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CLOSE THIS BOOKHandbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)
12. Site Selection, Planning and Shelter
VIEW THE DOCUMENT(introduction...)
VIEW THE DOCUMENTOrganization of Response
VIEW THE DOCUMENTCriteria for Site Selection
VIEW THE DOCUMENTSite Planning: General Considerations
VIEW THE DOCUMENTSite Planning: Specific Infrastructure
VIEW THE DOCUMENTReception and Transit Camps
VIEW THE DOCUMENTPublic Buildings and Communal Facilities

Handbook for Emergencies - Second Edition (UNHCR, 1999, 414 p.)

12. Site Selection, Planning and Shelter




Suitable and well-selected sites, soundly planned refugee settlements with adequate shelter and integrated, appropriate infrastructure are essential in the early stages of a refugee emergency as they are lifesaving and reduce suffering. Refugee settlement in emergencies may take the form of dispersed settlements, mass accommodation in existing shelters or organized camps. Initial decisions on location and layout have repercussions throughout the existence of a refugee settlement with long-term effects on protection and the delivery of humanitarian assistance.


To provide suitable sites and shelter to accommodate refugees in emergencies.

Principles of Response

· Use longer term planning principles, even when the refugee situation is expected to be only temporary;

· Decisions on site selection and camp planning are very difficult to reverse, therefore when in doubt seek technical support;

· Avoid high population density in settlements and in shelters;

· Avoid very large emergency settlements; refugee camps should normally be considered as a last resort;

· Involve refugees in all phases of settlement and shelter planning and construction;

· Use a bottom-up planning approach, beginning with the smallest social units, preserving traditional social arrangements and structures as far as possible;

· Develop a comprehensive master plan, with the settlement layout developed around sanitation and other services, providing room for expansion.


· Assess the suitability of the refugee site and ensure that it meets the basic criteria;

· Simultaneously assess the most immediate needs for emergency shelter and provide the necessary materials that cannot be met from locally available resources;

· Identify the most urgently required measures to improve site planning and layout, and implement these as soon as possible.


1. Providing a place to live is a natural consequence of granting asylum. As the layout, infrastructure and shelter of an emergency camp will have a major influence on the safety and well-being of refugees, these factors must be coordinated with the other vital sectors involved in the humanitarian response: community services, water, environmental sanitation, health, education, food distribution, logistics, forestry, and the environment.

2. Most refugee operations last much longer than initially anticipated, therefore cost-effective and sustainable infrastructure and shelter should be planned from the start. The expected life-span of a camp will influence site selection, camp planning and the implementation of a refugee operation.

3. The role and responsibility of the national authorities in site selection is obvious and of fundamental importance. Equally, the refugees themselves must be involved as early as possible; ideally, the needs of the refugees should determine the location, size and layout of the site. In practice a compromise has to be reached between the needs of refugees and external factors, both practical and political.

4. Good site selection, planning and shelter will:

i. Save lives and reduce cost;

ii. Minimize the need for difficult, corrective measures later;

iii. Make the provision of utilities, services and infrastructure easier and more cost-effective;

iv. Ensure most efficient use of land, resources and time.

5. Emergency refugee settlements generally fall into one of three categories:

i. Dispersed settlement;

ii. Mass shelter;

iii. Camps.

Dispersed Settlement

6. This type of arrangement is where the refugees find accommodation within the households of families who already live in the area of refuge. The refugees either share existing accommodation or set up temporary accommodation nearby and share water, sanitation, cooking and other services of the preexisting households.

7. Accommodation is often found with extended family members or with people of the same ethnic background. This type of arrangement may occur in both rural or urban settings. The advantages of this type of settlement are:

i. Quick to implement;

ii. Limited administrative support is needed;

iii. Low cost;

iv. Fosters self help and independence;

v. It has less impact on the local environment than camps.

8. The disadvantages of this type of settlement are:

i. The host families and communities can become overburdened and impoverished;

ii. It can be difficult to distinguish the host population from the refugees. This may pose problems where population estimation and registration are required;

iii. Protection problems may not be as easy to detect as when the population is more concentrated;

iv. Shelter and other forms of assistance are likely to be needed by the host population as well as the refugees.

Mass Shelter:

Public Buildings and Community Facilities

9. This type of settlement is where refugees find accommodation in pre-existing facilities, for example, in schools, barracks, hotels, gymnasiums. These are normally in urban areas and are often intended as temporary or transit accommodation. The advantages of this type of settlement are:

i. They are not continuously inhabited during normal use and refugees can be accommodated immediately without disrupting accommodation in the hosting area;

ii. Services such as water and sanitation are immediately available, though these may be inadequate if the numbers are large;

iii. The need to construct additional structures specifically for the refugees is avoided.

10. The disadvantages of this type of settlement are:

i. They can quickly become overcrowded;

ii. Sanitation and other services can become overburdened;

iii. Equipment and structure can be damaged;

iv. Buildings are no longer available for their original purpose, thus disrupting public services to the hosting population;

v. Lack of privacy.


11. This type of settlement is where refugees find accommodation in purpose built sites where a full range of services, for example water, sanitation, are provided, usually exclusively for the population of the site.

