Viewing entries tagged
refugee camp design

The Embrassing State of Design for Internally Displaced Populations


Internal displacement is a massive problem.  In 2014 alone, over 33 million people have been forced to leave their homes and relocate to another space due to regional istability or natural disaster. According to data collected by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, over 140 million people have become IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) just since 2008.  Within protracted conflicts, internal displacement continues dominate the ability to create stable economies and effective security.

If we accept the dominance of internal displacement, and perhaps even accept that it cannot be prevented, we can begin to investigate gap-reducing measures to improve the quality of life among IDPs.  IDP policy is a frequent topic of conversation in the UN and is likewise a common area of intervention among NGOs.

IDP solutions remain terrible. IDP camps frequently consist of sprawling tent cities and corrugated metal boxes. They are economically isolated and dangerous. Rape is a common threat in many camps from Somalia to Haiti.

UNHCR, which as filled the IDP vacuum to provide assistance to IDPs, although it is not within the organizational mandate (and arguably overstep its bounds), consistently has pushed for camp-based solutions to IDPs as a method to quickly alleviate local burdens and build sustainable communities in the long-term.  Aid agencies argue that IDP camps are an effective measure to centralize aid distribution and provide protection.  In the meanwhile, IDPs also commonly inhabit properties illegally or join/create informal camps to enhance security and resource acquisition/distribution.

Mogadishu is no stranger to the IDP issue. There are approximately 370,000 IDPs in Mogadishu (and over a million in Somalia total)  People from throughout the provinces have located closer to the city and line the nearby road between Afgooye and Mogadishu. Thousands inhabit buildings that were abandoned during the conflict. Arguments reign regarding what to do with these people. I have previously posted my own solution to the matter, which has more or less happened informally among returnees and IDPs although without the political support necessary to mature.

Instead, the United Nations and the government of Somalia have pushed for the classic solution of forced encampment. IDPs have been rounded up and stationed outside Mogadishu, on the south-western side of the city toward Merka. When this was in the planning stage I heavily argued against this, but as nothing more than an external consultant, I did not have the power to influence. The camps were created. Displaced people who had made a temporary home were again displaced.

NRC constructed IDP Camp. Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2014.
Just about two weeks ago I explored these IDP camps. One consisted of row after row of tents the other of metal boxes.  These were aid initiatives.  Throughout the tent city was signage for the Turkish aid organization, while the metal boxes featured signage for the Norwegian Refugee Council.  It should be noted that temperatures in Somalia are well above 37 degree Celsius (100 F). It is inhumane to force people to live in a metal box. 
Turkish IDP Camp. Somalia. Sutika Sipus 2014.


The housing is insufficient. The camps are located a far distance from the city to trade or create livelihoods. They are very dangerous and are equivalent to centrally planned slums. Yet this remains the "go-to" solution. Why?

Much of the reasoning is similar to the problems I recently described concerning the problems with architecture and urban planning for refugee camps.  There is a technical obsession.  Legal obstacles prevail. Interventionists have preconceptions of how an IDP camp should look and function.  

There is also another layer of complexity. Local perceptions of IDPs undermine their ability to access and achieve a better quality life. Prejudices dominate. IDPs are frequently from rural areas, have had less access to quality education and lack the skills to succeed in an urban environment. They are seen as not employable, illiterate, and as parasites on the local economy. They are considered a problem - not a solution.

Sign Translation: Afi Health Camp, Former Ministry, Social Care.  Somalia. Photo: Sutika-Sipus, 2014.
In contrast, IDPs can create and maintain robust economies upon a desolate landscape.  It is common for local staff within aid agencies to divert supplies for sale in informal IDP camps. Camps frequently have names, contact information, and an entrepreneurial manager. These camps might be sitting on government land, but given their ability to create productive spaces, it is questionable if their informal occupation in fact outweighs the significance of legal title - especially if no documentation exists.

Of course these camps are not necessarily safer or better than the aid agency equivalent. Countless outlets have reported on the "gatekeepers" of Mogadishu, powerful individuals who have diverted aid and operate IDPs as prisons of exploitation.  I have no doubt such places exist, but more frequently the reality is less dramatic. They are typically an attempt to create a local solution to a highly complex national problem. They are concentrations of struggle, but struggle founded on human agency and hope. 

If we truly want a physical planning solution to IDP encampment, we must go beyond the conventional limits of modern practice.  We must do away with the preconditions of camp. We must stop thinking in terms of material solution, and move beyond a systems approach, into a process of systematic interactions.  It is at the concise spatial position where economic interests interact with social capital thatan opportunity is possible.

