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Camp site planning minimum standards

Key points
  • UNHCR discourages the establishment of formal settlements and (whenever possible) prefers alternatives to camps, provided they protect and assist people of concern effectively.
  • Shelter should be adapted according to the geographical context, the climate, the cultural practice and habits, the local availability of skills as well as accessibility to adequate construction materials in any given country.
  • Due considerations should be given to the operational phase. What may be deemed adequate during an emergency in terms of shelter (for example plastic sheeting, tents) and average camp area per person cannot be regarded as adequate in a protracted displacement situation.


This entry provides key information on minimum standards and best practice which should be referenced and consulted when developing planned settlements / camps as part of a refugee emergency response.

Generally, a sector specialist covers shelter and settlement needs assessment, analysis and site planning during the first phase of an emergency response.

Often a reception or transit centre is necessary for temporary accommodation at the beginning of a refugee crisis. Refer to entry on Transit Center standards for more information on these standards.

These guidance notes outline the minimum standards required to ensure planned settlements enable refugee communities to live with security and dignity in a healthy environment which improves their quality of life.

UNHCR Master Plan Approach to Settlement Planning Guiding Principles is a key reference when defining a settlement response. The choice of settlement location is a critical decision which will have significant impact on the protection and well-being of displaced people, as well as broader local development. While a well-positioned settlement can have multiple protective benefits and contribute to local development, a settlement in the wrong geographical location can threaten the protection and assistance of displaced persons and have negative consequences for local development and the peaceful coexistence of communities.

Main guidance

Emergency standard

There are several indicators determining the adequacy of shelter for refugees and displaced persons. (See links below for additional information).

2.1 Indicator
Average camp area per person: The size of a camp and area per capita is critical in the planning of camps as crowded conditions lead to increased morbidity and stress. The provision of adequate space, both outside and inside shelters is an essential requirement

The ‘average camp area per person (Sqm.)' indicator measures the average living space to which a person has access in a camp. This space should accommodate all services while promoting dignified living:

Indicator: Average camparea per person (Sqm)
Howshould this indicator be measured:
45 sq. m
Acceptable Range:
≥ 35 sq. m
Unacceptable Range:
34 - 30 sq. m
Critical Range:
≤ 29 sq. m

A minimum surface area of 45 Sqm per person including household gardening space should be allocated.
30 Sqm per person will be necessary for roads, foot paths, educational facilities, sanitation, security, firebreaks, administration, water storage, distribution points, markets, storage of relief items and, of course, plots for shelter. It excludes however, any land for significant agricultural activities or livestock. The remaining 15 Sqm per person is allocated to household gardens attached to the family plot which should be included in the site plan from the outset.

2.2 Emergency standard
The design of planned settlements follow SPHERE emergency standards. The table below defined the minimum standards to be applied.

Description Minimum Standard
Covered living area 3.5 sqm. Per person minimum

In cold climates and urban areas more than 3.5 sqm. may be required(4.5 sqm. to 5.5 sqm. is more appropriate)

Minimum ceiling height of 2m at highest point
Camp settlement size 45 sqm. per person (incl. kitchen and vegetable garden)
Fire Safety 30 m firebreak every 300 m

Minimum 2 m between structures – use 2 times the height of the structure as an appropriate distance.
Gradient for camp site 1 to 5 %, ideally 2 to 4%
Drainage Appropriate drainage needs to be put in place, especially relevant in locations that experience a rainy season or flash floods.

Table 1 - Minimum standards for planning camps

Site planning should begin from the scale of the individual refugee family, addressing needs at household level, such as their distance to water, access to communal services, recreation facilities, access to showers and latrines, waste management, etc

It is advisable to consider the social structures and relations within persons of concern, including clan, tribes and extended family arrangements, as well as their traditional settlement layouts and shelter preferences. This consideration will yield a greater degree of satisfaction, and sense of ownership.

The following table uses the family unit as the smallest planning ‘module' and builds up to larger units:

Module Structure Approximate number
Family 1 x family 4 ‐ 6 persons
Community 16 x families 80 persons
Block 16 x communities 1,250 persons
Sector 4 x blocks 5,000 persons
Settlement 4 x sectors 20,000 persons

Table 2 – Indicative modular planning units

The following are recommended site planning standards for services and infrastructure and should be referred to when preparing the camp layout:


Description Standard Further consideration
Communal latrine 1 per 20 persons - emergency phase Separate latrine areas for men and women
For long-term accommodation use one household latrine per family
Latrine distance Not more than 50m from shelter and not closer than 6m Latrines must be close enough to encourage their use but far enough to prevent problems with smells and pests
Shower 1 per 50 persons Separate, well drained, shower areas for men and women
Water supply 20 litres per person per day  
Water tap stand 1 per 80 persons 1 per community
Water distance Max. 200m from household No dwelling should be further than a few minutes' walk from a water distribution point
Rubbish container of 100 litres 1 per 50 persons 1 per 10 families
Refuse pit – 2mx5mx2m 1 per 500 persons 1 per 100 families
Health centre 1 per 20,000 persons 1 per settlement
Include water and sanitation facilities
Referral hospital 1 per 200,000 persons 1 per 10 settlements
School 1 per 5,000 persons 1 per sector
3 classrooms, 50 Sqm.
Distribution centre 1 per 5,000 persons 1 per sector
Market place 1 per 20,000 persons 1 per settlement
Feeding centre 1 per 20,000 persons 1 per settlement
Storage area 15 to 20 Sqm. per 100 persons Refugee storage
Lighting As appropriate Consider priority locations such as latrine, wash areas, public service areas
Registration area As appropriate May include arrivals area, medical clearance, distribution, parking
Administration / office As appropriate  
Security post As appropriate  
Security fencing Depending on the circumstances  

Table 3 – Site planning standards for services and infrastructure

2.3 Site selection criteria:
Sites for planned camps should be selected in consultation with a range of sectors, including WASH, protection and supply, as well as with technical specialists such as hydrologists, surveyors, planners, engineers, and environmental engineers. Developing an inappropriate site or failing to develop a site to standards can result in further displacement causing unnecessary further loss and distress to persons of concern and may put some people/groups at further risk. Refer to the UNHCR Master Plan Assessment Template, which includes the Site Assessment Form to help you define suitability of a given site.

The operational context will determine site selection criteria. In general, however, the following factors need to be considered when selecting sites for refugee settlement:

Topography, drainage, soil
  • The topography of the land should permit easy drainage and the site should be located above flood level. Rocky, impermeable soil should be avoided. Land covered with grass will prevent dust. Wherever possible, steep slopes, narrow valleys, and ravines should be avoided.
  • Ideally, a site should have a slope of 2%–4% for good drainage, and not more than 10% to avoid erosion and the need for expensive earth‐moving for roads and building construction.
  • Avoid areas likely to become marshy or waterlogged during the rainy season. Consult national meteorological data and host communities before making a decision.
  • Soils that absorb surface water swiftly facilitate the construction and effectiveness of pit latrines.
  • Subsoil should permit good infiltration (permit soil to absorb water and retain solid waste in latrines). Very sandy soils may have good infiltration; but latrine pits may be less stable.
  • Pit latrines should not penetrate into the ground water. The groundwater table should be at least 3m.below the surface of the site.
  • Avoid excessively rocky or impermeable sites as they hamper both shelter and latrine construction.
  • If possible, select a site where the land is suitable for vegetable gardens or small‐scale cultivation.
Water resources
  • Choose locations that are reasonably close to an adequate source of good water, and ideally near high ground that has good surface water run-off and drainage. Once located, water sources should be protected. Ideally, no individual should have to walk for more than a few minutes. There should be at least one water point for every 250 people.
  • Ideally, hydrological surveys will provide information on the presence of water. A site should not be selected on the assumption that water will be found by drilling. Trucking water over long distances should be avoided if possible.
Land Rights
  • UNHCR neither purchases nor rents land for refugee settlements.
  • Refugees should enjoy exclusive use of the site in which they live, by agreement with national and local authorities.
  • Governments often make public land available.
  • Private or communal land(including unclosed pastoral land) may only be used if the Government has agreed a formal legal arrangement with the owner(s), in accordance with the laws of the country.
  • The status of land occupied for sites should be clarified in writing by the Government.
  • In association with the Government and host community, agree and clarify the entitlement of refugees to carryout given activities (forage for food, collect firewood, collect timber and other shelter materials such as grass or mud, gather fodder and graze animals).
  • Ensure the site has an adequate road infrastructure; access to it should be reliable, including during the rainy season.
  • Assess the site's proximity to national services, including health facilities, markets and towns. Access to mainstream services is encouraged wherever possible and avoids the need to develop parallel services for the camp population.
  • Liaise with development agencies, including UNDP and related Government ministries, to secure improvement of access routes.
  • UNHCR should fund the cost of building short access roads connecting the site to the main road.
  • The site should be located a sufficient distance from international borders (50km), conflict zones, and other potentially sensitive areas (such as military installations). Avoid locations that experience extreme climatic conditions, or present evident health (malaria), environmental or other risks.
  • High winds can damage temporary shelters and increase fire risks.
  • Evaluate seasonal variations. Sites that are ideal in the dry season may be uninhabitable in the rainy season.
  • Avoid locating refugees in places whose climate differs greatly from that to which they are accustomed.
Environment and Vegetation
  • Ensure the site has sufficient ground cover (grass, bushes and trees). Vegetation provides shade, protects from wind, and reduces erosion and dust.
  • Avoid sites where dust clouds are common; these cause respiratory disease
  • Avoid sites within 1 day's walk of an environmentally protected area (such as a wild-life reserve).
  • Take steps to ensure access to a supply of firewood, in collaboration with local forestry authorities, and in negotiation with the host community.

Table 4 – Site selection factors of importance




Main contacts

Shelter and settlement section, Division of Programme Support and Management. At: [email protected]

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