12. High density camps with very large populations are the worst possible option for refugee accommodation. However, this may be the only option because of decisions by the host country or simply because of a lack of alternatives. They are common in areas with little or no pre-existing infrastructure or where the size of the refugee population is such that it would put an intolerable strain on the local resources if the two other types of settlement mentioned above were used.

13. The advantages of this type of settlement are:

i. Services can be provided to a large population in a centralized and efficient way;

ii. There may be economies of scale in the provision of some services compared with more dispersed settlements;

iii. The refugee population can be easy to identify and communicate with;

iv. Voluntary repatriation can be easier to organize.

14. The disadvantages of this type of settlement are:

i. High population density seriously increases health risks to the population;

ii. High risk of environmental damage in the immediate vicinity of the camp;

iii. High population concentrations, particularly close to international borders, may make the population vulnerable to protection problems;

iv. Large camps may provide a hiding place and support base for armed groups who should be excluded from refugee status. It may be difficult to distinguish these groups from the normal refugee population and thus they may continue to benefit from assistance.

Organization of Response

· Site selection, planning and shelter have a major bearing on the provision of other assistance.

· This subject must therefore be considered as essential to a problem and needs assessment and response.

· Expertize is necessary, as is swift coordinated planning of a new site or the improvement of existing conditions.


15. Site selection, planning and provision of shelter have a direct bearing on the provision of other assistance and will be important considerations in the overall assessment of problems and needs and planning of response. Decisions must be taken as part of an integrated approach and in light of the advice of specialists and views of the refugees.

Contingency Planning

16. Ideally sites should be selected, planned and developed prior to the arrival of the refugees. However, frequently the scale, nature, timing or direction of movement of the refugee flow will mean that some or all aspects of a contingency plan may need to be modified in the face of changing or unforeseen events. The information previously gathered in the contingency planning process, however, will usually be useful.

17. Because of the nature of emergencies, and because practical and political considerations are often the primary determinant of the location of a site, the immediate priority will often be to improve sites where refugees have spontaneously settled.

Information for Site Selection and Planning

18. The information previously gathered from the contingency planning process, and information already available (maps and data) should be reviewed to assist in determining the range of options for sites. Information that is essential for planning will often be in the form of maps, reports surveys and other data and should typically cover such areas as topography, land use, climate, soils, geology, hydrology, vegetation, infrastructure and key natural and cultural resources. Sources of information may include government offices, educational institutions and UN agencies. UNHCR Headquarters, through the focal point on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) can also support operations with maps, aerial photographs, satellite images and a special geographic database.

Expertize and Personnel

19. Expertize may be required in the fields of hydrology, surveying, physical planning, engineering (e.g. water supply, environmental sanitation, road and bridge construction, building materials, etc.), public health, the environment and perhaps social anthropology. Familiarity with conditions in both the country of origin and asylum is very important. Prior emergency experience and a flexible approach are particularly valuable.

20. Expertize and advice should be sought through UNHCR's Engineering and Environmental Services Section, who will advise on the fielding of a specialist to coordinate activities in this sector. Potential sources of the necessary expertize are government line ministries, national and international NGOs, architecture and engineering faculties, local industry and professional organizations, as well as other UN organizations.

21. Site selection and settlement planning require broad consultations with all concerned in the planning, development and use of the site. When appropriate, multi-sector planning teams, work-groups or task-forces might be formed to better structure consultations and better solicit inputs. Consensus should be sought, though it is rare that the needs of all the parties will be fully satisfied.

Criteria for Site Selection

· Land may be scarce in the country of asylum and no site may be available that meets all of the desired criteria. If, however, the site is clearly unsuitable, every effort must be made to move the refugees to a better site as quickly as possible. Both the problems which result from a bad site, and the difficulties inherent in a move, increase with time.


22. The social and cultural background of the refugees must be a primary consideration and will be an important determinant of the most appropriate type of site and shelter. In many circumstances, however, choice will be limited and land that meets even minimum standards may be scarce. For uninhabited sites or areas where refugee settlement is proposed, it is wise to establish why the site was not already in use, and examine whether the reason - for example, no water or because it floods in the monsoon - does not also exclude use by the refugees.

Water Supply

23. A specialist assessment of water availability should be a prerequisite in selecting a site.

The availability of an adequate amount of water on a year-round basis has proved in practice to be the single most important criterion, and commonly the most problematic

A site should not be selected on the assumption that water can be found merely by drilling, digging, or hauling. Drilling may not be feasible or may not provide water in adequate quantity and quality. No site should be selected where the hauling of water will be required over a long period.

Size of Camp Sites

24. While there are recommended minimum area requirements for refugee sites, these should be applied cautiously and with flexibility. They are a rule of thumb for an initial calculation rather than precise standards.

Ideally, the recommended minimum surface area is 45 m2 per person when planning a refugee camp (including garden space). However, the actual surface area per person (excluding garden space) should not be less than 30 m2 per person.

