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5 myths about refugees and WASH

Katie Allen, WASH Department, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
04 Feb 2020

As of June 2019 there are 70.8 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their home as a result of persecution, war or violence, and a new person becomes displaced every 2 seconds.

41 million of these are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who remain within their home country, whilst 28.5 million are refugees and asylum seekers who have fled across an international boundary.
There exists many prevalent misconceptions about displacement which can lead to an ill-suited approach to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) service delivery. This is often financially and resource inefficient and can be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of the displaced population. This factsheet identifies and debunks 5 common myths surrounding displaced people, and highlights the implications that WASH practitioners must consider.


Myth 1: Refugees live in camps

The term refugee “camp” may conjure up images of seemingly endless rows of tents. The resulting perception that refugees live predominantly in temporary settlements away from towns and cities is, however, largely false.

UNHCR estimate that 61% of refugees and 80% of internally displaced persons (IDPs) live outside of managed camps and settlements.

This introduces new challenges to WASH service delivery and monitoring, and requires different solutions. Instead of implementing new, parallel, refugee-only systems we must invest in upgrading and expanding the capacity of existing WASH infrastructure and services in the villages, towns and cities that are hosting refugees to cope with the increased demand, which benefits both refugees and the host population simultaneously.

Myth 2: Refugees flee to wealthy countries

Media coverage can focus heavily on refugee influxes to wealthy nations – footage often shows boatloads of refugees landing on European shores or the “trains” of people arriving at the southwest border of the US border who are fleeing violence in Central America.

However in reality 4 out of every 5 of refugees in 2018 were registered in a country bordering their country of origin. In 2018 the world’s Least Developed Countries hosted 33% of all refugees, whilst Developed Countries hosted just 16%.  Additionally >99% of the world’s 41million IDPs are in Low and Middle Income Countries. In terms of relative burden, high income countries host an average of 2.7 refugees per 1000 people whist middle and low income countries host 5.8. Lebanon hosted the largest number of refugees relative to its native population, with 1 in 6 (or 167 out of 1000) people being a refugee.

The implication of this for WASH is that these oftentimes poor nations, who already have a reduced economic capacity to respond in comparison with wealthy nations, are bearing the brunt of the responsibility for assisting refugees. The additional population places strain on existing WASH infrastructure which may already be struggling to provide an acceptable level of service to the host population.

Myth 3: Refugee displacement is short-term

Refugee influxes to a country are often treated with inadequate, temporary solutions because it is believed that they will not stay for long. Whilst the intention is always that they will return once the situation resolves, this often does not happen quickly. The average displacement event is estimated to last between 17-20 years.  Considering ”protracted situations”, those in which over 25,000 people are displaced for more than 5 years-the average length of displacement is over 26 years, with some situations lasting more than 40 years! Additionally the number of displacement situations which are becoming protracted is on the rise; by the end of 2018 78% of all refugees were involved in protracted displacement situations.

This has major consequences for WASH service delivery. Treating refugee influxes as temporary results in temporary solutions, which are generally quick and cheap to implement, but become very expensive to maintain over time, such as water trucking. We must invest in long-term, sustainable, high capital cost, low operating cost WASH solutions from the very onset of a crisis to ensure that needs can still be met in 20 years’ time when global interest and funding decreases. We must adopt a more development-based approach to refugee assistance.

Myth 4: Refugees get treated better than host communities

Tensions can arise when host communities feel that refugees receive greater assistance – such as free food, water and medical care. Therefore it important to bring the service levels for refugees in line with those afforded to host communities. In places where WASH access for local people is poor, this means improving  their access up as opposed to limiting the service provision to refugees. It is therefore important to avoid creating parallel systems but rather to work towards inclusion of refugees into national WASH systems and ensure those systems are fit for purpose and meet national and SDG standards. It is also important to support refugee self-reliance by allowing them the right to work and the right to pay for their own services.

Globally refugees fall well behind the global average in terms of access to safely managed water and sanitation services. Sustainable Development Goal 6 aims for universal and equitable access to safely managed water and sanitation for all by 2030 with access globally currently estimated to be  71% and 45% respectively. Including refugees living outside of camps managed by UNHCR and its partners, preliminary estimates indicate that refugee access to safely managed water available on premises is at 35%, and to safely managed sanitation on premises is at just 17%.  Although these data are preliminary it suggests that refugees, and likely the surrounding host community are currently being left behind.

Myth 5: Refugees are an economic burden

Despite concern that refugees will pose a financial burden  to the nations where they seek asylum, research has found that accepting refugees actually boosts national economies. Refugees represent a diverse and skilled workforce of people willing to rebuild their lives and livelihoods as a solution to their own economic challenges. In many situations, the presence of refugees has stimulated local economies and development.

In Kampala, Uganda, a 2014 study found that 21% of refugees had businesses that employ other people, 40% of which are citizens of the host country. It was found that whether in urban areas or refugee camps many refugee-run businesses were highly innovative and networked.

In the United States it is estimated that the average refugee becomes a net contributor eight years after arrival and pay back $21,000 more in tax than they receive in benefits within the first 20 years.


It is vital that we understand the true nature of displacement situations in order to implement appropriate and effective WASH solutions. The emerging challenges facing WASH service delivery for displaced people over the coming decades will be the increasing number of displaced people living outside of typical camp situations as well as the increased displacement duration. Innovative solutions are required to overcome the challenges commonly associated with out-of-camp displacement, such as inequalities of service cost and service provision between refugees and host communities, and monitoring difficulties. Solving these challenges will require new partnerships between humanitarian, development and government actors to ensure the incorporation of refugees into long-term development planning, as well as the integration of WASH services for refugees into existing national systems. Only then can we achieve safely managed water and sanitation for all.

  1. Figures at a glance, UNHCR
  2. The 5 biggest refugee myths: debunked, World Economic Forum
  3. Global Trends, UNHCR
  4. The power of cities, UNHCR
  5. How Urban are IDPs and What Does that Mean for Their Economic Integration? Center for Global Development
  6. SDG 6 Data portal, UN Water
  7.  WASH Dashboard, UNHCR
  8. UNHCR Policy on Alternatives to Camps, UNHCR
  9. Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions, University of Oxford
  10. The economic and social outcomes of refugees in the United States: Evidence from the ACS, National Bureau of Economic Research
  11. UNHCR WASH Manual: Practical Guidance for Refugee Settings, UNHCR