On Monday, member countries will convene at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for a summit on the global refugee crisis. They will try to agree on a more humane, coordinated response.

The crisis has reached unprecedented proportions. There are upward of 65.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. A third of them are in countries other than their own. Ten million of them were born as refugees and remain stateless, which gives a sense of the intractability of many conflicts.

International institutions have scrambled to provide food, medical treatment, shelter and safety. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees plays a leading role in setting up camps, both for internally and externally displaced people. Countless other organizations, big and small, lead and bolster that push, depending on the location.

New time-lapse satellite imagery of the burgeoning camps from above, shot and compiled by a private company called Planet, provides a remarkable visual of the crisis. The images give a sense of the need for a quick response from the international community as conflict arises so as to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

Above, images taken from February to August demonstrate how quickly a camp in northern Uganda grew after fighting raged in neighboring South Sudan in July. The change in ground color shows how starkly different the region's landscape is between wet and dry seasons.

"These kinds of images give us a way to visualize the invisible," said Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst at Amnesty International who uses satellite imagery to monitor refugee crises. "By looking at them, we can also better extrapolate on the shifting conflict situations in a given country."


The image above, from the border between Syria and Jordan, depicts the situation near an area known as "the berm," which is a reference to a raised portion of ground that serves as a no man's land along the border. More than 75,000 Syrians are stuck there now, in an interminable wait to enter Jordan, which is carrying out thorough security clearances.

My colleague Adam Taylor wrote about the situation at the berm last week.

A report from Amnesty International published Wednesday evening shows just how dire the situation on the berm has become. Using information from satellite images, video footage and a number of first-person accounts, Amnesty was able to show not only a dramatic growth in the size of the settlement at the border, but also what may be evidence of death and disease at the site.

The satellite imagery appears to show a dramatic growth in shelters at Rukban, one of two border crossings between Syria and Jordan, over the past year. While there were just 363 shelters at the site one year ago by Amnesty's count, by July 2016 there were 6,563. The most recent imagery released by Amnesty shows 8,295 shelters in September 2016.


The situation is even more grim on Syria's northern border with Turkey, where tens of thousands of people have fled the fierce battle for Syria's once-largest city of Aleppo. Because of the fighting, it is very difficult for aid agencies to access the area and set up camps. Thus, the satellite imagery provides data that is very difficult to get from the ground.

Instead of camps, most people who have fled Aleppo are living in unstructured arrangements of their own making, hoping to either return to Aleppo once the fighting subsides or to move on to Turkey and perhaps beyond.

"Sometimes satellite imagery is more or less the only way for us to get a good look at what is happening," Koettl said. "We can measure the number of shelters and figure out when there are major inflows of displaced people."

Read more:

1 in every 113 human beings is forcibly displaced from their home right now

The shifting sea routes of Europe’s refugee crisis, in charts and maps

Why refugees should be seen as an investment, not a burden