Refugee/Displaced Site Mapping

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A displacement site, usually known as a refugee camp, is a human settlement sheltering people who have been displaced due to violence, conflict, persecution or disasters. When displaced people cross an international border to seek safety, they are referred to as refugees and/or asylum-seekers. Displaced people can also flee to other locations within a country’s border, in this case, they are referred to as internally displaced people (IDPs).  

To reflect this diversity of profiles, including often within the same facility, and the variety of types of locations (from a formal camp to distributed residences in an urban area), the proper terminology  is therefore “displacement site”. However, in everyday vocabulary “refugee camp” being used much more widely, this article refers to both.

Though meant to be temporary, many sites around the world have existed for years, or even decades. sites hosting over a hundred thousand displaced people are not uncommon. They are usually built and run by governments, United Nations agencies or other international organizations and NGOs, but spontaneous sites also exist, and, in some situations may even consist of the majority of displacement sites in a country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN agency mandated to aid and protect refugees, internally displaced communities, and stateless people, plays a key role in the overall coordination and referencing of refugee sites.

With multiple actors supporting humanitarian response in some locations, having a common reference for addressing can aid communication and coordination. Using OSM is a low-tech, low-investment option for humanitarian actors. It offers a shared base reference system, but also allows decentralization. Actors and agencies can maintain and verify their own information, while still benefiting from a shared collective data repository from which to draw, and hence participating in the improvement of the overall efficiency and sustainability of information management of sites hosting displaced populations.

Before mapping any refugee site, ensure coordination with other actors within the humanitarian community, as to avoid duplication of efforts, assessment fatigue, safety and security issues, unnecessary burden on affected communities or any other risk of doing harm. While maps provide numerous advantages to delivering aid, the safety of the residents must come first. In some situations, managing data locally and not collecting it in OSM is the safest.

Why mapping sites hosting displaced populations on OSM?

Improving availability and quality of OSM data on displacement sites around the world, helps support humanitarian response:

  • OSM allows for open data on refugee sites to be quickly shared between humanitarian actors at the field and global levels as well as with local communities.
  • OSM can serve as a base map for agencies to download for field use with their own local data or specific site management tools and processes offline.
  • OSM database can serve as a common data repository, increasing data availability and access for the production of maps and spatial analysis that support decision-making and programming, ultimately contributing to the improvement of living conditions of displaced populations. Use cases for OSM data with high positive impact on displaced populations include planning camp extensions, filling the gap of access to basic services, identifying the most suitable area for the construction of new facilities, etc.


Below is a recommended data model built from past experiences of site mapping (cf. case studies section) which has been crosschecked and validated by UNHCR. The following set of tags is not exhaustive, but covers the most common and useful information and objects present in a displacement site. Not all are needed, but as many as possible (when known) should be used.

Refugee site location

Human settlement sheltering refugees and/or internally displaced persons The site should be a polygon covering the perimeter of the camp. If perimeter is unknown, use a point instead, or a polygon with a fixme="Check site boundary" with the best estimation of the site.

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
Displaced people site location refugee site amenity refugee_site approved tag:amenity=refugee_site
landuse residential de facto tag:landuse=residential
name (usually in local language) name <value> de facto Key:name
Site description english name (Use ISO code for other languages (fr, el, ar, etc.)) name:en <value> de facto Key:name
alternate name alt_name <value> de facto Key:alt_name
operator operator <value> in use Key:operator
operator type (government, ngo, military, etc) operator_type <value> de facto Key:operator:type
year of construction start_date <value> de facto Key:start_date
number of hosted population population <value> approved Key:population
capacity of the site capacity <value> in use Key:capacity


shelters are structures ranging from simple tent structures to caravan and solid construction.

