In conflict-affected parts of Africa, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are being used by humanitarian aid organizations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR – to plan relief responses and save lives.
According to UNHCR, drones are increasingly in use in countries including Niger, Burkina Faso and Uganda to help map huge populations of displaced people, assess their needs and figure out how best to get assistance to them. They are also being used to evaluate environmental damage caused by displacement.
“There are numerous peaceful applications of this technology, whether in human rights, aid delivery or settlement mapping,” says Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR’s Innovation unit. He notes that the potential use for drones is “overwhelming.”
UNHCR says the technology has come into its own at a time when record numbers of people have been uprooted from their homes by wars and persecution.
In eastern Niger’s Diffa region, for example, the need for enhanced information management has become increasingly urgent since Boko Haram attacks last June forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes or refugee camps.
As of late October, more than 250,000 men, women and children had been displaced since 2015 – many of them seeking shelter in up to 100 informal sites that had sprung up on either side of the main west-east highway from the capital Niamey, with some 20,000 in two camps, says UNHCR, adding that this includes internally displaced people, as well as Niger returnees and Nigerian refugees. Vulnerable to Boko Haram raids, the population is very mobile – making it difficult to track and map them as they move in search of safety and assistance.
UNHCR turned to a self-taught Nigerian drone maker, Aziz Kountche, to help understand the dynamics of the population movements. He created a simple but effective drone that looks like a model airplane, explains UNHCR.
The T-800 M, which has government authorization to operate in a frontline area, captured video and still images to convert to accurate maps of the new settlements – which will be crucial in supporting the humanitarian response across an area the size of Belgium, the organization says.
The small aircraft was used to provide detailed, bird’s-eye images of the two camps in the region, Sayam Forage refugee camp and Kabelawa IDP camp, and it revealed the considerable environmental damage caused by cutting firewood around the spontaneous sites in an area where two-thirds of the land is affected by desertification.
The next drone flight should take place early next year, the group estimates.
In neighboring Burkina Faso, where more than 32,000 Malian refugees remain four years after fleeing conflict in their homeland, UNHCR has been using a more sophisticated drone to monitor the needs of refugees. Many living in the arid Sahel region are too fearful of returning to Mali, despite the signing of a peace accord last year, says UNHCR.
At sprawling Goudoubo camp, home to some 9,640 refugees near the town of Dori, UNHCR recently piloted a quadcopter UAV over the camp’s 12-kilometer-long and five-kilometer-wide area. Unlike the Diffa drone, this one used a video camera to film the shelters, primary school, market, health center and road to Dori.
In this environment, the organization says, the use of the drone has provided invaluable video information on how to provide assistance and ensure a sustainable daily life in an area of very few natural resources and little infrastructure.
“Aerial views and camp mapping can help reshape our ability to respond to short-term and long-term needs,” notes Alpha Oumar, head of the UNHCR field office in Dori. “For instance, we could track the evolution of the locations of the shelters and the movements within the camps but also document the evolution of the environmental context and the available natural resources in and around the camps. This would also help better prevent and mitigate the risks of natural disasters.”
Meanwhile, in Uganda, which hosts more than half a million South Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers, UNHCR hopes to use drone technology to look at how refugee settlements grow and evolve. The project will focus on Bidibidi, which was opened in August and now shelters more than 200,000 people who have fled fighting that erupted in Juba in July. The machines will be used to show the settlement in various stages: from a small settlement in August to one of the largest refugee-hosting areas in the world.
For UNHCR, the projects in hand are likely just the beginning.
“We must recognize technological opportunities for the now and, more importantly, for the future,” Harper adds. “This is one example of technology coming online that we must utilize for the organization. If we can harness the potential of these interventions, we will not only do our job more efficiently but have a greater impact on persons of concern.”
Photo courtesy of UNHCR: An aerial view, taken by a drone camera, of shelters housing displaced people at the Sayam Forage refugee camp in Niger