The Impacts of Access to ‘Nature’ on Refugee Wellbeing in Camps in Epirus, Greece
By Michaela Korodimou
Using a range of qualitative methods in refugee camps in the region of Epirus Greece, this paper investigates how access to nature impacts refugee wellbeing. A number of studies show an array of benefits generally arising from ‘contact with nature’, yet little work considers the impacts for refugees specifically, especially those living in camps. The results of this study indicate that the impacts of access to nature in this setting range from opening up a space for healing, stress relief, and freedom, to countering the loss of identity and agency that is commonly associated with forced displacement and encampment. Implications include both the practice-oriented proposal that authorities governing refugee management incorporate and apply these findings, and the more theoretical call for a reconceptualization of the concept of ‘rootedness’ in relation to space and territory.
When I first set foot in Katsikas refugee camp in mid-2016, two things immediately struck me. First, the sheer blandness of it all. Rows of white army tents on endless jagged stones, a dusty creamy-grey colour touching everything in the vicinity. One-thousand-something people, on an old airfield, converted to a refugee camp. Not close enough to the mountains to feel in them, nor close enough to the city to benefit from its amenities. Marginalised in a peripheral space, the closest village being Katsikas and the closest ‘nature’ being the snakes that plagued the camp.
Second, the gentle sprouting of life was notable, emerging in the gardens growing outside people’s tents. People had been here for just over a month: they had arrived from the islands, from seas and from war. There was no hot water to wash with and temperatures were reaching zero degrees Celsius at night. Most people did not even know where they were, let alone how long they would be here. Yet, despite all of this, through the simple act of planting a few seeds, many had already taken defiantly resilient action to take back some small level of control and connect themselves to this new, otherwise hostile place.
A wealth of literature exists regarding both the impacts of being a refugee (see Bhui et al., 2003; Fazel et al. 2005; Steel et al. 2009) and the ways in which proximity and access to nature can impact human wellbeing (see Kenniger, et. al. 2013 or Sandifer 2015). Studies have demonstrated that refugees face heightened rates of mental health issues including stress and anxiety as well as more social issues such as loss of identity, agency, and control. Access to nature has been shown to tangibly benefit wellbeing psychologically, physiologically, and socially (Kenniger et. al 2013). Despite the overlaps in the literature investigating the impacts of being a refugee and how proximity to nature can impact human wellbeing, there has been little academic focus thus far connecting the themes by investigating the ways in which access to nature impacts refugee wellbeing.
This paper draws upon field data gathered in refugee camps in the Epirus region of Greece between April 2016 and August 2017, which used qualitative methods to investigate how access to nature and natural environments impacts the wellbeing of refugees. First, the paper provides an insight into some of the issues faced by refugees living in camps and briefly reviews literature that shows how access to the natural environment is beneficial for wellbeing. Next, fieldwork findings are presented, contributing, in turn, to a discussion on how the current approach for planning and delivering humanitarian aid could be improved.
Nature and wellbeing
The whole idea of nature as something separate from human existence is a lie. Humans and nature construct one another. (Wilson 1992: 13)
Common conceptualisations which posit nature as separate to the self are problematic. Throughout this paper, the term ‘nature’ is used to denote a very generalised set of spaces, landscapes, and environments. The following paragraphs attempt to briefly address and justify this use of the term, and to engage briefly with its socially constructed characteristics.
In debates surrounding the commonly distanced and contested relationship between contemporary society and nature, two concepts play a key role: that of the ‘sublime’ and that of nature being ‘conquered’. The concept of nature being ‘conquered’ arose in the enlightenment period: authors such as Merchant (1996), Franklin (1999), and Vining and colleagues (2008) describe the dominant discourse of the time, namely the transformation of nature from desert wilderness to cultivated garden. This process of conquering has placed the natural at a point distanced from the self, entrenching the nature/culture dichotomy. This dichotomy is further reinforced by the notion of the ‘sublime’. From Plato to Kant and Burke in the 18th century, the concept has posited nature as something to be conquered and feared, but also revered. DeLuca and Demo (2000: 246) describe how, during the Enlightenment period, it was argued that, as God, the most sublime being, created nature, it ought therefore to be seen as a ‘pristine wilderness where one could glimpse into the face of God’ (ibid., 2000: 246). The central paradox to this way of thinking, Cronon (1996) argues, is that ‘wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural’. By celebrating the wildness of nature, the dualism is reproduced, setting the human, ‘culture’, and the natural, ‘nature’, at opposite ends of a socially constructed spectrum. Using the term nature to describe non-built environments such as forests, mountains, coasts, and even gardens, excluding cityscapes or areas of evident human influence, exacerbates this dichotomisation and accepts the binary placing of the terms in opposition to one another.
Whilst in many ways it would be preferable to use alternative terms, such as non-built environments, to avoid exacerbating these common problems associated with the term nature, in this paper, I decided to replicate the language of my informants. Thus, wherever the term ‘nature’ appears throughout the paper, it should be interpreted as denoting non-built environments (yet not entirely un-influenced by humans): including, but not limited to, forests, national parks, coasts, rivers, gardens, and more. This decision allowed for interviews to be conducted in English and for the ease of participants I did not probe this terminological issue.
