Bidi Bidi Refugee Settlement in Google Earth

When looking through the latest imagery update in Google Earth, we came across some images in northern Uganda. They were captured by DigitalGlobe as part of their ‘FirstLook’ programme and relate to the movement of refugees from South Sudan into Uganda. There is ongoing violence in South Sudan, which has in turn created a famine in the region. The combination is causing many people to flee the country. According to Wikipedia, the refugee camp is named Bidi Bidi, and with over 270,000 residents is the largest refugee settlement in the world.


Before and after of one of the Bidi Bidi camps showing that it was not there in 2013.

Unfortunately, the DigitalGlobe image does not capture the full extent of the Bidi Bidi camps and only shows the southern edge of one new section that has appeared recently.


Before and after of another of the Bidi Bidi camps showing that it appeared between August 30th, 2016 and December 11th, 2016.

So, we downloaded a recent Sentinel-2 image of the region and were able to identify a number of camps that have appeared at various times starting in 2014. We also had a look at this list of the world’s largest refugee camps and were able to locate most of them.

Refugee camps are quite distinctive in satellite imagery. They typically have a large grid pattern of road networks, which are not typical of that part of Africa. Small towns in the region typically grow slowly and more organically, resulting in a less ordered layout than refugee settlements which are planned and built in short bursts.

Some of the largest refugee camps are a collection of five camps in Kenya near the border with Somalia. The southernmost camp was clearly over-planned, with a vast network of streets laid out, but only a small portion ever occupied:

One of the refugee camps near Dadaab, Kenya. The whole grid is 5 km x 4 km

To see all the camps we found in Google Earth, download this KML file

You may also find this YouTube video on various conflicts and famines in the region interesting.

About Timothy Whitehead

Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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