run: Health must not be left behind".

Find out more about the campaign

Coronavirus in refugee camps

Due to the already precarious conditions in refugee camps, the COVID-19 has posed an additional threat to residents. Many refugees' immune systems are already weakened due to the conditions in the camps. The high population density and the lack of sanitary facilities and clean water make the residents even more susceptible to infection.

Malteser International is working on site to improve hygiene conditions and strengthen health facilities. 

More about COVID-19 in refugee camps
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