In the same way that conceptualisations of nature are elusive and complex, wellbeing, too, defies easy definition. Whereas the Oxford English Dictionary defines wellbeing simply as ‘the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy’, the World Health Organisation (WHO) offers a more nuanced definition: The state in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her own community (WHO, 2014).
Measures of wellbeing employed in research literature are diverse. A number of variables categorise wellbeing into two dominant groups: hedonic, based in emotional valance, or eudaemonic, based in human needs (Nisbet 2011). The hedonic approach to wellbeing focuses on assessing the frequency of pleasant or unpleasant experiences, whereas eudaemonic variables concern indicators such as sense of purpose in life, personal growth, autonomy, and vitality. The latter typically capture aspects of optimal living that are perhaps less obviously pleasurable. My research adopts a broad approach that encompasses both hedonic and eudemonic indicators. Wellbeing is therefore seen here as encompassing a broad array of factors that contribute to the social, mental, and physical health of an individual.
In the following sections, the research is contextualised with regard to the camp setting. I consider how life in a refugee camp setting can impact factors contributing to overall wellbeing.
Theoretical Framework: The camp as a site of power and liminality
The following paragraphs frame the study by elucidating how the camp can be understood as a site of power and as exacerbating liminality. The impacts of these dynamics on the wellbeing of camp residents are explored.
The camp as a site of power
Since the Second World War, the ‘camp’ has emerged as the dominant model of refugee management (Rozakou 2012: 568). In principle a camp is designed to operate like a well-oiled machine: there are essential items to be dispensed, shelter to be provided and health to be monitored. Theorised as a ‘discursive and material site of power’ (Hyndman 2000: 87), the camp is a place where refugees are monitored and supervised. Delving deeper into the camp as a site of power, Foucault’s biopower is often drawn upon in the analysis of contemporary aid. The term ‘biopower’ is often used to denote forms of power exercised over life or control enacted upon living bodies. Scott-Smith (2014: 23) critiques the reductive manner in which authors use the concept and criticises the extraction of the term from its specific historical origins. While it is important to recognise the potential of the camp to exist as a ‘discursive and material site of power’ (Hyndman 2000: 87), for these reasons this paper will avoid using biopower to define the mechanisms at play in the camp.
The camp as a liminal space
Since the 1990s, interest has grown surrounding the connections between people, place and identity. Especially with regard to refugees, the relationships between people and place are increasingly drawn upon to describe the phenomenon of ‘uprooting’, for example in the work of Stepputat (1999) and Malkki (1992). People are forcibly moved from the particular locale with which they have intricate cultural and individual connections (Sørensen, 1996). In a somewhat essentialist way, culture is tied to place, understood as existing in fixed locations, with a unique and unchanging character (Massey 1994, in Brun 2001). Accordingly, displaced populations, especially those in transit, are seen, in Mary Douglas’ (1966) terms, as ‘matter out of place’ to be managed and dealt with accordingly.
Not only are people seen as out of place because of the places they have left, but also because of the places they have yet to arrive to. In Rites of Passage (1960), van Gennep describes a period between separation from a previous state in a social structure and subsequent incorporation into a new social state. The intervening ambiguous space in which people are no longer able to continue as the social beings they were but are not yet qualified to become new social beings is termed ‘liminality’. Kunz applies the concept of liminality to refugee camps:
He has arrived at the spiritual, spatial, temporal and emotional equidistant no man’s land of midway to nowhere and the longer he remains there, the longer he becomes subject to its demoralizing effects (Kunz 1973: 133).
Building on Kunz, Mortland (1987: 380) describes the refugee in the camp as existing in a state of ‘in-betweenness’. Finally, Geertz (1983) extends the concept of liminality by viewing it as a cultural system in which dependence is created and thus institutionalised.
‘Bare life’ is a concept based on Arendt’s distinction between ζωή (zoë) and βίος (bios), built upon by Agamben (1998). It describes the existence of life without any of the benefits of social being, a removal from political life. Whereas zoë denotes zoological life, the simple fact of living, bios is the biographical life, the life that is formed through events such that it can be narrated into a story. For Agamben, the notion of bare life is nested in zoë and homo sacer – the person in roman rule who could be killed but not sacrificed. In other words, bare life describes the person whose death may occur without the recognition of its loss.
It is in this way, through removal from political life as citizens and as a result of uprooting and in-betweenness that the camp becomes a liminal space, representing an attenuated form of governance where people are managed and controlled (Redfield 2000). It is unsurprising that this, combined with the harsh environmental conditions people often face whilst living in camps, presents an array of challenges. These include, but are not limited to, feelings of disconnection from place and people, loss of identity and agency, and mental health issues.
The impacts of access to nature on wellbeing
Nature relatedness is defined as the cognitive and experiential relationships which individuals have with the natural world (Nisbet, Zelenski and Murphy 2011: 304). It has been ascribed the capacity to ‘evoke meaning in life’ (from Hurly 2017: 262 in Howell, Passmore and Buro 2012) and to ‘predict happiness’ (Zelenski and Nisbet 2014: 16). In 1984, Wilson proposed his Biophilia hypothesis, proposing that psychological health is associated with people’s relationships with nature. His theories were founded on the intricate connections and relationships that people have with nature and the need to be near it. Since then a growing body of work has explored this hypothesis, providing nascent evidence in support of it.
