With nearly 80,000 residents, Zaatari camp in Jordan has evolved into a permanent settlement | Photo: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra
With nearly 80,000 residents, Zaatari camp in Jordan has evolved into a permanent settlement | Photo: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

With more than 70 million displaced people worldwide, working out how to provide them with shelter is a huge challenge. Designing a place that could become their home for decades is even harder, especially when there is little political will.

13-year-old Ahmad Ramadan sells pet birds in the Domiz refugee camp in northern Iraq. He usually sells three or four birds a day to the camp residents. His own favorite is the goldfinch. Ahmad's dream is that one day he will have a real bird shop in a brick building, on a real shopping street. His story is part of Refugee Republic, an interactive web documentary by Jan Rothuizen. 

Screen Shot from Refugee Republic an interactive web documentary

Places for living in

Humans have a need to feel at home and to inhabit a place where we feel we belong, says Irit Katz, an architect and academic at Sheffield University. For people who have to leave their home and homeland, this feeling is damaged. It is damaged again when they are forced to live in temporary shelters which, at best, protect them from the weather but offer very little else.

The importance of creating places for refugees to live in that are more than simply shelters against the weather has increasingly become a topic for designers and architects, and for humanitarian organizations like UNHCR and the UN migration agency, IOM, though not for refugees themselves, who rarely have a say in where or how they live.

In June, a group of experts met in New York – at a summit organized by the Institute of Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University and the UN migration agency, IOM – to talk about developing a humanitarian response to the needs of refugees that is more dignified, inclusive and sustainable.

Temporary shelters being deployed on a scale similar to that after World War I in the worlds largest refugee camp in Dadaab Kenya

The dwelling places that are provided for refugees have to be better than "just good enough to keep them alive in a miserable twilight of half-existence," the IOM's Director for Southeastern Europe, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Argentina Szabados, told the group. "They must also give people an opportunity to develop, to be healthy, to learn."

Katz agrees that displaced people should be provided with places that allow them to reconstruct all aspects of their lives. "Such dwellings should create rich environments of everyday life."

In reality, hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees live in camps all over the world that do not come close to this. Brian Kelly, the IOM's emergency and post-crisis adviser, admits that "camps are horrific places." And Italian architect Raul Pantaleo, who co-founded the social design company Studio TAMassociati and has designed housing, health centers and other buildings for refugees, agrees. "All the camps I have seen were all horrible, all gray," he says

Pantaleo uses a word that rarely comes up in relation to the question of living spaces for refugees – beauty. Design for refugees can be good and beautiful, he insists, without costing any more. "With the same materials and the same budget, it is possible to design a place, not just a shelter." Simply by using color, for example, designers can break the monotony, Pantaleo says. "Color has a deep impact in our subconscious."

Gardens also have a healing function and a symbolic impact, representing life and care. Planting a tree doesn't make a difference to the cost, but it makes a difference to the people who are using that space, Pantaleo says. "In the clinic in Iraq we planted a tree. It was the only tree in the camp. And the local nurse -- she came from Syria -- she said, 'I am going to pay for the tree with my salary, because it is the symbol of a new life.'"

The camps I have seen were all horrible, all gray.
_ Raul Pantaleo, architect

Flatpack solutions

"Don't design yet another shelter for refugees," the German humanitarian expert Kilian Kleinschmidt has said. "There is no need for tech for refugees. Or design for refugees, or architecture for refugees. They're not a species."

Katz agrees. "Refugees are not a generic life form that a certain design could satisfy," she says. "Refugees are people like all of us, with various needs, skills, ambitions, who inhabit the planet in different circumstances, climates, and with a variety of other different people and cultures." We need to ensure that refugees – more than sixty percent of whom live in cities – are provided support to continue their lives after being forcibly displaced, Katz says.

At the same time, there is a need for immediate solutions. In August 2013 in northern Iraq, around 10,000 refugees arrived overnight needing shelter. Relief agencies responded by establishing a "tented camp," at Kawergost, while a small Swedish design company that had teamed up with the furniture giant IKEA began trialing a prefabricated shelter designed to be shipped in and quickly assembled in emergency situations.

"It was forty degrees by day and there was not a tree in sight," explains Johan Karlsson, the managing director of the company Better Shelter, which went on to produce and ship more than 30,000 of the shelters to displacement crises in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Better Shelter unit prototype in Kawergosk Iraq  Photo Erik HagmanBetter Shelter

The units made by Better Shelter are modular and leave as many design decisions as possible to the end-user so that they can be adapted to suit local and cultural needs. But they are primarily a solution of last resort. "You use our shelters when you cannot go with a local approach because for example, you cannot find the materials or you don't have the local capacity," Karlsson says. "You ship something in and set it up quickly. That's the niche scope we have."

Not so temporary

The Better Shelter units are meant to provide temporary shelter for refugees, but the reality is proving to be very different. Six years on, the Kawergost camp is still there and looking more like a village. Some of the original shelters are being used as living rooms or garden sheds. In 2015, Karlsson's team also provided prefabricated units for short-term use in Greece that remain in use today.

For the bulk of the world's refugees, the camp is not a brief stop-over, it is a long-term home. Two thirds of displaced people and refugees are displaced for at least five years, while one in five is displaced for more than 20 years. Kakuma camp in Kenya opened in 1992. It now hosts 188,794 registered refugees. "Camps are very easy to open, (they) are very, very hard to close," Kelly says.

So can a refugee shelter become a home, even if it is considered a temporary one? Katz says it can: "Homes are places which change all the time; we grow up in them, we leave them, create new ones, and sometimes lose and recreate them," says Katz. "Homes could be created in many situations, even if these are ephemeral in nature." 

Kara Tepe transit site Lesbos Greece 2016  Credit  Better Shelter

Katz sees other problems with units like the IKEA Better Shelter designs. One is that emergency shelter units for refugees are seen as a substitute for a real and sustainable solution to displacement. There is also a danger with developing shelter products that they could be used as experimental "playful architectural or engineered instruments," Katz says. "These humanitarian products, created as well-designed fit-all-place-and-purpose emergency kits must be de-fetishized. These are not magic goods that solve disastrous situations."

No political will

When so many refugees continue to exist in conditions which – in the case of Moria camp in Greece – have been likened to "hell on earth," what is the point in talking about these high aims of preserving dignity and beauty in design? And if there are so many design "solutions" on the table – from drones that coat shelters in clay to mobile embassies for stateless people -- why aren't they being built?

Designers who feel that they have a role and a responsibility to create dwellings for refugees say they are hampered by many governments' reluctance to commit to providing long-term solutions.

At the Design for Humanity Summit, Raul Pantaleo said there was a clear will in some countries to leave the refugees languishing under bad conditions. "In Iraqi Kurdistan there are two different kinds of refugee camps: One for the Kurdish Syrians who are welcome, and one for the Iraqis who are not welcome," he says. "There was a specific mandate from the local government to leave the people in a bad condition because they want them to go back.

People in a makeshift camp outside the refugee camp of Moria Lesbos island Greece Photo EPAPANAGIOTIS BALASKAS

"Quality design works as far as there is a real will to have quality design. I mean, coming from Italy, we have a major problem now in Italy with refugees. Right now there's no will to welcome them. All the things that are happening are aimed at not giving quality so that the people will just go away, they hope," Pantaleo said.

Karlsson agrees that there is a lack of political and financial commitment to create design solutions that would make for more dignified living for refugees. He is pragmatic about the need to accept that there are constraints, such are restrictions on designing and building permanent structures. Removing these political barriers will take time, he says. "These have been the topics we have been discussing since I came into this sector ten years ago and they have not yet been resolved."


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