The figure of 30 m2 surface area per person includes the area necessary for roads, foot paths, educational facilities, sanitation, security, firebreaks, administration, water storage, distribution, markets, relief item storage and distribution and, of course, plots for shelter. The figure of 30 m2 does not include, however, any land for significant agricultural activities or livestock. Although agricultural activities are not usually a priority during emergencies, small vegetable gardens attached to the family plot should be included in the site plan from the outset. This requires a minimum increase of 15 m2 per person, hence, a minimum of 45 m2 overall land allocation per person would be needed.

25. Large camps of over 20,000 people should generally be avoided.

The size of a site for 20,000 people should be calculated as follows assuming space for vegetable gardens is included:

20,000 people × 45 m2= 900,000 m2 = 90 ha (for example a site measuring 948 m × 948 m).

26. If possible, there should be a substantial distance between each camp. The distance depends on a number of factors: access, proximity of the local population, water supplies, environmental considerations and land use.

27. Refugee settlements should have potential for expansion to accommodate increase in the population due to natural increases or new arrivals. The excess of births over deaths means that the population could grow as fast as 3 to 4% per year.

Land Use and Land Rights

28. In most countries land for the establishment of refugee sites is scarce. Often, sites are provided on public land by the government. Any use of private land must be based on formal legal arrangements in accordance with the laws of the country.

Note that UNHCR neither purchases nor rents land for refugee settlements.

Headquarters should be consulted at once if this is a problem.

29. Once a possible site has been identified, the process of site assessment should always include clarification of land-ownership and land rights. Almost invariably, land rights or ownership are known, even though these may not be well documented in public record, or may not be obvious. Nomadic use of range-land, for instance, requires huge areas and may not look used.

30. The refugees should have the exclusive use of the site, through agreement with national and local (including traditional) authorities. Traditional or customary land use rights are very sensitive issues, and even if there may be an agreement with the national government to use a site, local groups may disagree with the site being used even temporarily. Clarification of access rights and land use restrictions is also necessary to define the rights of the refugees to:

i. Collect fuel-wood, and timber for shelter construction as well as fodder for animals;

ii. Graze their animals;

iii. Engage in agriculture or other subsistence activities.

Security and Protection

31. In principle, the granting of asylum is not an unfriendly act by the host country towards the country of origin. However, to ensure the security and protection of the refugees, it is recommended that they be settled at a reasonable distance from international borders as well as other potentially sensitive areas such as military installations.

The OAU Convention states: "for reasons of security, countries of asylum shall, as far as possible, settle refugees at a reasonable distance from the frontier of their country of origin"1.

1Article II, paragraph 6 OAU Convention.

Exceptions should only be made to this rule where the interests of the refugees would be better served, for example if there are good prospects for early voluntary repatriation, and security and protection considerations allow.

Topography, Drainage and Soil Conditions

32. Where water is readily available, drainage often becomes a key criterion. The whole site should be located above flood prone areas, preferably on gentle (2 to 4%) slopes. Sites on slopes steeper than 10% gradient are difficult to use and usually require complex and costly site preparations. Flat sites present serious problems for the drainage of waste and storm water. Avoid areas likely to become marshy or waterlogged during the rainy season.

33. Soils that allow swift surface water absorption are important for the construction and effectiveness of pit latrines. The subsoil should permit good infiltration (i.e. allowing water absorption by the soil, and the retention of solid waste in the latrine). It should be noted that very sandy soils which are good for infiltration are sometimes poor for the stability of the pit. Where drinking water supplies are drawn from ground water sources, special attention must be given to preventing contamination by pit latrines. The pit latrines must not reach into the ground water. The groundwater table should be a minimum of 3 m below the surface of the site.

34. Avoid excessively rocky or impermeable sites as they hamper both shelter and latrine construction. If possible, select a site where the land is suitable at least for vegetable gardens and small-scale agriculture.


35. The site must be accessible and close to sources of necessary supplies such as food, cooking fuel and shelter material. Proximity to national services is desirable, particularly health care services. Roads must be "all-weather" providing year-round access. Short access roads to connect the main road with the site can be constructed as part of the camp development. There may be advantages in choosing a site near a town, subject to consideration of possible friction between local inhabitants and refugees.

Climatic Conditions, Local Health and Other Risks

36. Settlement areas should be free of major environmental health hazards such as malaria, onchocerciasis (river blindness), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) or tsetse fly. A site may have unseen and/or irregular (but often locally known) risks such as flash flooding, or serious industrial pollution. For sites in dust prone areas, regular dust clouds can foster respiratory diseases. Emergency and temporary shelter need protection from high winds, however, a daily breeze is an advantage. Climatic conditions should be suitable year-round and careful account should be taken of seasonal variations: a suitable site in the dry season may be untenable in the rains. Likewise, mountainous areas may be suitable in summer, while in winter the temperatures may fall way below freezing. Seasonal variation can have a considerable impact on the type and cost of shelter, infrastructure, heating fuel and even diet. As far as possible, refugees should not be settled in an area where the climate differs greatly from that to which they are accustomed. For example, settling refugees from malaria-free high ground in a marshy area where the disease is endemic can be disastrous.


