Assembly Required: UN and Ikea Must Work Together to Build Solar Farms for Refugees

April 8, 2019
Natalie Awad

“Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.”[1]

– Khaled Hosseini

 

Introduction

The day Alan and his family left Syria, he wore his favorite red shirt. His mother said to him, “Our home is a jungle now, but we will return soon. We need to run away from the lion.”[2] Alan wanted to go everywhere, but he had nowhere to go. [3]  

In a barren desert area in northern Jordan with scorching summers and harsh winters, the Azraq refugee camp has been an internal haven for thousands of refugees escaping external aggressions of war, civil strife, and systemic disaster.[4] The Azraq camp, which opened in April 2014, is sixty miles east of the urban city Amman, an hour’s journey through miles of sand and the forlorn remains of ancient ruins. A uniform stretch of whitewashed metal caravans appear and a blue sign reads, in bold letters, “Azraq Refugee Camp.”[5]

The Azraq refugee camp houses thousands of Syrians—just like Alan and his family—fleeing the civil strife ravaging their homes. As the Syrian conflict creeps into its ninth year, more than 5 million people have fled conflict in Syria, many seeking asylum in the bordering countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.[6] Distraught both emotionally and physically from their journey, over fifty thousand “persons of concern”—a general term used to describe all people whose protection and assistance needs are of interest to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”)— have fled Syria’s civil strife and made their way to the Azraq refugee camp. [7] Azraq is the Arabic word for blue[8] and is a color that symbolizes the uncertainties felt among the inhabitants of the camp.

The Syrian refugee crisis poses a problem not only for Jordan but for society as a whole; the success, or failure, of the Azraq refugee camp could set a precedent for the treatment of refugees and other vulnerable populations in the future. A lack of electricity has been one of the main challenges impacting residents living in the Azraq camp, making daily activities such as cooking, washing clothes, studying, or walking safely to the washroom at night difficult.[9] To address these concerns, the UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation’s Brighter Lives for Refugees campaign funded an innovative solar farm that switched on in May 2017.[10] The UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation partnered together to build a solar farm[11] with solar panels on shelters for refugees in the Azraq refugee camp.[12] Thanks to funding from IKEA Foundation’s “Brighter Lives for Refugees Campaign”[13],  the solar farm harnesses energy from the sun and sends the energy to benefit the operation of the refugee camp and to the Jordanian national grid.[14] The national grid acts as a battery that stores the captured energy and shares it with refugees and the local population.[15] The significant question as to what will happen to the refugee camps after the people living in them leave, however, is still to be answered.

RENEWING INTEREST IN REFUGEE CAMPS

The solar farm brings renewable power that will contribute to the Jordan national energy strategy to achieve a green economy by 2020.[16] The Azraq solar plant in Jordan is the first refugee camp in the world to be powered by renewable energy.[17] This electricity, however, is connected to the Jordanian national grid and any extra electricity generated through the camp is sent back free of cost to support the host community, or Jordan’s, energy needs.[18] The collaboration between UNHCR and the IKEA Foundation is significant because it can serve as a “blueprint” for the cross between the humanitarian and renewable energy sectors.[19] Before the Azraq camp opened in 2014, most Syrian refugees who arrived in Jordan ended up in chaotic situations, especially at the densely packed Za’atari camp in Jordan.[20] As endless energy from the sun becomes a long-term solution for the Azraq refugee camp, however, the Jordanians and Syrians are left to wait—wait for the war to end, wait for the freedom to return home.

The UNHCR and IKEA project has good intentions. On one hand, it focuses on improving renewable energy; on the other hand, it changes how refugee camps are operated to provide relief for refugees due to the refugee crisis. This Azraq refugee camp project is an example of how the dual intentions may not be compatible because one interest is at the expense of the other. In other words, the Jordanian government is dehumanizing refugees by using them as commodities, or as means to further the energy initiatives of Jordan. Once the refugees vacate the camps and leave the solar panels behind, it will appear as if the Jordanians have effectively gained a new power plant. The panels will continue to produce electricity and send it to the Jordanian national grid, creating benefits that extend beyond the confines of the originally-contemplated refugee camp setting. Thus, the electricity from the solar farm on the refugee camp that is also connected to the national grid could be viewed as a form of exploitation of the refugee’s plight, requiring world-wide attention. If no one acts, other countries and renewable energy investors will see this as a golden opportunity to follow suit – other countries hosting refugees could get humanitarian efforts to pay for a solar farm and then siphon off the energy from it.[21]

CONCLUSION

A cursory glance at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan on its face appears to be a project to advance human rights espoused by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Because international law— unlike science—is an instrument made by men, it is essential that any reform of the law should consider the human factor and its condition. In this way, the law will be operating from a place of empathy. The protection of refugees and displaced populations are of vital importance in achieving lasting peace.[22] However, the 1951 Refugee Convention does not exist in a vacuum[23]; when focusing too narrowly on the law, the reason why a host country takes certain actions can become lost. It is imperative for the well-being of the natural environment and ultimately for humanity that Jordan pay for any energy produced from the solar farm on the refugee camp and use the money towards the resettlement of refugees, implement a plan to recycle the refugee shelters, and become a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Whether the intersection of renewable energy resources and the resettlement of refugees will succeed is a question that is unanswered because there is no end in sight for the Syrian refugee crisis. The downside effects of the exploitation of the physical presence of refugees will be the price to pay for progress in the development of new forms of renewable energy. But progress unchecked by any kind of ethical compass will lead to destruction.