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
Shelter shelter (if mapping remotly, prefer the use of generic tag) building yes approved Key:building
shelter (if field mapping or clear remote shelter identification) building house approved Key:building
transit shelter (shelters that host refugees/IDPs who are waiting to have a permanent shelter - often for multiple households) building house approved Key:building
amenity social facility approved Tag:social_facility=shelter
social facility shelter approved Tag:social_facility=shelter
Type of construction locally built dwelling/structure building hut de facto Tag:building=hut
tent building tent in use Tag:building=tent
caravan trailler building static_caravan in use Tag:building=static_caravan
Building material wall material building:material <value> in use Key:building:material
roof material roof:material <value> in use Key:roof:material

WASH Facilities

Water, sanitation and hygiene facilities

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
Water extraction well man_made water_well in use Tag:man made=water well
spring natural spring in use Tag:natural=spring
Water storage bladder/tank man_made storage_tank de facto Tag:man made=storage tank
content water de facto Key:content
storage capacity capacity in use Key:capacity
Water distribution tap stand amenity water_point in use Tag:amenity=water point
man_made water_tap approved Tag:man made=water tap
Water systeme pipeline man_made pipeline approved Tag:man made=pipeline
substance water approved Key:substance
pipeline's location location surface/underground/overground approved Key:location
Sanitation latrine amenity toilets approved Tag:amenity=toilets
flush latrine toilets:disposal flush approved Tag:amenity=toilets
pit latrine toilets:disposal pitlatrine approved Tag:amenity=toilets
chemical toilet toilets:disposal chemical approved Tag:amenity=toilets
shower amenity shower in use Tag:amenity=shower
wash stand amenity lavoir in use Tag:amenity=lavoir
facilitie access female/male yes/no Tag:amenity=toilets
Waste Management trash bin amenity waste_basket in use Tag:amenity=waste basket
waste collection point amenity waste_disposal de facto Tag:amenity=waste disposal
landfill landuse landfill in use Tag:landuse=landfill
recycling center amenity recycling approved Tag:amenity=recycling
recycling_type centre

Education facilities

Schools and other educational facilities can be for early childhood, primary, or secondary education

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
primary school amenity school de facto Tag:amenity=school
isced:level 1 de facto Key:isced:level
secondary school amenity school de facto Tag:amenity=school
isced:level 2 de facto Key:isced:level
high School amenity school de facto Tag:amenity=school
isced:level 3 de facto Key:isced:level
school's capacity capacity <value> in use Key:capacity

Health facilities

Facilities relevant to provide healthcare and treatment

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
hospital amenity hospital de facto Tag:amenity=hospital
health center amenity clinic de facto Tag:amenity=clinic
health post amenity doctors in use Tag:amenity=doctors
pharmacy amenity pharmacy approved Tag:amenity=pharmacy

Logistic facilities

Facilities relevant to the transportation, storage, and distribution of relief items, food aid, commodities, etc

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
distribution points
warehouse building warehouse in use Tag:building=warehouse
helipad aeroway helipad in use Tag:aeroway=helipad
airstrip aeroway aerodrome in use Tag:aeroway=aerodrome

Agency-use facilities

Facilities relevant to the administrative and programmatic activities of humanitarian organizations

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
site's entry entrance yes approved Tag:entrance=yes
registration / reception centre (can include transit shelters, registration desk, waiting rooms, warehouse for baggage0, toilets, etc.) amenity social_facility approved Tag:amenity=social facility
social_facility outreach approved Tag:social facility=outreach
government's office office government approved Tag:office=government
ngo office office ngo approved Key:office
outreach amenity social_facility approved Tag:amenity=social facility
social_facility outreach approved Tag:social facility=outreach
administrative area office yes Key:office

Social facilities

Facilities used by displaced population itself for economic, religious, and community purposes