In terms of psychological benefits arising from connections between human health, biodiversity, and access to nature, both Kenniger (2013) and Sandifer (2015) have identified various benefits. These range from improvements in general wellbeing to reductions in anxiety, tension, depression, dejection, anger, hostility, and stress. In support of these findings, others have found that ‘nature exposure and connectedness to nature were positively associated with psychological wellbeing and greater reported spirituality’ (Kamitsis 2013: 1).
Proximity to nature has also been found to benefit wellbeing. Morita (2006) found that hostility and depression levels decreased in participants and levels of liveliness increased in relation to the amount of time spent in the forest. Similarly, Sullivan (2004) examined the implications of green spaces on social interaction and found that increased social interactions were related to increased green spaces and the time spent in or around them (see also Park, 2009 and Li 2010). Finally, Mass and colleagues (2009) documented lower levels of anxiety and depression with increased proximity of homes to nature.
The need for research on access to nature in refugee populations
In order to understand the importance of access to nature on refugee populations, this section provides a short overview of the variety of wellbeing challenges faced by refugees living in camps. Amongst the plethora of mental health issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychotic disorders, anxiety, and substance abuse have been found to be most prevalent among refugee populations in camps (Bhui et al., 2003; Fazel et al., 2005; Steel et al. 2009). These studies differ in location, stage of resettlement, and cultural context, all of which impact the prevalence of mental health issues.
Post-migration stressors have been found to consistently predict levels of distress equally as powerfully as prior war exposure (Miller 2004). Ellis and colleagues (2008), among others (Sack et al., 1996; Miller et al., 2002; Heptinstall et al. 2004), emphasise the importance of post-migration stressors accounting for greater variance in levels of depression and anxiety than war-related experiences of trauma. While this does not discount the comorbidity between the two, nor the suffering experienced by losses associated with war, it highlights the importance of understanding the impact of environment and access to nature on refugee wellbeing.
Thus far, little work has explored how access to natural environments impacts refugee wellbeing in camps and its potential to alleviate post-migration stressors. The most relevant examples come from Canada, where Hurly and Walker (2017) examined the effect of nature-based leisure in fostering refugee wellbeing. Their study investigated how a two-day camping experience affected the wellbeing of refugee participants. They found that the excursion improved wellbeing and had a number of positive psychosocial effects. However, despite being the closest example of a study like this, as with most other related projects (such as those focusing on urban gardening with refugee populations) it did not study this in the context of the camp. Instead Hurly and Walker (2017) focus on refugee populations in the post-migration stage attempting to settle and integrate permanently, thus eliminating the liminal aspect of this study.
Browsing through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s (UNHCR) website section entitled ‘emergency priorities and related indicators’ (UNHCR 2019) there is no mention of access to nature. Perhaps more surprising, there is also no mention of dignity or agency. When thinking about the needs of refugees in camps, Agamben’s work (1998) is commonly invoked. Refugees residing in the camp are seen as needing to be merely kept alive, but the lack of nuance and complexity in the way that their needs are perceived is indicative of the barest of lives. Although designed as a transient space, the reality is that people spend many months, often years in camp accommodation. There is a need to investigate the ways in which wellbeing can be improved for people during their time in camps. Taking into account the literature on the numerous potential benefits that access to nature can have, an opportunity therefore arises.
Methodology and Findings
The following section presents a brief note on methodology and the findings of the field work. Four different categories, each with its own sub-themes, illustrate how nature and access to it impacts respondents. The results are presented with partial analysis, which is expanded upon in the discussion.
Setting the scene, positionality and a note on methodology
I arrived in Katsikas camp at the end of April 2016 where I worked as a field coordinator for a small NGO for several months and returned again in the summer of 2017 for two months to collect data for this project and work alongside another. A lot of the connections that have been used to gather data for this paper were created during the first period working in the region. Equally, many of my observations during that time shaped my desire to conduct this research.
For the purpose of this investigation, numerous projects and means of accessing nature were studied. These comprised several formally organised projects set up by NGOs and other organisations, as well as the informal ways in which people found to engage with nature through their own means. The formally set up projects consisted of gardening groups, hiking groups, and two scout groups; one in Katsikas camp and another in Agia Eleni camp (see map 1). Organised gardening projects were found in Habibi Works (a volunteer run community centre), and in the Konitsa, Tsepelovo and Fillipiada camps. Non-organised gardening is found everywhere; in small pots and in the ground surrounding the tents. Plants range from decorative flowers to vegetables to be eaten; there was little uniformity in what was found. The findings in this paper draw upon qualitative data gathered by studying these various projects and engaging with people who took part in them.
The methodological approach adopted herein is based on Glaser’s (1965) bottom-up approach of ‘grounded theory’. This implies having flexible and interactive feedback systems in the enquiry process, whereby the findings constantly inform the process of questioning. Data was collected using qualitative ethnographic methods including participant observation, semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, and a photo elicitation. I spoke with stakeholders in various fields, including NGO officials, volunteers, and refugees, both those living in various camps and in the city of Ioannina. Recruitment predominantly consisted of snowball sampling and networking on the basis that participants were in the post-displacement and pre-asylum stage, namely those being housed temporarily in camps or apartments in Epirus region.
