How Spatial Modeling Can Help with Refugee Aid

Mark Altaweel


The refugee crisis affecting the Middle East and Europe has become a major problem not only politically but also economically for states. GIS has been used to address the problem of allocating resources and constructing refugee camps. A recent paper has demonstrated that Turkey, one of the countries affected by a high number of refugees, could better allocated where it builds refugee camps by utilizing fuzzy analytic hierarchy process (FAHP) spatial algorithm approaches that look at multiple criteria, mainly geographic, social, infrastructural, and risk factors affecting regions.[1]

Other methods use spatial agent-based modeling to look at not only how aid might be distributed to refugees or those fleeing from disasters but how information about aid percolates through crowds and could affect how people react to aid. This was an approach taken that used the Haiti earthquake disaster and applies crowdsourced data to inform on crowd patterns and how aid agencies could better utilize their resources in order to respond to crowds.[2]

Refugees themselves could also help with bettering their circumstances it was found by giving them access to public participatory GIS tools that allowed them to create maps of their refugee camps and create stronger communities, particularly as camps transition from temporary to more permanent accommodations as various crises have continued.[3] In this approach, data are shared and users in the refugee camp can better inform each other on key information, such as where forms of help might be found, by creating paper map outputs from digital tools, particularly in camps where power and internet are not adequate.

Other approaches have focused more on what happens when refugees make it to a host country rather than simply providing for them as they flee a disaster. In one approach, GIS was used to look at distances between primary care doctors and newly arrived refugees using accessibility indicators. With an influx of refugees in San Antonio Texas, a strain on the medical system has developed. However, GIS can be used to locate more optimal placement of refugees by integrating healthcare data and apartments or places where refugees could be placed in order to estimate healthcare access based on such factors as travel time. The analysis also looked at specialists and different types of care provided, indicating where refugees with given ailments might best be located within the San Antonio area.[4]

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REACH uses GIS to map out need down to the household in Jamaica. From Westrope, 2013.
REACH uses GIS to map out need down to the household level in the Jamam refugee camp in South Sudan. From Westrope and Poisson, 2013 [5].


[1] For more on using a fuzzy analytical technique for allocating refugee camp resources, see:  Çetinkaya, Cihan, Eren Özceylan, Mehmet Erbaş, and Mehmet Kabak. 2016. “GIS-Based Fuzzy MCDA Approach for Siting Refugee Camp: A Case Study for Southeastern Turkey.” International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 18 (September): 218–31.

[2] For more on this agent-based approach to aid and natural disaster refugees, see:  Crooks, Andrew T., and Sarah Wise. 2013. “GIS and Agent-Based Models for Humanitarian Assistance.” Computers, Environment and Urban Systems 41 (September): 100–111. doi:10.1016/j.compenvurbsys.2013.05.003.

[3] For more on this public participatory GIS project, see:  Xu, Ying, Carleen Maitland, and Brian Tomaszewski. 2015. “Promoting Participatory Community Building in Refugee Camps with Mapping Technology.” In , 1–4. ACM Press. doi:10.1145/2737856.2737883.

[4] For more on this study on healthcare access for refugees, see:  Nicole J Wong, 2014. “Newly arrived refugee’s access to primary care physicians in San Antonio, Texas: Geographic Information Systems spatial analysis.” Texas Medical Center Dissertations (via ProQuest). Paper AAI1566381.

[5] Westrope, C., & Possion, E. (2013, May).  Using GIS as a planning and coordination tool in refugee camps in South Sudan.

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Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.