Sustainable Shelters 
Famine and Flat Packs

Elizabeth Renard explains how developments in architecture promise a better future for displaced persons

When it comes to modern architecture, it’s the big buildings that make the headlines. The Shard, Dubai’s Burj Al Arab and Beijing’s Olympic ‘Bird’s Nest’, to name three. Emergency relief shelters, by contrast, receive minimal attention. This is despite the fact that, whether we want to admit it or not, these shelters are now far from temporary. In fact, latest figures from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, reveal that 45.2 million people in the world are in a situation of forced displacement.

This colossal figure includes refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers and stateless persons. All of these have been forced to move due to armed conflict, violence, human rights violations or natural disasters. Be they the 10,000 Congolese civilians fleeing Uganda to escape fighting in North Kivu, or the 998,335 Somali refugees seeking shelter from local warlords, these people have nothing.

Look at the current situation in Syria.  In 2013 alone, one million Syrians registered as refugees. The overwhelming majority own little more than the clothes on their backs. They have fled to refugee camps beleaguered by poor sanitation and food shortages. Domiz Camp in Iraq suffers from major overcrowding, and sanitation is a constant issue. Between mid-March and mid-May, the number of diarrhoea cases tripled.

Violence is often shockingly pervasive in refugee camps. Intense fighting on October 12 in Syria’s Dera’a Camp left seven Palestine refugees dead and fifteen others badly injured. Zataari Camp in Jordan is now home to multiple serious organized crime networks. UN reports have revealed how the women of Zataari suffer regularly from sexual exploitation and harassment. Rape cases and forced marriages are not uncommon.

The cramped conditions in Zataari Camp, Jordan, incubate organised crime and sexual violence. Courtesy of DFID (flickr).

The cramped conditions in Zataari Camp, Jordan, incubate organised crime and sexual violence. Courtesy of DFID (flickr).

Today, living in a refugee shelter is no guarantee of personal safety, or a good quality of life. With millions of individuals in need of shelter, the spaces and structures they are forced to inhabit matter. Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Darfur, Congo: the list seems never-ending. Row upon row of blue and white UN tents on our television screens have come to epitomize a hopeless situation. The Ikea Foundation, together with the UNHCR, has set out to fundamentally change this.

IKEA’s new shed-like, flat-pack refugee shelter is currently being tested in Ethiopia, Lebanon and Iraq. Consider Ethiopia. Winter is bitterly cold, and summer is swelteringly hot. Such extreme weather conditions mean that UN tents tend to last a pitiful six months. In places like Iraq and Pakistan, such bitingly cold nighttime temperatures are often fatal. IKEA’s shelters, on the other hand, can last up to three years. Given that refugees now end up staying in camps for an average of twelve years, this is a crucial improvement. The thermal insulation provided in these shelters help protect refugees from such dangerous nighttime temperatures.

Privacy is at the heart of the design. Intimate moments can now be truly private thanks to the use of the polymer Rhulite in the shelter’s production. For any displaced person, privacy should be a right. Cramped, squalid conditions will be categorically improved by the increased size of these shelters; a comfortable 17.5 square meters.

As always however, the main issue is cost. No matter how clever IKEA’s design is, if it’s not cost-effective, UN tents will prevail. UN experts expect the shelters to each cost about £650 to make once in mass production. Tents cost half this. The debate is therefore whether the durability advantage of the IKEA shelter is enough to justify the initial extra cost. IKEA’s model needs to prove itself to be cost effective in the long-term. Transport issues, due to increased weight, could also be problematic.

Problems aside, IKEA have displayed innovation and creativity in this much-neglected field. Their design patently rejects the status quo and fundamentally improves every aspect of a normal tent. This is undoubtedly the case in terms of privacy, lighting, space, comfort and durability. IKEA have reminded those responsible for housing refugees that more can and must be done. Disgraceful conditions cannot be tolerated by our political leaders. Syrian families right now in Zataari Camp are fighting for survival every day. The miserable reality is that in their daily struggle against a piercing sun and brutal sandstorms, these individuals have only a flimsy tent to protect themselves. These tents become coated in sand and, for an enormous number of Zataari’s refugees, respiratory conditions are now widespread. Winter poses a whole new set of challenges. The Domiz Camp in Iraq is heavily affected by snow. UN tents are simply not designed for snow and a single blanket is appallingly inadequate. Thousands of lives are at stake. IKEA’s polymer-paneled shelters are crucial; they give families a fighting chance against the elements.

IKEA’s flat-pack isn’t an isolated example of innovation for emergency relief shelters. Individual architects have also been making an impact. Take the work of Shigeru Ban, the only architect making buildings out of cardboard tubes. His relief structures have been deployed with outstanding results in Haiti, Rwanda, Japan, New Zealand and Italy. What defines each of his projects is the fundamental aim of making a bad situation better. Be it via creating a temporary, yet beautiful local community church in Kobe to bring the community together, or via building partitions for the Japanese gymnasiums housing displaced persons in Fukushima. Quick to build and cost-effective, the partitions were practical yet also satisfied the desire for privacy so craved by refugees and displaced persons stripped of their human dignity. Simple, yet considerate design of this kind should be the way forward.

But if these structures are only meant to be temporary, then why we should put so much effort and money into their construction? The answer is simple. Whether the international community likes it or not, the idea that refugees or IDPs only live in shelters for a few months or a couple of years is not the reality. In fact, it’s not even close. Four years on from the earthquake in Haiti, 325,000 people are still living in squalid make-shift tents. The refugee camp, Dadaab, in north-eastern Kenya has now been there for over twenty years. The situation in Syria doesn’t look to be much different. The UN estimates that there are at least 4.25 million IDPs in Syria, 400,000 destroyed homes, 1.2 million damaged homes and thousands of ruined schools and mosques. The likelihood of Syrians only having to live in emergency relief shelters for a few months or even a few years seems inconceivable.

Syrian refugees continue scratch out a living in Domiz, Iraq. The idea that IDPs only live in shelters for a few months or a couple of years falls well short of the reality. Courtesy of ECHO (flickr).

Syrian refugees continue scratch out a living in Domiz, Iraq. Courtesy of ECHO (flickr).

It is in this critical state that UN-issued tents are no longer good enough. Less privacy, lighting, insulation, space and protection from the elements in the face of disaster may be bearable for a few months, perhaps even a couple of years. But a rapid deterioration of living conditions for those living in shelters year after year is not acceptable. Any attempt by companies like IKEA or architects like Shigeru Ban to create more durable, practical designs that drastically improve the quality of life and protection of these highly vulnerable refugees, should be embraced.

Persecution and violence by political regimes are leaving innocent people trapped in the middle. Natural disasters are not going to stop. Foreign policy and peace treaties may be the responsibility of politicians, but the public also has a role to play. Architectural and design innovation is a source of unexplored potential as we seek to improve conditions in refugee camps. The sooner we can relinquish the fallacious idea that displacement in today’s world is a temporary phenomenon, the sooner we can set about truly helping the world’s forcibly displaced.