The majority of these findings come from my work with the NGO Second Tree setting up a scout’s group in Agia Eleni camp. This facilitated twenty-three young people going on excursions, playing games, and learning about and engaging with the natural world. Participant observation in this setting shaped this research. On this basis, I conducted a photo elicitation activity with the older members of the scout group: ten youths aged seventeen and over. The activity involved each person receiving a disposable camera and being asked to follow a set of guidelines on taking photographs during the excursions. After the prints were developed, a discussion was held exploring the reasons for and meaning behind the captured photographs. All the data collected have been approved by the University of Oxford standard ethics approval committee.
Descriptive field notes are sometimes presented alongside the quotations. These are indicated by the use of square brackets. This narrative decision was made when I felt it was important to understand the ways in which the surrounding environment was impactful or important to the conversations being had.
A space for healing, stress relief, and freedom
Opening a space for healing
'In the camp you are a refugee, being helped, fed and guarded. In the face of nature, we are equal. It doesn’t matter what you wear or what job you do, the mountains don’t know, and the nature doesn’t care' (Interview with camp resident 2017).
In conversation with a volunteer concerning the way that she was being taught about gardening by two members of the refugee community, she highlighted how they were equal, not only to each other but in the face of nature. She described how, because of this equality, people started opening up, talking about the difficulties they faced and their plans for the future, confiding in her about things which they would not often tell other people. This theme was echoed across conversations with other respondents.
In another conversation, an NGO worker described the importance of projects that facilitate access to nature:
We went on an excursion to collect herbs, it was a very feminine space where the conversation went towards themes which are very difficult to talk about such as sexuality, and the female needs that they have. We also found out about a lot of issues which the women had but which they had not been able to tell anyone about such as UTIs [urinary tract infections]. That information came out because we were talking about the healing power of the herbs that we were collecting. They also spoke about their psychological issues. These are not conversations they have easily and the reason they came out was because we were in a more relaxed environment and they felt able to express themselves but they also found it much easier to do so through the use of the natural entities such as herbs and plants, and talking about how they could help them (Interview with social worker 2017).
Miller and Rasco’s (2004) work focuses on altering problematic settings to create environments that are better suited to people’s needs. For the residents of Katsikas camp, one of the ways this was done was by changing the setting and thus residents’ relationship to place in which they live. Despite having access to clinical methods of support, the women on the herb-collecting excursion felt they were not served by them, the social worker (quoted above) described how it was only when they went on the hiking trips that they really opened up and spoke about the issues they were facing. This is mirrored in the conversation with the volunteer who highlighted the equality felt between her and the people who participated in the project. For both cases, through altering their setting, the power balances that exist in traditional clinical settings of the patient and doctor were lessened and thus a space where people were able to start healing arose. It is possible that there is a gendered element playing a role in this finding. The social worker who described this to me emphasised the importance of the ‘feminine space’ and ‘female needs’. There were similar conversations with another psychologist who worked with a group of men. He spoke of the ways in which the participants often felt more able to open up and speak more freely about their feelings whilst out on the mountain hikes. This happened for the younger members of the population too:
Once, some kids were fighting, we brought them to the middle of the group and we told the other kids to talk with them peacefully. We told them to work as a team and figure it out. ‘Why are you fighting? What is the reason?’ they asked. ‘You come from all this difficulty and you want to fight’ one of them answered. The kids talked about it, young kids, you know, but they talked about it, in the end the kids were telling the ones who were fighting, ‘we are here, we are together, we are a family and a group.’ You really saw the impact of that, and they were suddenly all crying and immediately hugging each other. This was when we were on one of the trips to the mountain. These fights happened a couple of times, and both times it was really amazing to see them change. It happened because they were away from the camp away from the pressure and the stress (Interview with scout leader 2017).
In interviews and through the photo elicitation, the ways in which access to nature provided stress relief were evident:
I remember one kid was biting a volunteer in the face, he was stealing money and stuff. Bad things. He was stressed, seen lots of bad things. Then, when he came into the scouts, he changed completely. He said it’s the best thing I have ever done. He was free from the camp; he was free from his worries and bad memories. He was with his friends in the mountains, making friends with the nature and trees (Interview with scout member 2017).
For young people, engaging in activities such as mountain excursions with a local scout’s group or going on hiking trips to the woods allowed them a space to release these stresses.
I like the green, there’s so much green! It makes me feel good, I feel happy when I see the green everywhere. I get calm. [He laughs, looking at his photograph.] There was so much green, everywhere you look green green green – it’s very good for me (Photo elicitation participant, 2017).
Similar stories come from the adult members of the population. Two women shared their experiences with me:
I enjoyed leaving the camp, you know here you’re always busy working – it’s hard. The camp, for women it means work work work. If we get the chance to leave and go to the sea, it’s good. The camp – it’s hot. To be in the water, it’s good. To be in the water, you forget some of the worries, wash them away, we need that (Interview with camp resident, 2017).