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
economic marketplace amenity marketplace approved Tag:amenity=marketplace
shops building retail in use Tag:building=retail
shop <value> approved Key:shop
craft and workshop craft <value> approved Key:craft
farming perimeter landuse farmland approved Tag:landuse=farmland
religious mosque, church, temple amenity place_of_worship de facto Tag:amenity=place of worship
religion <value> de facto Key:religion
recreation and community purpose community center amenity community_centre approved Tag:amenity=community centre
communal kitchen amenity kitchen in use Tag:amenity=kitchen
outreach amenity social_facility approved Tag:amenity=social facility
social_facility outreach approved Tag:social facility=outreach
sport ground leisure pitch de facto Tag:leisure=pitch
recreation area leisure recreation_ground in use Tag:landuse=recreation_ground
playground leisure playground approved Tag:leisure=playground
targeted group (children, young, women, etc) *:for <value> in use Key:community_centre:for


Facilities often used by local law enforcement from the site’s host nation, internal camp security personnel, and international protection forces, such as UN peacekeepers.

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
checkpoints military checkpoint de facto Key:military
camp perimeter fencing barrier fence approved Tag:barrier=fence
police station amenity police in use Tag:amenity=police
fire station amenity fire_station in use Tag:amenity=fire station
lamp post / Street lighting highway street_lamp de facto Tag:highway=street_lamp

Facilities additional description

Categories Name Key Value Tag status Wiki hyperlink
Identification name name <value> de facto Key:name
alternative name alt_name <value> de facto Key:alt name
operator operator <value> in use Key:operator
operator type operator_type <value> de facto Key:operator:type
year of construction start_date <value> de facto Key:start date
Status (information to be added only if can be updated on a regular basis) operational operational_status operational proposed but in use (more than 60 000 use) Proposed features/Tag:operational status
defective operational_status defective proposed but in use (more than 60 000 use) Proposed features/Tag:operational status
closed operational_status closed proposed but in use (more than 60 000 use) Proposed features/Tag:operational status
under construction operational_status under_construction proposed but in use (more than 60 000 use) Proposed features/Tag:operational status
condition of facilities damage_status Key:damage_status (Taginfo)
outside lighting lit yes/no de facto Key:lit
capacity capacity <value> in use Key:capacity
building material building:material <value> in use Key:building:material
targeted group (children, young, women, etc) *:for <value> in use Key:community_centre:for

Contributing and Editing the map

There are two ways to contribute to the map, 1/ you can complete a base map remotely using satellite imagery or 2/ collect data on the field with OSM based applications. If you are a beginner on OSM we suggest you start reading the LearnOSM documentation.

Remote mapping

For beginner mappers, the best way to contribute to the effort of camp mapping is to participate in a mapathon, a collaborative mapping event where you will be trained on how to map.

CartONG regularly maps displacement sites as part of our partnership with UNHCR: you can check the places & dates of future mapathons on our wiki page!

For intermediate and expert mappers, here are some additional tips and resources:

Field mapping

It's recommended to contact an experienced organization (see next section) who can help you plan and configure your mobile data collection strategy and methodology. There are many OSM based solutions, also working offline to collect GPS coordinates and attributes directly integrated on OSM (OsmAnd, OSM Tracker,, OpenMapKit, etc.).

Importance to map the environment of the site

It's highly recommended to map the nearby areas of the site, especially host villages, spontaneous settlement around and significant natural features. Special attention must also be given when connecting minor roads to a larger scale road network. When possible, it is very helpful to identify nearby facilities, such as schools or health centers, even if they are not located within the perimeter of the site.

Such macro level information can help shape decisions on where to plan new extensions , where to position new basic services facilities and infrastructure, but also to define plot arrangement and the type of shelter construction.

Identifying refugee sites

The UNHCR Site Map allows to quickly identify the location of refugee sites, as well as data available in OSM on their location (as well as existing UNHCR data). It is referencing sites maintained by UNHCR as a GIS layer and comparing it with the OSM database. Sites are classified based on the presence in OSM of structural data (roads, rives, residential areas, etc.) and/or Points of Interest (health centres, schools, water taps, latrines, etc.), as well as on the presence of UNHCR data, either gathered from external sources (e.g. REACH) or collected through a site mapping exercise.