37. The site should have a good ground cover (grass, bushes, trees). Vegetation cover provides shade, and reduces erosion and dust. During site preparation, care should be taken to do as little damage as possible to this vegetation and topsoil. If heavy equipment is used, indiscriminate bulldozing or removal of top-soil has to be avoided at all costs. If wood must be used as domestic cooking fuel or for the construction of shelter, the refugees should be encouraged not to cover their needs at the site or in the immediate vicinity. Rather, a more dispersed pattern of wood collection should be encouraged, in coordination with local forestry authorities (see section on site planning and management of natural resources below). A quick survey of vegetation and biomass availability for these purposes should be undertaken. The site should not be located near areas which are ecologically or environmentally protected or fragile.

Site Selection Methodology

Obtain agreement among the planning team on site selection criteria;

i. Prioritize the criteria list;

ii. Obtain suitable maps and other information showing topography, road networks, land use and water sources;

iii. Determine site characteristics through site visits, identifying any potential flaws that would exclude use of the site (e.g. no water, flood-prone);

iv. Make simple estimates of the surface area of each of the potential sites, e.g. use vehicle trip-meter to estimate distances, or, if feasible, use other methods such as Global Positioning System (see chapter 11 on population estimation and registration);

v. Assess the implications of different layouts on the potential sites and rank the sites on the basis of the criteria list.

Site Planning: General Considerations

· The overall physical layout of a site should reflect a decentralized community-based approach focusing on family, village or other social groups.

· Site planning should use the "bottom up" approach starting from the characteristics and needs of the individual family, and reflect the wishes of the community as much as possible.


38. The physical organization of the settlement will markedly affect the health and well-being of a community. Good site planning will also facilitate an equitable and efficient delivery of goods and services.

Whatever the circumstances, the overriding aim must be to avoid high density refugee camps.

Master Plan

39. A "master plan" or overall site plan should show the overall configuration of the site, its surroundings and characteristics, and its location vis-a-vis natural and existing features including settlements. The plan should take into account the social organization of the refugees and principles of module planning, and should cover the following physical features.

40. Natural and existing features:

i. Contours (lines joining points of identical elevation are called contour lines);

ii. Rivers, forests, hills, flood plains, swamps;

iii. Rocky patches, sandy soils;

iv. Existing buildings, roads, bridges;

v. Farm land, electrical power grid, water pipelines.

41. Planned features:

i. Shelter areas, potential expansion areas;

ii. Roads and footpaths;

iii. Drainage system and terracing;

iv. Environmental sanitation plan;

v. Water distribution plan;

vi. Utilities, camp lighting, etc.;

vii. Administration areas;

viii. Educational and health facilities;

ix. Distribution points;

x. Feeding centres;

xi. Markets and recreation areas;

xii. Fire prevention breaks;

xiii. Agricultural plots.

42. A topographical and planimetric survey is crucial as the basis for site planning. The plan or map should have a metric scale between 1:1,000 and 1:5,000, and in case of large camps a scale of 1:10,000 or above. A topographical survey describes the physical features of a landscape (rivers, valleys, mountains). A planimetric survey describes locations within an area (e.g. the camp site).

Services and Infrastructure

43. The following are standards for services and infrastructure and should be referred to when preparing the master plan:

1 water tap


1 community (80-100 persons)

1 latrine


1 family (6-10 persons)

1 health centre


1 site (20,000 persons)

1 referral hospital


10 sites (200,000 persons)

1 school block


1 sector (5,000 persons)

4 distribution points


1 site (20,000 persons)

1 market


1 site (20,000 persons)

1 feeding centre


1 site (20.000 persons)

2 refuse drums


1 community (80- 100 persons)

44. There are two situations for which planning is required:

i. Reorganizing existing spontaneously developed sites;

ii. New sites.

The design standards to be applied should be the same in each case, although methods, approach and timing, may differ substantially.

45. Where refugees have spontaneously settled they may be understandably reluctant to relocate. In such cases involvement of representatives of the refugees in planning will usually facilitate a better understanding and acceptance by the refugees of priority changes. An early and clear demarcation of plots, including areas reserved for services, is advisable.

Comprehensive but swift planning is essential for a new site.

Modular Planning

46. Planning should start from the perspective of the individual refugee family. Begin by considering the needs of the individual household, such as distance to water and latrines; the relationship to other members of the community (other relatives, clan, or ethnic groups); and traditional housing and living arrangements. Developing the community layout in this way, and then considering the larger issues of overall site layout, is likely to yield much better results than beginning with a preconception of the complete site layout and breaking it down into smaller entities.

47. Thus planning and physical organization of the site should start from the smallest module, the family, and then building up larger units as follows:


Consisting of

Aprox. No.
Of persons


1 family

4-6 persons

1 community

16 families

80 persons

1 block

16 communities

1,250 persons

1 sector

4 blocks

5.000 persons

1 camp module

4 sectors

20.000 persons

These figures are indicative and should be adjusted according to actual conditions.