My husband went on the trips with the scouts to the river. He came back happy, no stress, no worry –happy. It’s better for everyone (Interview with camp resident, 2017).
Although taking a walk in the woods or going for a swim in the river cannot make the very real worries and stressors people face disappear and cannot bring relatives closer or improve the dire state of the camp, it does seem to have cathartic potential. For the first scout trip that we organised with the group, we took fifteen young people to Pindos national park, to a dried-out river bed near an old bridge. It seemed somewhat irrelevant whether it helped to reduce their stress and worry or provided them with the chance to see a new part of the country, play games, and be free of the confines of the camp. They were jubilant.
Gardening helps me to escape - to escape from the camp, from my room, from my thoughts, from this space (Interview with camp resident, 2017).
It is understandable that for people fleeing from war, torture, and numerous other atrocities, the concept of freedom is one that is placed very high in the order of priorities. In almost all my conversations with people about their interactions with nature, freedom was always mentioned. This freedom manifests itself in diverse ways. For one man, it came in the form of the liberation of his wheelchair in the local river. For others, it meant freedom from their minds by being able to focus their energies into gardening or other initiatives. For the children on the scout trips, this freedom came in the form of physical distancing from the camp.
In different interviews, the concept arose in various ways:
For the children participating on the scout trips, everything is different. They forget the war, they forget the camp, they forget the tent (Interview with camp resident 2017).
In the camp, you are a refugee. Of course, everyone hates this word ‘refugee’, we all came from the war. In the camp people are cooking and working it’s not really nature in the camp - its full of stones, difficult to walk. In nature, you are not like you are in the camp. In nature, you are free (Interview with camp resident 2017).
It was always making me feel better, when I was in the mountain - I wasn’t remembering the camp or how I came there and all the things I’ve been through, I was focusing on the nature and how it made me feel free (Interview with camp resident 2017).
Keep the water flowing: facilitating connections to a new land and place
In the camp, we don’t see Greek people – well, apart from you and a few volunteers. We don’t know what Greek people are like, we don’t know what your country is like. Everyone tell me it’s beautiful, what beautiful? All we have seen is the camp, all our children know of Greece is the army. We don’t know if you have mountains with the trees the same as ours, or if the mountain air smells the same. We just know the dry camp and the heat. It’s very hot here. I hear that Greece is beautiful, but I don’t know it. I want to see it; I want to see more than just the camp, and when I go to Germany one day, I will be happy to know about Greece, too (Interview with camp resident 2017).
Forced liminality entails handing over agency and being forced to ‘accept the fact that you are a refugee’ (as people in Katsikas camp were told when UNHCR officials came to explain the process of applying for asylum in 2016), combined with the marginalised locations in which refugees are expected to reside. This has a powerful potential to hinder people’s ability to connect to the place in which they currently live. It is easy to argue that this is more important with the refugees who are likely to be denied access to relocation and will be forced to stay and apply for asylum in Greece. However, it is equally important for people for whom Greece is part of a longer journey to be allowed the space to connect with the land they find themselves in. By not incentivising and facilitating people’s connections to Greece, they are denied this connection. The natural world provides an excellent medium for processing the past and connecting to the present. On a walk with a teenage girl, she told me:
The trees make me think of home, at home I always had trees to climb in. Here, everything is different, here we live in a camp, the language is different, everything is different – except the flowers and the trees, maybe they look a little different, but I know they are the same [She pauses and looks around.] The mountains though, they are not the same [‘Why?’ I ask, surprised at her sudden change of tone and the frown on her face.] Because in Syria, the mountains, they had war in them, here they have no war. But the trees and the flowers, they make me happy (Interview with scout member 2017).
During the photo-elicitation discussion, a participant told me:
This is one of my favourite photos I took. It’s one of my favourite photos because this leaf makes me think of home. We have leaves like this too! We use them to make Dolma. I like this leaf from the river, it makes me think of home, it’s nice to have a leaf from home here (Photo elicitation participant 2017).
Another interviewee stated:
If the water doesn’t flow anymore, it is not useful for the people. We are like the water, we need to keep moving, keep learning, keep flowing. In the camp, we are like the water that doesn’t flow anymore, we need to start learning and doing things and flowing again (Interview with camp resident, 2017).
I was informed time and again about the multitude of ways in which the activities people engaged in relating to the natural environment made them feel more connected. These ranged from simply gaining an understanding of where they were by planning their hiking routes on a map to learning about the herbs in the local area and how they could use them. People also commonly found similarities with their home countries that they could relate to, such that cultivating and nourishing this new soil symbolised the creation of a connection with it: an act of putting down roots, if you will.
Marvelling at the broad array of shades and shapes of green in one camp resident’s garden, I asked him what he liked to grow, to which he responded:
Oh, everything: vegetables, flowers, Afghan things, Greek things. [He pointed to a new kind of seed he recently got, a Greek seed. He expressed how he was unsure what it would grow into but expressed his curiosity to see.] I like to watch them grow and to help them. I like to see it start from a small seed and to help it to grow into something big, something beautiful. It makes me feel like I have a home here, a purpose. I need to look after my plants, and you know, they also look after me (Interview with camp resident 2017).
