World Humanitarian Day – August 19th 2015

Young boy with ShelterBox activity pack

If you are a refugee who has crossed a border to seek safety, international law offers you some protection. But if you are displaced within your own country, you are often beyond help. On World Humanitarian Day disaster relief charity ShelterBox considers the plight of the world’s ‘IDPs’

The benign-sounding acronym ‘IDP’ is jargon for ‘internally displaced persons’. These people are neither true refugees nor migrants. Because they have not crossed a border – often trapped within their own country by fear, poverty or warfare – under international law they are not the responsibility of the United Nations.

An estimated 33.3 million people have been driven from their homes within their own countries because of violence, according to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This figure grew by 8.2 million in 2013 alone, the greatest annual increase ever recorded. Conflict is the trigger for most families to run, but natural disasters – flooding, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, famine – also force millions from their homes each year. In 2013 almost 22 million people fled forces of nature within their own countries – the equivalent of one third of the UK’s population.

Shelterbox tents and Syrian refugees outside a village in Lebanon

Lebanon is home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees

International disaster relief agency ShelterBox provides shelter and vital supplies to families overwhelmed by conflict or catastrophe. Like other aid providers, it finds that IDPs fleeing conflict are among the hardest to reach. A team from ShelterBox plans to return to Iraq in the coming weeks to assess the ever-growing needs, both of refugees and IDPs. It will also consider its ongoing aid provision in Northern Syria, which is an entirely IDP issue.

ShelterBox CEO Alison Wallace says, ‘It is a sad fact of our modern world that tens of millions of people are uprooted from their homes as a result of violence or persecution. But not all these people are refugees or migrants. Those statuses apply only once they have crossed a border. The families and individuals trapped within their country of origin may be on the run for similar reasons, but there are crucial differences in how the international community is able to respond to IDPs.’

Once across an international boundary refugees will normally receive food, shelter and a place of safety. They are protected by international laws and conventions, and the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations such as ShelterBox work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives, maybe even eventually return home. Life may be harsh, but at least it is not without hope.

Alison adds, ‘By contrast, the internally displaced have little protection. Their domestic government may persecute them as enemies of the state, and they can fall prey to rebels and militias. Their fate is in the hands of others – homeless, hopeless, and often persecuted in their home country.’

Syrian school children hold their Shelterbox activity pack aloft.

With the help of Hand In Hand For Syria, ShelterBox has been able to provide aid to IDPs inside Syria

Under international law there are no specific legal instruments relating to IDPs, and there is no United Nations body dedicated to their needs. Charities can help, using determination, partnership and diplomacy, but their donors may be concerned about intervention in internal conflicts. There has been a long-running, but unresolved, global debate on who should be responsible for IDPs. UNHCR, set up to help refugees, is not specifically mandated to cover the needs of IDPs, although the Commission will occasionally find ways to oversee their protection and shelter. Some countries have also passed laws giving IDPs the right to social, economic and legal help. But these are rare.

ShelterBox has long been active in both Iraq and Syria. The UN estimates the number of people displaced by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq has now exceeded 3 million. Last August the world watched in horror as tens of thousands of Yazidi people were trapped in a siege on barren Mount Sinjar, having been forced from their villages. 300 men, women and children died of exposure before international aid reached them. Thousands were killed or kidnapped.

ShelterBox keeps prepositioned stock in Iraq, and continues working to provide shelter for Iraq’s IDPs in the Kurdistan region. But this is a harsh climate, with daytime temperatures currently of 50 degrees or more, and a punishing winter to follow.

In Syria the IDP drama has been unfolding for more than four years. 7.6 million people are thought to be displaced. There are 147 camps in Northern Syria sheltering only a very small fraction of them, just 40,000 households. ShelterBox has been getting tents and other non-food items into northern Syria since December 2012, using experienced in-country partners to navigate this dangerous territory. As the conflict has persisted over many years tents are now wearing out after long-term exposure to extreme sun and icy winters. These tents were meant to be for temporary emergency shelter, but with no ‘next stage’ solutions in sight, agencies have no option but to replace worn-out equipment. ShelterBox will offer replacement tents where it can, regardless of which agency was the original provider.

SchoolBoxes containing education equipment for makeshift schools have also reached pupils in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in the world. Aleppo is now crumbling as warfare and bombing take their toll.

ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Sam Hewett will be one of the team heading back to Iraq shortly. He says, ‘It is dispiriting to have to replace equipment that was only ever intended for short-term use, but there is no end in sight for these desperate families. We need to make them as comfortable as possible as another harsh winter approaches.’

Alison Wallace adds, ‘IDPs deserve our attention, not only because of their bleak existence, but because their status is so ill-defined in international law. Their need for safety, compassion and practical help is exactly the same as for those who have made it across borders to refugee camps, and if ShelterBox has the means to reach out to them, we feel strongly we should do so.’


