Designing refugee housing

At a time when the plight of refugees is making headlines worldwide, Lara Alshawawreh is identifying how transitional shelters can be constructed at scale while providing safety, privacy, and dignity for occupants.

As you read this, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced across the world. This means one in every 122 humans is either a refugee, seeking asylum, or internally displaced.

Refugees have managed to escape a dangerous situation; where - and how - should these 65 million people now live? Could better design facilitate a better life even while they've been forced out of their homes and into temporary accommodation?

To find out, Lara, from the Institute for Sustainable Construction, visited two of Jordan’s largest refugee camps: Zaa’tari, the world’s second largest camp with around 79,736 Syrians living in it, and Azraq camp hosting 53,914 Syrians.

The population of these camps has swelled due to the conflict in Syria. Jordan has received approximately 1.3 million Syrians, only around half of them are registered as refugees within the UNHCR records.

During her visits, she held focus group discussions with residents and visited some of their shelters. That is how she is highlighting in her research some of the main issues faced by camps residents regarding sheltering.

Living conditions in refugee camps

Refugee camps have been compared to slums, notably the Calais Jungle in France, which was bulldozed in 2016.

Because refugee housing is seen as temporary, and because host countries may hope for eventual repatriation, there hasn’t been much investment in housing stock or basic infrastructure.

In addition, temporary structures are not culturally sensitive. In most cases, tents or shelters provided are military-grade and not designed for long-term family living.

It is this temporary nature of living conditions that Lara has identified as being at the heart of the problem of refugee housing.

‘The given shelter is the first step towards overcoming the trauma of war and leaving home for refugees. If we can provide a satisfying shelter for residents while at the same time can be moveable, then people can consider it as their home and part of a return package in the future,’ Lara said.

How can refugees, when their status is not legally permanent, feel at home even while being displaced for years?

Some current examples...

What is the difference between emergency housing and regular housing?

For Syrian refugees, there are two possible scenarios:

1)    The war continues and they remain in the hosting countries.

2)    The war ends and they return to a war-torn country, where housing stock has been largely destroyed.

In both scenarios high-quality housing is essential for an existence with dignity and civility.

Lara is developing designs for accommodation that will offer protection, privacy, and dignity to people who have endured unimaginable upheaval.

In addition, a key feature is the flexibility and mobility of her design. Resettlement is a fundamental concern for refugees; they want to go home.

The ability to disassemble temporary housing, bring it back home, and re-use the structure while a permanent house is built, is the premise that drives Lara’s project.

Refugees have told Lara that this feature is vital: a way to facilitate the transition back to normal life.

Designing better emergency housing

After talking to refugees in both the Zaa’tari and Azraq camps, Lara is now developing a prototype structure.

Her final design will incorporate the needs of the refugees, offering a safe and sanitary home, and, crucially, agency over their situation.

A basic tent is a short term solution to a long term problem. If better designed temporary housing can lift even a fraction of the 65 million people out of a desperate situation, then Lara will have made a meaningful difference with her research.

Displacement is a harrowing experience. A home of their own - even a temporary, movable structure - would offer a measure of stability for the world’s refugee population.

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