The metaphorical images of uprooted people from their homes reflects a harsh reality of the displacement and liminality that refugees experience. It would seem a connection to the new soil could relieve, to some extent, the issues of uprooting, thereby helping people to become more grounded in the new place in which they have arrived.
Identity formation through connection to nature
In conversation with a psychologist working in one of the camps, we discussed the importance of identity and its multifaceted nature:
These people, for the past year and a half, they have been seen as refugees. Not Yannis who likes X, Y, Z and comes from this and this place. We are actively labelling them every day and asking them to identify themselves as a refugee. ... We should allow people to identify themselves by multiple identities. We need to allow people the space to feel empowered enough to rise up and ask for more, to take their lives into their own hands and to take control. Nobody is going to do that for them, they need to demand it (Interview with psychologist working in the camp 2017).
The findings from a variety of interviews with camp residents, members of the scout groups, and people of a varying ages spanning from 15-year olds to senior citizens, show that projects which allow people to engage with natural environments enable them to identify with more than just the refugee identity.
One person shared:
All the scouts have to decide on a promise to follow all their lives, it’s a scout
promise. There are ten different ones: I chose to be friends with the nature and not hurt anything in the nature. I think everything has a soul or a spirit and is part of nature, and nature is part of us, and I don’t want to hurt anything that I belong to. We are part of the nature and it belongs to a part of us. I feel that connection more in the mountain, because I am closer, and it is part of me (Interview with scout leader, 2017).
No longer just another one of the thousands of refugees trapped in Greece, this man identified with something. That something was intricately connected to nature and the land – an identification, which can be taken from the camps in Epirus to Finland and beyond:
When I go to Finland, I will join the scouts – it will be the first thing I do. I already checked, they have scouts and beautiful nature, it is part of me now, it is part of who I am (Interview with scout member 2017).
All the people here, they know – I am gardener. I like to grow everything. Everyone knows it. I am the gardener (Interview with camp resident 2017).
Malkki (1992: 34) refers to the way that ‘the term “refugees” denotes an objectified, undifferentiated mass that is meaningful primarily as an aberration of categories and an object of “therapeutic interventions”.’ If this is the case, then the creation or maintenance of identity is crucially important for people, who have found themselves ‘abstractly naked’ and ‘nothing but human’ (Arendt, 1972). The loss of nuance and individuality in the way that people’s needs are recognised and addressed feeds back into the cycle of further homogenisation and institutionalisation. The projects that I witnessed allowed people to counter this process of homogenisation in a number of ways.
Agamben (1995) writes of bare life and describes the person whose death may occur without the recognition of its loss. Through the process of identity creation as a result of interactions with nature, people are also interacting with one another. Programmes such as the scouts or hiking groups allowed for the interactions between people to be amplified, thus stimulating a sense of community and encouraging the involvement in a social, political life. Bare life, in this essence is rendered inapplicable to the people who now have something to belong and attach themselves to.
I like to be [a] scout, I am proud to be [a] scout and to go into the mountain, to be in the nature. I am now not [a] refugee, I am [a] scout kids (Interview with scout member 2017).
Control over nature and one’s own life: experiences with agency and empowerment.
In line with the themes outlined above relating to multiple identities and means of enabling individuals, the final finding relates to agency. It looks at how people’s interactions with the environment around them led to an enactment of agency, control, and corresponding feelings of empowerment.
Burke (1757) wrote of the sublime, describing an ‘intense passion rooted in horror, fear or terror in the face of objects that suggest vastness, infinity power, massiveness, mystery and death’ (in DeLuca and Demo 2000: 246). Koole and van den Berg (2005) build on this, arguing that nature may be simultaneously associated with both freedom and terror. Through self-regulation and rationalisation individuals have the opportunity to quell their fears, thus experiencing feelings of empowerment. This was evident for the people I spoke with.
I asked a participant, during a photo elicitation exercise, what had sparked her interest in the broken-down bridge, which was a recurring theme for many participants in their photos:
I like the bridge […] because it’s destroyed. I think it was done by nature; you can see the bits of the bridge in the river. [She contemplates for a second, looking at the photo in her hands, the others are nodding their heads in agreement.] I like it – to think how strong the river is, how strong nature is to break this big bridge. It makes me feel a bit scared, but also, I like it (Photo elicitation participant 2017).
I joined the scout group, and it was a moment in which I decided to take control of my own life. I decided to learn English and to focus on myself, and on my future, until then I had felt trapped, frozen, waiting waiting waiting, then one day we were hiking in the mountain, I looked around and realised how small I was but also how amazing it all was, and I thought – now it is up to me (Interview with scout member 2017).
