Refugee Environmental Protection Fund: fix or fiction?
How the UN plans on making money from environmental refugees.

There’s a bitter irony in paying environmental refugees to mitigate the climate change responsible for their own displacement in order to allow those responsible to continue with business as usual. 

Environmental disasters to 2022 have displaced more than 30 million people - more than half the total number of ‘internal displacements’. 

This number has been steadily rising for years, but the states most responsible for the climate crisis are refusing to make available the funds necessary to ensure the safety and security of those impacted. 

The international body responsible for refugees, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is in deep financial trouble, unable to fund its work. Yet no crisis goes to waste. 


The UNHCR is trying to resolve its own financial problems, as well as carrying out its mission (and addressing gender-based violence to boot), by turning refugees into revenue-generating assets. 

The result is the ‘Refugee Environmental Protection (REP) Fund’, a project that allows the UNHCR’s corporate partners "to invest in impactful reforestation and clean cooking programs in climate-vulnerable refugee situations". 

The fund isn’t just another pot of money to fund refugee camps – it’s actually a scheme to turn refugees into a source of carbon credits for global carbon markets and off-setting schemes. That is, a way to generate both profit for financial markets and a way to enable the very companies responsible for their displacement to keep on polluting.


The UNHCR has long been underfunded, but in 2022 its funding was severely at risk in its 12 most important operations. There are several reasons for the funding gap. 

First, forced displacement is rising: in 2022, an estimated 108.4 million people had to leave their homes “as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing the public order”. 

Of this number, 35.3 million are refugees, while 62.5 million are internally displaced. Second, there have been huge rises in basic costs, such as fuel, as a result of both the war in Ukraine and high inflation. In 2022, for example, the UNHCR expected to more than double its fuel expenditure.

At the same time, donors, which are generally wealthy countries such as Germany and the UK, have reduced their levels of spending, including donations to UNHCR. 

There’s a bitter irony in paying environmental refugees to mitigate the climate change responsible for their own displacement in order to allow those responsible to continue with business as usual. 

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency is increasingly turning to private funding sources, with the amount raised from private donors reaching $1bn in 2022, up from $412m in 2019.This situation will only worsen as climate change intensifies.


The REP Fund will support tree-planting and clean-cooking programmes in and around refugee camps. The intention here is twofold: first, to reduce the rate of already extensive deforestation in the environs of these camps; and second, to save camp residents, who are mainly women, the labour of collecting firewood.

The clever part of the plan is to register and verify the carbon impacts of these programmes. According to the UNHCR, these will generate “the first-ever large-scale refugee-generated carbon credits”, allowing the fund to become self-replenishing: the carbon credits generated by one scheme can pay for the next one.

Much of tree-planting labour will be performed by camp residents and local populations: thus, an added benefit is the creation of ‘green jobs’.

A carbon credit is basically an accounting trick. One person does something that reduces carbon emissions – plant a tree, say – and in return receives a ‘credit’ in their personal carbon ledger.

This credit can then be sold on a carbon market to a polluter – e.g. an oil company drilling off the coast of Namibia – that is seeking to ‘offset’ or balance out its own emissions. 


There’s a bitter irony in paying environmental refugees to mitigate the climate change responsible for their own displacement in order to allow those responsible to continue with business as usual. 

Beyond this, there are multiple reasons why carbon credits and offsetting don’t work. We have no reliable way of measuring the credits, or carbon debits: accurate carbon accounting simply isn’t possible. 

Often credits are generated for beneficial activities that would have happened anyway, or, conversely, for polluting activities that were already about to cease. In other words, companies can cash in on things they would have done regardless – business as usual. 

Where behaviour does change, its impact is frequently felt only in the future, while the polluting activity it ‘offsets’ is taking place in the present. 

And, of course, as with the case of environmental refugees, they tend to shift responsibility from the richest polluters – oil companies, say – to the poorest. 

Moreover, as recent investigations have found, many of the largest schemes are likely ‘junk’ or, as with the double use of Scottish forests, fraudulent. 