48. Modular planning does not necessarily mean using a grid layout for the site. The linear or grid layout, with square or rectangular areas separated by parallel streets, has often been used for its simplicity of design and speed of implementation. However, every effort should be made to avoid a rigid grid design which promotes high density settlements since environmental health problems and disease are directly proportional to population density. Whatever design is used should take account of the natural features of the site and of the identity of the refugee community.

49. The social organization, background and family structure, are all factors that will influence the physical layout of a site. Initially, this information, which is part of the basic problem and needs assessment should be gathered through discussions with the refugees and others knowledgeable about their society. A full socio-economic survey of the refugee population should be conducted once resources allow, and will be important in subsequent planning, particularly for self-reliance and durable solutions.

Environmental Considerations

50. Environmental considerations have to be integrated into physical planning and shelter from the very start of an emergency. Location and layout of refugee camps, provisions made for emergency shelter, and the use of local resources for construction and fuel, can have a major negative environmental impact. It is in the earlier stages of an emergency where the greatest environmental damage can occur:

This environmental damage has health, social and economic consequences for the refugees and local population, and can have political repercussions.


Rehabilitation effectively starts in the emergency phase, and the costs of environmental damage can be substantially reduced by early environmental action in an emergency.

52. In order to safeguard the welfare of refugees and local population by protecting their environment, the following steps can be taken:

i. Site selection: avoid environmentally protected areas. Where possible, a site should be located a day's walk from protected areas or reserves;

ii. Site preparation: preserve existing vegetation and top-soil;

iii. Camp density and size: generally, the smaller the settlements the better;

iv. Camp layout: the layout (particularly roads) should follow the contour lines. This will reduce erosion and preserve topsoil, and avoid the creation of dangerous gullies. A site layout that encourages clustered living arrangements (which can also promote security) promotes sharing of resources including cooking which reduces fuel consumption;

v. Shelter design (energy saving through insulation): In cold climates, with extended winter seasons where continuous heating is needed, passive energy saving measures, e.g. sufficient insulation of roof, walls, floors can be extremely fuel saving and cost-effective over time;

vi. Shelter and fuel: The materials for these often come from the immediate surroundings of the camp. It is crucial to initiate at the outset a system managing and controlling the use of local natural resources including wood for construction and fuel. Meeting the initial need for shelter materials from the local resources can be particularly destructive - so collection of such materials should be carefully managed, and/or materials should be provided from an alternative source.

53. A simple natural resources management plan should be drawn up as soon as possible. A key feature of a basic plan will be controlled harvesting and collection of fuel-wood and timber. This should be discussed with government bodies, such as forestry departments. Controlled fuel-wood and timber harvesting in the vicinity of the camp can include: defining certain areas and trees (by marking) which should not be harvested, allowing only dead wood to be collected; establishing an environmental awareness programme to define clear rules from the outset regarding harvesting fuel-wood and to encourage respect for the local resources; assigning responsibility for managing and harvesting certain areas to certain groups.

54. The decision on supplying fuel-wood from outside the vicinity of the camp (e.g. trucking in wood), how to supply it and the quantity which is necessary, must be taken according to the specifics of the situation. The organized supply of fuel-wood or other fuel such as kerosene can have complex repercussions and should be instituted with care. Organized supply of free fuel on a regular basis is only appropriate in certain circumstances: for example, where there are severe restrictions on fuel from other sources. Where fuel-wood is also readily available locally, its distribution free of charge from outside the vicinity may actually lead to increased consumption. In addition, refugees rely on local natural resources for income, therefore if free fuel-wood is provided for cooking purposes, collection of wood will continue for income generating purposes (e.g. the sale of fuel-wood or timber, charcoal making, etc.). To retain its value therefore, fuel-wood should generally be supplied in return for work.

55. The source and impact of wood supplied to the refugees needs also to be considered:

i. Is it being harvested sustainably?

ii. Are the environmental problems merely being moved elsewhere?

Care should be taken to prevent emergence of local monopolistic suppliers. Finally, it should be remembered that, if it is necessary to introduce free fuel supply in the initial stages of an emergency, it will be difficult to later modify such arrangements.

56. A more comprehensive natural resource management plan for the site and its immediate surroundings should be drawn up as soon as possible (with specialist advice if necessary).

Such a plan should be based on a baseline environmental survey.

The comprehensive natural resource management plan would cover, in addition to controlled harvesting of timber for fuel mentioned earlier: promotion of fuel saving stoves and fuel efficient cooking techniques, supply of key energy saving devices (e.g. lids with cooking pots, provision of mills or milled grain), awareness raising programmes, identifying the scope for better use of existing natural resources (e.g. using waste water, common areas, and areas around shelters), for kitchen gardens and tree planting, and reforestation where necessary.

Gender Considerations

57. In emergencies there may be a loss of normal community participation and the changes in demographic proportions may have altered values and principles. This may mean disruption of traditional mechanisms for the protection and assistance of women. This change of social patterns in refugee communities may also result in:

i. Increased numbers of female headed households;

ii. Large numbers of unaccompanied children;

iii. Shortage of men;

iv. Disruption of the extended family, with its role as social caretaker.

58. It is important that the needs of women are taken into account in site planning. It may be difficult to reach women if they do not traditionally form part of the leadership structure of the community. In such cases the community extension workers should be able to assist in obtaining views on the protection and security of women.