Knopf (1987) explores how autonomy and mastery can be bolstered by nature-based leisure activities. In many of my interviews (such as the quote presented above), participants emphasised the importance of being able to have some level of control in one’s life, albeit small. The methods for finding this ranged from maintaining small herb gardens to whole garden structures (such as the one in photo 6, below, at the end of this section). Very often these mechanisms seemed to translate to a deeper form of empowerment that affected many levels of people’s lives. It allowed them to remember their own agency and reflect on how it felt to take matters into one’s own hands. Indicating the garden structure attached to the outside of their container, a woman told me of the ways her husband felt similar feelings of ‘do[ing] something’:
My husband – he built this for us. You know, here you cannot really do anything. In Iraq, I had just graduated university, I was an athlete. I tried to do stuff. Here I teach [a] dance class but here the women, they are too shy when there’s not a private space, here ... [She pauses and points around to the barren camp, the 40oC heat causing everything to radiate.] Here, nothing. We have nothing, no meaning, no jobs. We left because we are Kurdish, and we were persecuted. Here we are safe, but we are nothing. My husband, he built this for me and our baby. He built it to feel like he could do something, do something for us, for his family. [She looks at the garden and she laughs with a light joyfulness that shows how much pleasure it gives her.] He built this and now it is not so hot and, it makes him feel good! (Interview with camp resident 2017).
Towards a systemic shift: discussion and conclusion
With approximately 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide (UNHCR 2017), figuring out how to improve systems that directly affect the lives of such large numbers of people is crucial. This work has shown that there are a variety of outcomes for refugees that arise through allowing for and facilitating interactions with natural environments. These range from supporting mental health and allowing for a process of healing to occur, to supporting a connection to a new place, forming of multifaceted identities, and invoking notions of agency and empowerment. In line with this, several recommendations of change are proposed to the current systems of refugee management:
Consider nature-based therapy alternatives for addressing psychological distress;
Facilitate connections to natural environments for facilitating a connection to place;
Acknowledge the importance of promoting identity creation and agency;
Critically (re)assess space and locations of camps for alleviating liminality.
Nature-based therapy alternatives for addressing psychological distress of people living in camps
In line with Miller and Rasco’s (2004) theories on how alternative ways of engaging with place can create a more cohesive environment for dealing with psychological distress, this research has demonstrated numerous ways in which access to nature opened up a space for healing. As a result of the more collaborative group process of healing, compared to the traditional one-on-one approach of medical professional and patient, people were able to speak more freely about their issues and feel less isolated in their suffering. The majority of respondents reported having found relief from stress and anxiety by leaving the camp environment and becoming closer with the natural world. This is in line the work of Sandifer (2015) who found decreased stress levels in participants spending time in nature, as well as Mass and colleagues (2009) who found that reductions in anxiety correlated directly with time spent in natural environments. Notably, almost all participants also spoke of freedom when interacting with nature, affording temporary relief from the everyday stresses of refugee life and contributing to wellbeing. Building on Miller and Rasco’s (2004) ecological paradigm, nature-based interventions have the potential to transcend the traditional clinical setting and provide an alternative setting for healing to occur. The implications of this finding suggest that there are potential benefits to the incorporation of nature-based therapeutic interventions for supporting refugee populations. It is important to consider the ways in which such strategies could be implemented in camp settings.
Facilitating connections to natural environments for facilitating a connection to place
The metaphorical and literal concept of putting down or having roots somewhere involves intimate linkages between people and place (Malkki 1992). Malkki uses botanical metaphors to theorise how people find themselves rooted in places and how their identities are thus derived. The opposite of being at home is being ‘transplanted’ or ‘uprooted’. Tuan (1977) and Malkki (1992) consider the powerful sedentary narrative in our ways of thinking and the valuing of being rooted, so often reflected in our language and social practice. Connecting to nature also means connecting to place. A connection to place is important because it allows meaning to be given to people and the process of displacement to be made somewhat easier. Scholars such as Brun (2001) advocate for a ‘re-territorialisation’ referring to ‘the way displaced and local people establish new or rather expand networks and cultural practices that define new spaces for daily life’ (Brun 2001: 23). As alluded to earlier in the paper, refugees are often seen as uprooted victims who have left their homes and cultures, but there is little space in this standpoint to conceptualise multiple spaces of belonging.
Borrowing from Gupta and Ferguson (1992: 8), ‘the power of topography has successfully concealed the topography of power’. By challenging the dominant sedentary narrative composed of independent nations and autonomous cultures, a space is opened up for people to create meaningful connections to their new locales. Whether it be through planting gardens or hiking in the mountains, connections to land work to counter the power of topography and incentivise reterritorialization. Connections to nature allow people to gain a sense of belonging and grounding, thus countering that of uprooting. Through the planting of physical roots in the ground outside of their tents, people are caring for their own metaphorical roots and bringing the abstract space of the camp in which they find themselves closer to the ground. It is important to recognise the multiplicity of attachments that people form to place(s), through living in them, remembering them and imagining them (Malkki, 1997:71). One potential way of facilitating connections to place is through connections to nature and natural environments.
Promote identity creation and agency
The notion of belonging and creating an identity was particularly evident with the scout groups. Both adults and youth alike spoke of the importance that being a scout had on who they saw themselves to be. This allows for a multi-dimensional spectrum of identification, potentially countering the homogenisation of the camp system. As discussed in the literature review, the camp is a space which, through processes of power and liminality, invokes a sense of loss of identity. Through strengthening individuality and multifaceted notions of self, it is possible to alleviate experiences of loss of identity. In creating an identity that is connected to nature, people can engage with the natural environment in new spaces, thereby, easing the process of establishing connections to a new place. People are rendered agents capable of shaping places, which they feel entitled to shape and belong to.