If you would like support our work with refugees and IDPs around the world you can donate here:

ShelterBox Tents Await Iraqi Families Fleeing Sinjar Mountain

IRAQI KURDISTAN. SEPTEMBER 2013. ShelterBox has previously assisted families in Iraqi Kurdistan. (Simon Clarke/ShelterBox)

IRAQI KURDISTAN. SEPTEMBER 2013. ShelterBox has previously assisted families in Iraqi Kurdistan. (Simon Clarke/ShelterBox)

As the United Nations (UN) declares a ‘Level 3 Emergency’ for Iraq, ShelterBox partners with both the UN and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) to attempt to deliver vital shelter to families previously stranded on Sinjar Mountain. 

Thousands of people, mostly religious minorities, were left stranded atop Sinjar Mountain after being driven from their homes by the advance of Islamic State militants in the region. The rapid advance of militant fighters has thrown Iraq into crisis and has now led to overseas involvement in the form of aid interventions. The UN estimates that 1.2 million Iraqis have now been internally displaced by the crisis. ShelterBox has a wealth of experience in humanitarian responses in the region having been responding to the Syria crisis since early 2012.

The UN has issued a statement explaining ‘Given the scale and complexity of the current humanitarian catastrophe, this measure [declaring a Level 3 Emergency] will facilitate mobilization of additional resources in goods, funds and assets to ensure a more effective response to the humanitarian needs of populations affected by forced displacements.’

The severity of this crisis is not to be overlooked, today’s UN statement goes on to clarify that a Level 3 Emergency ‘represents the highest level of humanitarian crisis’.

In a week that has seen both the UK and US completing aid drops of food and water into the region, the latest announcement from the UN comes amidst growing concerns for what lies ahead for the families stranded atop Sinjar Mountain. Concern is also mounting for those families who have, in recent nights, fled the mountain under the cover of darkness and are now in search of shelter.

ShelterBox currently has prepositioned stock in Iraq and will be working with UNHCR and ACTED to move 500 UN specification tents to Duhok, near the border with Syria, to be used to establish a camp to provide shelter for internally displaced people (IDP’s) such as those fleeing Sinjar Mountain.

Although daytime temperatures in the region are currently high the ShelterBox Operations team are currently making provisions to supplement the current stock of shelter in Iraq with winterisation kits. This is more of a precautionary measure should the need for shelter sadly extend into the colder winter months.

You can help by donating here: PLEASE DONATE

Daw Kaw ‘Warm’ in Her ShelterBox Tent in Myanmar

Daw Kaw's family with their new ShelterBox tent, Myanmar, July 2013.

Daw Kaw’s family with their new ShelterBox tent, Myanmar, July 2013.


Daw Kaw* is one of the tens of thousands of vulnerable people who has lost everything due to the ongoing conflict in Kachin state in northern Myanmar.
The 42-year-old widow and her five children were forced from their home in Hpa Re village, Kachin province when a bomb dropped near their house while she was cooking, partially destroying it. Afraid for her family and her own wellbeing, they left, and have been living in the Border Point 6 internally displaced persons (IDP) camp, just on the Chinese border, for over a year.
‘We decided to send ShelterBoxes to Myanmar following our visit to Kachin in March where we discussed plans with local and international non-governmental organisations, United Nations, and government ministers for the distribution of emergency shelter,’ said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Alison Ashlin.
‘Our implementing partner the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) has been overseeing ShelterBox distributions to vulnerable families affected by the humanitarian crisis, like Daw Kaw and her children.’
The ShelterBoxes have replaced previous dwellings in the IDP camp that consisted of stick walls covered partially with plastic sheets and a plastic sheet roof.
‘Don’t feel the wind’
‘I don’t feel the wind blow and it’s much warmer inside than my previous shelter,’ said Daw Kaw.
Kachin is Myanmar’s coldest province. It even snows in the colder months. ACTED staff used a thermometer that showed there was an eight degree Celsius difference inside the ShelterBox tent from outside.
Daw Kaw also used to cook inside her old dwelling, which caused lots of smoke. She was pleased there was a tidy area prepared outside her new tent for cooking.
Essential aid
As well as the disaster relief tents, households at the camp also received other essential ShelterBox aid items like blankets, ground sheets and water filtration systems, bringing them shelter, warmth and protection.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the family


Syria ‘Fastest Evolving Internal Displacement Crisis’

Photo courtesy of Relief International. Internally displaced Syrian families living at Al-Salameh camp in Syria in tents provided for them by the camp management authorities, December 2012.

Photo courtesy of Relief International. Internally displaced Syrian families living at Al-Salameh camp in Syria in tents provided for them by the camp management authorities, December 2012.


A recent report shows that Syria is number one in the global list of countries where people were internally displaced last year due to armed conflict and violence in the region. 

According to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring (IDMC) report published earlier this week, 2.4 million people were newly displaced within Syria in 2012, taking the total of internally displaced persons (IDPs) around the world to 28.8 million, a record high.

The IDMC says until the conflict in Syria is resolved, displacement will continue to grow and estimates that a further 800,000 Syrians have been displaced so far this year, leaving the current figure at 3.8 million.

‘The crisis is in its third year and the escalation has gone beyond a tipping point,’ said IDMC spokeswoman Clare Spurrell. ‘The internally displaced are completely reliant on others, but host communities are themselves suffering from a lack of food, and diseases are breaking out… It’s the fastest evolving internal displacement crisis at the moment in the world.’