59. Among the refugees may be those who are unable to build their own shelters because of vulnerabilities. Specific actions should be taken to ensure that the refugee community themselves are organized to assist the more vulnerable refugees with their shelter construction.

Site Planning: Specific Infrastructure

· Under-estimation of surface area required for social infrastructure and communal services is a common problem.

60. At the start of an emergency it may be difficult to foresee all the administrative and communal services that are likely to be required. Where adequate space is available, free areas should be allocated for future expansion of these services. Under-estimation of the space required for future communal needs is a common problem in sites of limited area.


61. While water requirements often determine site selection, sanitation requirements often dictate site layout. High population density together with poor sanitation is a severe threat to health and safety of the refugees. This is often the case when sites have developed in an unplanned way. Minimal organization of basic sanitation should be introduced before reorganizing the site or transferring the refugees to a new site. This should include prohibiting uncontrolled defecation and the establishment of public latrines. Sufficient space must be left for replacement latrines. If communal latrines are unavoidable, there should be a plan for their maintenance and they should be accessible by road to facilitate this.

62. For all sites, new or reorganized, the goal should be one latrine per family. Only if the latrine remains under the control and maintenance of a family group is safety and hygiene assured in the long run. The ideal location of the family latrine is on the family plot, as far as possible from the shelter.

Water Supply

63. Where possible, the maximum distance between any shelter and a water distribution point should be not more than 100 m, no more than a few minutes walk. The layout of the site should contain the water distribution grid as an integral part of the service plan and the pipes should be underground. Water pipes should be kept at a depth that traffic or other surface activities do not cause damage (40 to 60 cm). In countries with very low temperatures, the pipes must be positioned at frost free depth (60 to 90 cm). Experience shows that water distribution to small, socially cohesive groups of 80 to 100 persons reduces water wastage considerably and reduces destruction of taps, standposts and concrete aprons. The water distribution point is more likely to be kept well drained and hygienic and the waste water used to irrigate communal or individual vegetable gardens.

64. Effluent and used water from water supply points should be well drained and eventually absorbed in soakage pits or gardens.


65. A site should have access and internal roads and pathways connecting the various areas and facilities. Accessroads should be all-weather roads above flood levels and have adequate drainage. If there has to be a significant amount of vehicle traffic on the site, it should be separated from pedestrian traffic. All structures, including fences, should be set back some 5 to 7 m from roads to provide adequate visibility for pedestrians and vehicles.

Fire Prevention

66. As a rule of thumb a firebreak (area with no buildings) 30 m wide is recommended for approximately every 300 m of built-up area. In modular camps firebreaks should be situated between blocks. This area will be an ideal for growing vegetables or recreation. If space allows, the distance between individual buildings should be great enough to prevent collapsing, burning buildings from touching adjacent buildings. The distance between structures should therefore be a minimum of twice the overall height of any structure, if building materials are highly inflammable (straw, thatch, etc.) the distance should be increased to 3 to 4 times the overall height. The direction of any prevailing wind will also be an important consideration.

Administrative and Communal Services

67. Buildings for administrative and communal services should be traditional structures, if possible of a multipurpose design to facilitate alternative uses. For example, buildings for initial emergency services could later be used as schools or other community facilities. The following list includes administrative and communal services most often needed, the division is indicative only - the importance of maximum decentralization has already been stressed. Whether centralized or decentralized, administrative and other facilities should be located and designed so as they are accessible to women as well as men.

68. Services and facilities likely to be centralized are:

i. Site administrative office;

ii. Services coordination offices for health care, feeding programmes, water supply, education, etc.;

iii. Warehousing and storage;

iv. Initial registration/health screening area;

v. Tracing service;

vi. Therapeutic feeding centre (if required).

69. Services and facilities likely to be decentralized:

i. Bathing and washing areas;

ii. Supplementary feeding centres (if required);

iii. Education facilities;

iv. Institutional centres (e.g. for the disabled and unaccompanied children, if required);

v. Recreation areas;

vi. Commodity distribution centres.

70. The location of the centralized services will depend on the specific situation and in particular on the space available. Where sufficient space is available, there may be clear advantages in having the centralized services in the centre of the camp. Where space is scarce, it may be better to have the centralized services located near the entrance to the camp. In particular, this will avoid the trucks delivering supplies having to drive through a densely populated site, with the attendant problems of dust, noise and danger to pedestrians. If some form of closed camp is unavoidable, at least the centralized administrative services will probably have to be located near the entrance. The warehouses should always be near the administrative office for reasons of security.


· Refugee shelter must provide protection from the elements, space to live and store belongings, privacy and emotional security;

· Blankets and clothing must be provided if necessary;

· Refugee housing should be culturally and socially appropriate and familiar. Suitable local materials are best, if available;

· Shelter must be suitable for the different seasons;

· Except for tents in certain circumstances, prefabricated or special emergency shelter has not proved to be a practical option on either cost or cultural grounds;

· Wherever possible, refugees should build their own housing, with the necessary organizational and material support.