The site map only displays refugees camps & settlements and IDP camps & settlements listed by UNHCR, it does not include the full list of sites with displaced populations (inc. returnees, urban settings, etc.) which can be accessible on this REST portal.

Active humanitarian organizations contributing to improve refugee sites mapping on OSM


CartONG is one of UNHCR’s implementing partners for mapping and information management (IM) projects, supporting the agency in a large range of activities, in particular linked with OpenStreetMap The details of the project’s objectives, activities and examples of case studies are available on the dedicated project wiki page.

CartONG has also contributed to emergency activations following refugee crisis, in particular during the Rohyingia Crisis, and launched mapping projects on selected locations for other partners, in particular Solidarités International and Terre des Hommes.

Case study: refugee site mapping in Ethiopia

CartONG provided support to the Shelter and Settlement Section of UNHCR in 5 refugee camps in northern Ethiopia: MaiAini, Shimelba, Berahle, Aysaitta and Kebribeyah during the month of July 2019.

The first phase of the support occurred remotely with the organization of a dozen of Mapathons in France. In the second phase, the outputs of the Mapathons were used as a basis for the mobile data collection conducted in the field in order to gather exact locations and attribute information for camp infrastructure as well as additional information necessary for the shelter gap analysis. The third phase of the mission focused on providing data visualization tools to the end-users and sharing collected data back to OSM The objective was to help UNHCR, local communities and the government make more informed decisions by giving them a sense of the percentage of shelters in need of repair or the number and location of water points which are not functioning, the time required by refugees to reach the closest health facility within the camp and therefore clarify if new infrastructure needs to be added in the camp and where they should be positioned so they are built where it is most needed, or if a full camp extension needs to be planned. Read more details on the news on CartONG’s website.


Case Study:Refugee Settlement Mapping in Uganda

The Crowdsourcing Non-Camp Refugee Data is a HOT project on Mapping (non-camp) Refugee Data Through OpenStreetMap in Uganda, starting in July 2017 and scheduled to run until September 2018 with support from the United States Government - Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration - US Department of State. The project aims to improve program planning and service delivery to refugee communities, develop better integration with host communities, and build refugee self-reliance through open map data. The program trains and equips community leaders in refugee communities to map vulnerabilities and assets in the places they live, filling in key data gaps and “blank spots” on the map. These maps are created using techniques including crowdsourced data collection on mobile phones. The resulting multilanguage maps and map data are made openly available online in OpenStreetMap, on mobile phones for navigation, in printed form in refugee social/community centers, and provided to host country governments, PRM, UNHCR, and NGOs.

The data model can be found here.


Case Study: Refugee Camp in Jordan

In Jordan, Refugee camp are designed and planned by a dedicated unit. Surveyors are using the "Palestine 1923 / Israeli CS Grid" [1] to draw the camp master plans in Autocad.

For the initial data collection, REACH used use OpenDataKit Tags were selected from pre-existing tags from the Humanitarian OSM Tags/HDM preset.

UNHCR Jordan imported the first dataset for Zaatari Camp on 25 of June 2013 [2]. UNHCR Jordan then contracted REACH[3] to further map facilities within Za'atari Refugee Camp.

In April 2014, the map for Azraq has been pushed in OSM.

The two camps can be monitored through the following links:

Camp View in OSM Compare different rendering from this location Data Extract RSS Feed to monitor edits Dedicated page on UNHCR portal


Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) works around the world to provide refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) with everything they need, from psychological care to lifesaving nutrition. MSF teams conduct rapid needs assessments, establish public health programme priorities, work closely with affected communities, organise and manage health facilities and essential medical supplies, train local workers and coordinate with a complex array of relief organisations.

Since 2014 MSF is contributing to OpenStreetMap under the Missing Maps flag, and has contributed to mapping many refugee and IDP camps such as the Rohingya Cox Bazar refugee camps in Bangladesh, Goma IDP camps in DRC and the IDP camps around Galcayo in Somalia.