More than 90 per cent of the rainforest offsets sold by the world’s leading certifier are worthless: these projects simply don’t significantly reduce deforestation

Schemes to plant new trees often carry their own particular problems. Many projects fail, with saplings suffering 90 per cent mortality rates in some places. This means the promised carbon reduction never happens despite having already been sold.

Tree-planting projects can also have unintended consequences, such as changing how reflective the Earth’s surface is, reducing their positive benefits. Finally, they often displace other habitats and ecosystems, dry up water systems and displace local people, ironically contributing to growing numbers of displaced people.

These problems mean that the REP Fund joins a long list of other crisis-related financial offerings. Other examples include pandemic bondsextinction bondsloss and damage bondsresilience bonds, and catastrophe bonds. The common factor is that all these schemes seek to fix a particular problem created by racial capitalism or the imperial mode of living by fixing in place the social relations that led to the problem in the first place. 


In an attempt to constrain the ever-widening deforestation perimeter around refugee camps, clean cookstoves are at the heart of the REP fund proposals. 

These stoves also contain a promise to protect women, both sparing them the serious harmful health effects of polluting cooking methods, and safeguarding them from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). 

SBGV will be reduced, the reasoning goes, if women are spared having to spend long periods outside camps to gather firewood. 

However, there is scant evidence that clean cooking programmes in humanitarian settings either prevent women from collecting firewood or reduce rates of SGBV. 

Mainly this is down to a lack of measurement and vast underreporting due to stigma. It also reveals a built-in assumption that most SGBV takes place outside refugee camps rather than inside them, or within individual family settings.


Researchers Samer Abdelnour and Akbar Saeed describe this logic as the ‘rape-stove panacea’. 

Originating from a US-funded initiative in the Dadaab refugee camps on the border between Kenya and Somalia it later became a favoured ‘technical panacea’ for humanitarian settings more broadly, despite on-the-ground evidence that such programmes were ineffective. 

As Abdelnour and Saeed put it, despite the prevalence of SGBV in camps, including by UN staff and peacekeepers, "NGOs continue to promote technological innovations to reduce the time women spend outside of them". In other words, gender fixes fix women in place.

Since the Dadaab initiative in the late 1990s, many clean cookstove rollouts have been funded by the voluntary carbon market, despite research suggesting that the climate benefits of these schemes have been systematically over-estimated.

While purporting to protect women and reverse deforestation, these instruments inflict a ‘double-dispossession’ on poor women, who not only suffer most from climate change and the UN’s funding shortfall, but also have their unpaid labour appropriated in exchange for signing away their descendants’ rights to carbon credits.


The REP Fund may generate a little money for the UNHCR and it might contribute to the visible ‘greening’ of the UNHCR’s camps. But it will not solve the escalating problem of environmental displacement nor other problems arising from global heating and environmental degradation, including the insufficient funding for the institutions tasked with responding to these crises.

The REP Fund – and other similar schemes – will reduce neither carbon emissions nor deforestation. In fact, it risks making them worse, at a time when environmental displacement is increasing, while providing cover for those states and corporations which continue to trash the planet and super-heat the climate. 

This is why the REP Fund is a fix. It fixes corporations’ need to continue their exploitative, extractive and polluting activities. By privileging financial mechanisms as response to global problems, such as climate change, it fixes the dominant financial logics which already govern and constrain our lives. 

And the REP Fund also fixes displaced people in place, away from the borders of the wealthy countries of the Global North. It does all of the above by turning the problem of displaced people into a now-valuable asset. 

Of course, the voices of displaced and other marginalised and vulnerable people are rarely heard when such schemes are designed and implemented. Their consent is not sought. There is no mention of the costs to them of ‘participation’.

Looking beyond the edges of the green refugee camp, we can see what fate lies in store for those displaced people who refuse to stay fixed: a ‘hostile environment’ of razor wire, indefinite detention and deadly pushbacks at sea.

The greening of refugee camps and the creation of schemes that turn displaced people into financial assets is just the flip side of the global border regime. In both, people only count if it’s profitable for the companies and countries of the Global North.

These authors 

Dr Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer in management and ecological sustainability at the University of Essex. Dr Matilda Fitzmaurice is postdoctoral fellow at Lancaster University, with the Lancaster Environment Centre. Dr David Harvie is a political economist.

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