71. Shelter must, at a minimum, provide protection from the elements, space to live and store belongings, privacy and emotional security. Shelter is likely to be one of the most important determinants of general living conditions and is often one of the largest items of non-recurring expenditure. While the basic need for shelter is similar in most emergencies, such considerations as the kind of housing needed, what materials and design are used, who constructs the housing and how long it must last will differ significantly in each situation.

72. Particularly in cold climates or where there are daily extremes of temperature, lack of adequate shelter and clothing can have a major adverse effect on health and nutritional status.

Thus, in addition to shelter, provision of sufficient blankets, appropriate clothing and heaters will be a high priority.

73. The first steps are to assess the adequacy of any emergency shelter arrangements refugees have already made themselves, and to meet immediate needs through provision of simple local materials.

The key to providing an adequate shelter is provision of a roof.

If materials for a complete shelter cannot be provided, provision of adequate roof materials will be the priority, as walls can usually be made of earth or other materials found on site or locally available.

74. Wherever possible, refugees should build or assist in building their own housing, with the necessary organizational and material support. This will help to ensure that the housing will meet their particular needs, will reduce their sense of dependence, and can cut costs considerably.

Type of Shelter

75. Individual family shelter should be always preferred to communal accommodation as it provides the necessary privacy, psychological comfort, emotional safety and a territorial claim for future security. It provides safety and security for people and possessions and helps to preserve or rebuild family unity.

76. Emergency shelter needs are best met by using the same materials or shelter as would be normally used by the refugees or the local population. Only if adequate quantities cannot be quickly obtained locally should emergency shelter material be brought into the country. The simplest structures, and labour-intensive building methods, are to be preferred. Materials should be environmentally benign or gathered in a sustainable manner.


77. At the beginning of an emergency, the aim should be to provide sufficient materials to the refugees to allow them to construct shelter meeting at least the minimum standards for floor space, which in emergencies are:

i. minimum of 3.5 m2 per person in tropical, warm climates, excluding cooking facilities or kitchen (it is assumed that cooking will take place outside);

ii. 4.5 m2 to 5.5 m2 per person in cold climates or urban situations including the kitchen and bathing facilities.

78. The design of shelter should if possible provide for modification by the occupants to suit their individual needs. In cold climates, for example, it is very likely that people, in particular children and old people, remain inside the shelter throughout the day, hence more space is required.

Plastic Sheeting

79. Plastic sheeting has become the most important shelter component in many relief operations. In urban areas roofs can be repaired with specialized UV-resistant heavy duty plastic sheeting. Windows can be repaired with translucent reinforced panels. Tents and emergency shelters can be covered with highly reflective UV-resistant woven plastic tarpaulins.

80. Wooden support-frames and stick skeletons for these shelters, if collected from surrounding forests, can harm the environment considerably. It is therefore important to always supply frame material (which is sufficient to support plastic). The frame material should come from sustained, renewable supply sources. Bamboo is ideal, if available. Standard specifications for plastic sheeting can be found in Annex 1 to chapter 18 on supplies and transport.


81. Tents may be useful and appropriate for example when local materials are either not available at all or are only seasonally available or for refugees of nomadic background. The life-span of an erected tent depends on the climate and the care given by its occupants; it may be as long as 2 to 3 years. Where tents are used, repair materials should be provided to the occupants. A group of tents may also serve as transit accommodation while more appropriate shelter is constructed. Standard specifications for tents can be found in Annex 1 to chapter 18 on supplies and transport.

82. Tents should be covered with an outer fly to shade and protect the tent below. The tent should provide free standing height all over the floor area. Tents are difficult to heat as canvas walls and roof cannot provide insulation against heat loss. However, it is possible to some extent to heat a good, well sealed tent, if enough heat is produced in a tent stove. This stove needs fuel (usually wood or kerosene) around the clock to maintain a comfortable temperature. The fuel cost will be high. Therefore tents are not suitable as cold climate shelters, but if there is no choice, they can save lives and bridge the time until more suitable shelters are established.

Prefabricated Shelters

83. Neither pre-fabricated building systems nor specially developed emergency shelter units, even winterized shelter units, have proved effective in large scale refugee emergencies. Reasons include:

i. High unit cost;

ii. Long shipping time;

iii. Long production time;

iv. Transport problems including cost of transport;

v. Inflexibility.

Usually emergency shelter arrangements will have been made before these systems can arrive.

Shelter for Cold Conditions

84. Climates where cold weather with rain and snow prevails over extended periods (3 to 5 months), demand that people live primarily inside a house. In particular, the more vulnerable persons such as the elderly, small children, the sick and the handicapped need heated, enclosed spaces.

85. Shelters which are sufficient to withstand cold conditions have to be of a high standard and are complex and expensive to build. The following should be considered:

i. Wind protection of walls, roofs, doors and windows;

ii. Insulated enclosed space, with simple dividers;

iii. Heating stoves;

iv. Structural stability (to withstand snow- and wind-loads);

v. Protected and heated kitchens and sanitary facilities.

86. To help people survive the impact of cold weather in an emergency, a strategy should focus on the following:

i. Individual survival.