Only 430,000 Syrian IDPs have received humanitarian assistance from the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) as the conflict has escalated making it hard for humanitarians to help due to the dynamic security situation.

Bomb attack 

Whilst a truckload of ShelterBox aid is en route to Syria, a ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) is currently in the region exploring possible collaborative avenues of delivering the aid to IDPs within Syria. They are experiencing first-hand some of the security challenges.

‘Within the first few days of arriving in the region there was a Syrian air force cluster bomb attack about 500 metres from an IDP camp and 15 miles from our hotel,’ said SRT member Max Hogg (UK).

Another incident happened further east where Syrians who were prevented from exiting the country exchanged fire with border guards, raising concerns that the conflict could spill over into neighbouring countries.

Help families

‘Despite these attacks, we are going to continue to look for ways of getting the ShelterBox aid to help families in need in Syria by talking to various other non-governmental organisations working in the area.’

The ShelterBox aid sent includes water purification equipment, water carriers, insect nets, solar lamps, kitchen sets and SchoolBoxes containing children’s packs and activities. There are fears that tents supplied in the familiar green ShelterBoxes may draw attention, making displaced families a target for snipers or looters. So difficult choices have had to be made about which lifesaving items can safely be distributed without endangering the recipients.

It is thanks to the support of our donors that ShelterBox can continue to pursue operational and logistical solutions to this complex situation.

Update on Shelterbox’s Position in Sryia

A man carries his daughter as he walks in Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz August 29, 2012. Photograph taken by Reuters/Youssef Boudlal, courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – AlertNet.

A man carries his daughter as he walks in Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz August 29, 2012. Photograph taken by Reuters/Youssef Boudlal, courtesy the Thomson Reuters Foundation – AlertNet.

What started out as a peaceful protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the southern Province of Deraa in March 2011 has degenerated into a regional interethnic civil war. 

The growing violence, sectarian tensions and economic hardship has forced more and more Syrian families to flee not only their homes with around 1.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); but also their country with over 294,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, according to the latest report from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

With the escalating conflict now also hindering aid agencies going into Syria, how can ShelterBox distribute aid and help people in need?

With the restricted access to Syria, we have explored other avenues through the surrounding nations of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, but each has its challenges and limitations.

There are ShelterBoxes prepositioned with the Jordanian Red Crescent in the capital Ammam, which were originally going to be used to set up transit camps along the border to accommodate the influx of Syrian families into Jordan. Existing transit camps have been criticised by the international community for inadequate standards resulting in the Jordanian Government becoming wary of setting up future transit camps.

‘The Jordanian Red Crescent is working on alternative solutions with the Government of Jordan to set up a transit camp,’ said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Tom Lay.


‘Currently the security situation in Syria does not allow for a safe return by families and there is every chance they will become displaced again and even victimised for having received international assistance.

‘Therefore we will use the relationships between the Jordanian and Syrian Red Crescent societies, the latter being granted the most humanitarian access in Syria of any humanitarian organisations, to distribute our boxes on our behalf to families attempting to return to their homes in Syria once the situation allows for this.’

Safety of ShelterBox Response Teams (SRTs) and the practicalities of logistics are constraints for ShelterBox in the Arab region.

Read more here: SYRIA

ShelterBox Goes to South Sudan

A ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) is travelling to South Sudan on 29 June to discuss the distribution of emergency shelter with other aid agencies, in response to continuing conflict in the African country. 
Sudan split into two countries in July 2011 after the people of the south voted for independence. However there are still unresolved issues between Sudan’s Khartoum and South Sudan’s Juba, including disputes over the border around Abyei; and contestation over oil-rich areas. People have therefore become displaced from their homes.Not only this but people from the south who had been living further north due to displacement from more than 50 years of civil war are now being forced to return to South Sudan, from what have been their homes for decades. They have nowhere to go. ShelterBox is responding to fill this void and working towards bringing the displaced families shelter and dignity.
Conflict and drought has displaced hundreds of thousands in East Africa like these children in Kenya's Dadaab Refugee camp

Conflict and drought has displaced hundreds of thousands in East Africa, like these children in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee camp

SRT members Tom Lay (UK) and Tom Dingwall (UK) will be meeting with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development (ACTED) to coordinate a tent distribution plan.

Tom Lay says that collaboration is key in this response:

‘Given the complexity of the situation in South Sudan and the ever-changing developments in this ongoing crisis it is crucial that ShelterBox liaises with other actors in the humanitarian community. We must ensure that any ShelterBox response targets the people in most need efficiently, safely and in line with the wider humanitarian response strategy.

‘Multi-agency collaboration allows resources to be consolidated. This results in a more financially economical distribution of aid as organisations are accountable to each other as well as to their donors. The more support we can receive from other organisations means we can spend a greater percentage of each donation directly on the aid allowing us to provide more families with shelter.’

58,000 people are currently living in Yida, a refugee camp in Unity State that is close to the contested border, and approximately 1,000 more arrive each day. ShelterBox disaster relief tents are en route to the affected areas.