Agency and empowerment were brought about through access to nature in two ways. On one hand, people were able to master something such as a garden or take steps to control the suffocating heat through the use of plants. On the other, through a feeling of vastness and the overwhelming greatness of nature, people were empowered to take control of their own lives. Amartya Sen defines agency as ‘what a person is free to do and achieve in pursuit of whatever goals or values he or she regards as important’ (Sen 1985: 203). For Sen, agency is intrinsically valued and ‘directly conducive to wellbeing’ (Sen 1985: 203). Whether it be through planting gardens to keep their homes a little cooler or invoking feelings of control in their own lives, in the face of natural environments, people were rendered agents. This aspect is critically important in terms of wellbeing. By recognising the multiplicity of identity and the need for people to have strategies to maintain a sense of control over their lives, practitioners have the potential to support populations in a number of ways. This paper calls for academics, policy-makers, and practitioners alike to acknowledge and take into consideration the critical importance of this.
A critical (re)assessment of the locations of camps
One focus group discussion took an interesting turn relating to when there may be too much nature. This discussion was with people who lived in apartments in Ioannina city, but had previously lived in very isolated camps, in the midst of Pindos national park. They spoke of isolation and feeling of abandonment and of nature being too much, surrounded constantly by trees such that they no longer saw or appreciated its beauty. Upon reflection, though, now living in the city, many reported missing the beauty of it. However, there was a general consensus that what they did not miss was how isolated they had been from everything. This contrasts with numerous examples of people talking about how dry and barren some of the other camps were. Together, these lead to the conclusion that it was not a case of ‘too much nature’ but rather of feeling too marginalised and isolated from society and its amenities.
As discussed earlier, liminality can be seen as a state of in betweenness. The process of gaining asylum is complicated and arduous, leaving people waiting for months and years at a time. There is no need for the physical locations in which people live to also be in a state of liminality – not quite in nature, yet not in the city either. By marginalising the spaces refugees are hosted in, they are forced into liminality and prohibited from connecting well to their new locale. In thinking about the geographic locations of camps, governments and NGOs would do well to remember the power of topography and the effects it has on people. This research has shown that access to nature is important for people, but that should not be an excuse to push them as far away from ‘culture’ as possible. This paper calls for a critical reassessment of the places in which camps are built and the access that populations have to a broad array of resources, including, but not limited to, natural environments.
The literature review highlighted a theoretical gap in the literature regarding how nature impacts refugee wellbeing. The findings presented in this paper have shown the diverse ways in which people engage in and with nature and are impacted by it. The themes identified through these findings correspond to a range of issues that refugees commonly face. These themes also link to ways in which authors have found access to nature to help humans around the world. The findings presented here have provided a starting point for the ensuing discussion regarding how access to nature can influence wellbeing, not only for the population of Epirus, but perhaps further afield. I have highlighted the importance of incorporating access to nature in improving the over-reliance on encampment in international approaches to forcibly displaced populations. Cumulatively, enabling people to access nature makes people more resilient and able to deal with multiple stressors and risks. My findings support, replicate and extend what has been shown elsewhere in related bodies of literature, namely the capacity of contact with nature to reduce stress, to invoke notions of freedom, and to support people’s perceived agency and control. A shift is needed in how access to and engagement with nature is valued in relation to supporting wellbeing, especially for populations living in refugee camps. Further research into the impacts of access of nature on refugee wellbeing would be beneficial. Meanwhile, I have argued for practitioners to incorporate these findings into their planning and work.
The scout kids always said, the happiest days in their lives were during the most difficult period of their lives - whilst living in the refugee camp. [He smiles broadly, seemingly surprised by what he himself is saying.] They were living in a refugee camp, but when they went on the scout trips, they had the happiest days of their lives! [I do not doubt it, I tell him sincerely, having seen for myself what an immense impact the trips had on the kids. We pause and look out across the lake. The mountains and the infamous Katsikas river in the distance.] I don’t know how to say in it English… [He smiles shyly. I encourage him with a nod of my head.] But all humans, in the past - we were living with the nature. When you are human, you have this idea in your mind... you will have this idea in your heart. To spend something like 24 hours in the forest, with your friends – we can wait in the camp for one month to just have this one day, one day to be happy. [He smiles and his face breaks into jubilant laughter.] (Interview with camp resident 2017)
Michaela Korodimou is a PhD candidate under the FNRS FRESH funding scheme at the Hugo Observatory and University of Liege. After a degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences, majoring in Anthropology and Development, Michaela went on to obtain a MSc in Environmental Change and Management from the School of Geography of the University of Oxford. Michaela’s interests come together at the intersection between climate change and migration. This is echoed in both her academic pursuits and her professional experiences. Initially working on a number of projects relating to climate change and indigenous knowledge for adaptation on the grassroots scale in East Africa and South America, she later delved into the field of disaster relief and migration, working in Greece as a field coordinator in refugee camps in the north of the country. Her PhD project investigates the ways in which an understanding of local decision-making processes and processes of placemaking in relocation decisions can support efforts to improve the use of migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change.
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