It is extremely important to protect the human body from loss of heat. Particularly during sleep, it is important to be able to keep warm, by being able to generate and retain body heat with blankets, sleeping bags, clothing and shoes, and food with high calorific value;

ii. The living space.

It is very important to concentrate on a limited living space and to ensure that cold air can be kept out of this space. This can be done by sealing the room with plastic sheeting and sealing tapes. Windows and doors should be covered with translucent plastic sheeting, stapled on window and door frames. Large rooms should be subdivided, with the help of plastic sheets or blankets. New structures should be constructed with a sealed space to keep the cold air out. Walls, ceilings and floors of the living space should be designed to insulate from cold air and to retain warm air as efficiently as possible;

iii. Heating.

Keeping the inside of a shelter at a, comfortable temperature (15 to 19° C) depends to a large extent on the outside temperature, the type of construction, the quality of insulation, the orientation of the building, and on the type and capacity of the stove. Depending on these conditions, a stove with 5 to 7 kW performance should have the capacity to heat a space of 40 to 70 m2 in most cold areas. Usually the stove for heating is used for cooking and baking as well.

87. For reasons of safety, convection stoves are recommended over radiation stoves. Fuel efficiency is very important as fuel may not be readily available, and its supply can pose major logistical problems. Overlooking regular fuel supply in the beginning can have very negative environmental consequences.

Reception and Transit Camps

88. Reception and transit camps are used where it is necessary to provide temporary accommodation for refugees. These camps might be necessary at the beginning of a refugee emergency as a temporary accommodation pending transfer to a suitable, safe, longer term holding camp, or at the end of an operation, prior to repatriation, as a staging point for return. Reception and transit camps are therefore usually either intermediate or short term installations.

89. Whether the transit camp is used in an emergency or as part of a repatriation operation, the camp should be designed for short stays of 2 to 5 days and a high turnover rate.

90. The required capacity of a transit camp will depend primarily on how many people will be channelled through the camp and in what time. This will depend on the absorption or reintegration capacity at the receiving end as well as the total time foreseen to carry through the operation.

91. The primary criteria for site selection for a transit camp are:

i. Good access (road, port, airport);

ii. The availibility of water;

iii. Good drainage (minimum 2% slope);

iv. Adequate conditions for sanitation.

92. The transit camp must be strictly functional and equipped with considerably higher construction standards than regular refugee camps. Operational maintenance must be fully supplied through the camp management. In particular, cleaning and disinfection of accommodation and sanitation areas need to be carried out on a regular and ongoing basis. Prepared food should be provided and individual food preparation should be prohibited. The transit camp will therefore need kitchen facilities, wet food distribution and a hall for food consumption. In view of the expected short-term stay, a minimum of 3 m2 per person is needed.

93. Standards for the construction of transit facilities are:

Accommodation: in barracks, long houses (open plan or subdivision for groups/families of 5 persons) heated in cold climates. For example, a tent of 85 m2 can accommodate approximately 14 to 25 persons;

i. Sanitation: 20 persons per latrine, 50 persons per shower. Regular and intensive maintenance is required;

ii. Water supply: absolute minimum provision of 7 litres/person/day plus water required for kitchens, cleaning and sanitation;

iii. Food preparation: approximately 100 m2 per 500 persons;

iv. Storage: 150 to 200 m3 per 1,000 persons;

v. A public address system;

vi. Lighting;

vii. Arrival zones and departure zones which are separated from accommodation zones;

viii. Administrative offices and staff accommodation;

ix. One health post;

x. Security fencing (depending on circumstances).

Public Buildings and Communal Facilities

· Public buildings should be used only as short term accommodation to gain time to provide more suitable shelter;

· Right from the beginning, intensive maintenance of infrastructure and utilities should be provided;

· The UNHCR shelter standards should be applied.

94. Public buildings such as schools are sometimes used initially as shelter. This is particularly the case in cold conditions which demand very rapid shelter response.

95. Where possible such accommodation in public buildings should be a temporary solution. The supporting infrastructure of the building (water, electricity, sanitation) will deteriorate very quickly with concentrated use, to the extent that living conditions can become dangerously unhealthy. The buildings decay rapidly primarily because they are unsuited to such large numbers and lack the necessary infrastructure and utilities. In addition the very low sense of responsibility by its inhabitants contributes to the deterioration.

96. The normal use of the building has to be suspended with various social and economic consequences (the buildings might otherwise be used for example as schools, sanatoria, workers' or students' dormitories, sports halls and hotels). Both local and national governments are therefore reluctant to transform public buildings into humanitarian shelter.

97. In order to ensure a healthy environment, it is particularly important to ensure regular operational and preventive maintenance in public buildings. Neglecting to maintain a building from the outset can have serious health consequences for the refugees, and economic consequences for the host government.

98. The UNHCR minimum shelter standard of some 3.5 to 5.5 m2 per person should be applied, as well as the standard for public sanitation (maximum 20 persons per toilet/latrine). Public buildings, such as schools, are not equipped to serve the sanitation needs of large populations including basic toilet use, as well as personal hygiene such as laundry and cleaning dishes.