The day Alan and his family left Syria, he wore his only pair of shoes. That day, he and his family set sail on their ship on waters as blue as the sky. Alan squinted up towards the sun, then looked for God.

 

[1] Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books, 2007).

[2] The lion referred to in this hypothetical story represents Bashar al-Assad, the current President of Syria. Al-Assad in Arabic means, “the lion”.

[3] This hypothetical is inspired by the true story of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed ashore the sands of Turkey, was photographed and turned the world’s curiosity towards the Syrian refugee crisis. See generally Diane Cole, Study: What Was The Impact Of The Iconic Photo Of The Syrian Boy? NPR (Jan. 13, 2017, 4:06 PM), http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2017/01/13/509650251/study-what-was-the-impact-of-the-iconic-photo-of-the-syrian-boy.

[4] See Anna Pujol-Mazzini, Jordan’s Azraq Becomes World First Clean Energy Refugee Camp (May 17, 2017, 11:56 AM), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-jordan-refugees-energy/jordans-azraq-becomes-world-first-clean-energy-refugee-camp-idUSKCN18D27V.

[5] Id.

[6] See Syrian refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help (last updated Mar. 15, 2019), https://www.worldvision.org/refugees-news-stories/syrian-refugee-crisis-facts.

[7] Syria Regional Refugee Response, http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/settlement.php?id=251&country=107 (last updated Sep. 18, 2017).

[8] Arabic learning resources, http://arabic.desert-sky.net/colors.html.

[9] UNHCR and IKEA Foundation, Azraq, the world’s first refugee camp powered by renewable energy, (May 17, 2017), http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2017/5/591c079e4/azraq-worlds-first-refugee-camp-powered-renewable-energy.html.

[10] Id.

[11] A solar farm is a term commonly used to describe a collection of photovoltaic solar panels. Most industry representatives and government agencies refer to solar farms as utility-scale solar applications. There is no official number of panels installed or acres of land used that qualify a project as a solar farm, though an output of one megawatt of power has been cited as a common standard. Renewable Energy a series on alternative energy sources, available at https://www.montcopa.org/DocumentCenter/View/5049 (last visited Nov. 11, 2017).

[13] The “Brighter Lives for Refugees” campaign ran between February 1 and March 29 in 2015 in more than 300 IKEA stores in 40 countries. For every LED light bulb purchased in participating stores, the IKEA Foundation donated one euro to UNHCR. Proceeds from the campaign funded the construction of a solar farm to meet the energy needs of 27,000 residents of the Azraq camp, and will eventually benefit the wider host community. From these proceeds, the two megawatt solar photovoltaic plant will allow UNHCR to provide sustainable electricity to over thousands of Syrian refugees living in nearly five thousand shelters in the Azraq camp. The solar plant cost 8.75 million euros and is entirely funded by the IKEA Campaign; so far, the Campaign has raised 30.8 million euro for UNHCR projects. http://www.unhcr.org/brighterlives/.

[14] IKEA Foundation, (last visited Oct. 15, 2017), http://www.unhcr.org/brighterlives/.

[15] Id.

[16] UNHCR and IKEA Foundation, Azraq, the world’s first refugee camp powered by renewable energy, (May 17, 2017), http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2017/5/591c079e4/azraq-worlds-first-refugee-camp-powered-renewable-energy.html.

[17] Leggi L’articolo, Azraq is the world’s first refugee camp powered by solar energy, (May 29. 2017), http://www.lifegate.com/people/lifestyle/azraq-refugee-camp-solar-energy.

[18] Brighter Lives for Refugees, (Jan. 18, 2016), https://www.ikeafoundation.org/campaigns/brighter-lives-for-refugees/.

[19] In architecture projects, the blueprint process begins when someone creates a drawing on a translucent tracing paper or cloth. The drawing is placed over a piece of blueprinting paper, which has been coated with a mix of chemicals[19] to from an aqueous solution and dried. When the two papers are exposed to a bright light, the two chemicals react to form an insoluble blue compound called “blue ferric ferrocyanide”, or Prussian blue. This process eerily mimics the experience of the refugees in the camp: as the solar panels are exposed to the sun, the solar cells form electricity to light up the Azraq camp, a camp which is symbolically blue.

[20] Adam Taylor, Refugee camp is partially empty while thousands wait at Jordanian border (Mar. 11, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/refugee-camp-is-partially-empty-while-thousands-wait-elsewhere-in-jordan/2016/03/09/f0320cf0-e16c-11e5-8c00-8aa03741dced_story.html?utm_term=.37ac1472a96c.

[21] On November 13, 2017, Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp followed the lead of the Azraq camp and made the switch to clean energy with the inauguration of the largest solar power plant ever built in a refugee setting. Marwa Hashem, Jordan’s Za’atari camp goes green with new solar plant (Nov. 14 2017), http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2017/11/5a0ab9854/jordans-zaatari-camp-green-new-solar-plant.html.

[22] S. Alex Cunliffe and Michael Pugh, UNHCR as leader in humanitarian assistance: a triumph of politics over law? 195 (1999).

[23] There is much controversial debate over who constitutes a “refugee,” as the term is not defined sufficiently in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  This debate serves as a backdrop to the Syrian refugee crisis and the successes and failures of Jordan’s Master Energy Plan. Additionally, the definition of a “refugee” in the 1951 Refugee Convention will have legal implications that are applicable to international, energy, and refugee law. Unfortunately, the Memorandum of Understanding between the UNHCR and the government of Jordan in light of the legal issues exposed does not offer any relief to the ambiguity of the “refugee” definition.


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