How Satellite Monitoring Can Help Protect Refugees

Elsa Barron, Christopher Elvidge, Feng Chi, Hsu, and Morgan Bazilian
Colorado School of Mines

Credit: NASA/

How Satellite Monitoring Can Help Protect Refugees

The number of people fleeing their homes around the world continues to rise, according to the most recent 2020 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Global Trends report. The report details that there are 82.4 million people forcibly displaced worldwide and 86 percent of refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad are hosted in developing countries. Many of those host nations have limited resources. Refugees living in camps often face extreme vulnerability because they are close to conflict zones, in protracted situations and unable to work or attend school freely, near areas prone to flooding and other climate disasters, and/or in overcrowded camps with inadequate sanitation infrastructure.

An example of this vulnerability is evident in the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, the largest refugee camp in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people from the persecuted Muslim minority group, the Rohingya, fled violence in Myanmar to their neighboring country, Bangladesh. Today, nearly one million of these refugees have settled in Cox’s Bazar, creating an under-resourced and densely-populated community that remains vulnerable to disaster.

Over the past year, Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar have faced massive fire, gang violence, and extremist militant activity. Over the past two months, a wave of assassinations against human rights activists in the camp has sparked widespread fear and demonstrated the continued influence of the extremist group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) over the streets of Cox’s Bazar. In addition to militant and gang violence, residents of the camp have reported increased police brutality and sexual violence in the crackdown against ARSA and other “bad actors.”

These experiences are not unique to Rohingya refugees. They are all-too-common stories shared by refugees living in camps across the world. Residents of refugee camps should not have to live in fear of violence. New and innovative solutions are urgently required.

The Colorado School of Mines is crafting one response to the plights of refugees worldwide through a satellite monitoring technology called Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite Lumen Watch. The technology is a prototype developed by the Earth Observation Group in order to monitor changes in nighttime light radiance in geographic locations of interest. Currently, the software monitors the light radiance of two refugee settlements: the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, and Al-Jufaynah Camp in Marib City, Yemen, which hosts thousands of people who have been internally displaced by the civil war.

Women and girls have been known to face an increased risk of gender-based violence in low-lit areas. The Lumen Watch monitoring site allows users to see real-time satellite images of the camps, which can be used to monitor and respond to events, such as power outages, as they occur. Additionally, the Lumen Watch has the potential to provide an emergency alert system for power outages, offering immediate information about changing conditions in vulnerable areas. The ability to visualize and quantify light concentration throughout the camp can also help humanitarian actors strategically target areas for community intervention in the medium- to long-term. The Lumen Watch monitoring site also offers a profile of the light radiance in the refugee camps over time. Data on light radiance values dating back to 2012 are available, making, the establishment and growth of these refugee camps over the past decade observable. The profile can be adjusted to exclude high moon and cloudy nights in order to view trends in the light radiance that can be attributed to human activity rather than other changing natural conditions.

With further research and investment, Lumen Watch and related satellite monitoring technologies can help protect the forcibly displaced and other vulnerable communities around the world. By offering near real-time light radiance information to on-the-ground humanitarian actors, Lumen Watch can enable more effective and targeted humanitarian responses to prevent violence, protect human rights, and establish resource-equity in refugee camps and beyond.

January 4, 2021


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