The state-of-the-art IDP camp solution among aid agencies, is not so optimistic.

The Problem With Refugee Camps (Architecture, Design, Planning)



For decades our television screens have been dominated by images of ragged people, hopelessly isolated within political limbo as destitute refugees.  Movies describe refugee camps as exotic edge-of-the-earth locales full of victimized dark-skinned people.  Magazines and websites occasionally release an article on a brand new shelter technology, solar stove, or water pump that is expected to change the future of these settlements.

Although often inaccurate, there is some real world legitimacy to these images.  A decent example of the typical chaos can be found at this moment in Nigeria.  But this is not always, even often, the case. While camp conditions are often poor, there have been strides toward the improvement of camp planning, most notably in Turkey.  Many seek funding to further improve existing camps, such as found in this request for assistance to displaced South Sudanese living in Ethiopia.  But overall, regardless of funding or geography, the progress of change has been slow and grinding.  Refugee camps are an embarrassment to our 21st century civilization. While most refugee camps are not like the movies, they continue to be miserable solutions to a complex political crisis.

Why is it, with all the expertise bubbling in the world, do these places continue to function poorly?

Before I go into this, I want to highlight that dramatic improvements took place from the 1970s through the 1990s.  Up until the 1970s, the United Nations had zero interest in the African continent, but this changed as part of a general meandering toward global sensibilities over the previous decades.  Initial steps in aid and development lacked professionalism, but was the work of untrained adventurers in the global south. This is where we get the classic image of a white guy unloading sacks of grain from a truck - as if refugees need help carrying sacks.

Much of this change toward a professional model is the consequence of Barbara Harrell-Bond whose intense anthropological criticism toward UNHCR, and UN operations in general, did much to orient it toward an improved system of accountable projects by competent people. Yet while her impact has been monumental, and continues to be extended by the efforts of countless researchers and activists within refugee studies, the state of encampment remains poor.

So again, why?

There is no simple answer, but in terms of designing and upgrading a camp, below is a list of critical factors.  This list is by no means exhaustive. Add to this list the local conditions and political realities of a random country and conflict, then stir.



1. We must recognize that Refugee is a legal term.  Technically, before 1951, there was no such thing as a refugee but simply displaced people with no legal status.  The term acquires its legal meaning from the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Notably, while a country may agree to accept people seeking asylum to provide "protection," each signatory may withhold elements of the convention. For example, if you are a refugee in Egypt, you have the right to "protection" but you do not have the right to health care, the right to education, or the right to employment because the state of Egypt has withheld those rights in its signature.  By withholding rights, a government strategically removes incentive for a refugee to remain in country.

2. Protection is define in the 1951 Convention but the operationalization is not. This is a big issue. Countries who are providing "protection" in accordance to the expectations of the legal agreement are not bound to provide a particular quality or form of protection. The language is intentionally vague so that each country may decide what protection will look like.  Ultimately, they can do as they please (more or less) aside from a few specific restrictions, such as it is unlawful to send a refugee back to the country of origin if the threat remains.  But within state borders, a state can treat the refugee however it pleases within the boundaries of it's own law.

3. The refugee laws are a response to WWII, and while displacement camps existed prior to WWII, it was only in the immediate aftermath of the war that a legal "refugee" was born into existence.  At that moment, the legal space of the refugee camp was also founded.  With populations scattered everywhere in Europe, refugees were seen as a security threat and the responsibility was thus entrusted to militaries. Militaries therefore used POW camps, prisons, and military barracks to contain, order, and redistribute displaced populations.  Military camp planning and design goes back to the Roman era, as spatial structures to maximize the needs of efficiency, not humanity.  Consequently, todays camps are designed using the same spatial structure.  A refugee camp is made to process, contain, and secure an individual. It is not a space to facilitate the expression of rights.

4. Camps are to be temporary so as to encourage the return toward home (repatriation).  This is a tricky one.  We think of camps as a way to safely help a population in need.  For example, MSF may create a camp so as to rapidly deliver much needed medical attention to many people at one time.  But protracted encampment is a different issue.  Ultimately governments encourage camps so as to isolate a population (due to xenophobia), facilitate the responsibility of "protection" (whatever that means), and to encourage repatriation.  Therefore a refugee camp cannot be nice getaway from a conflict because that incites refugees to remain indefinitely.

5. Professionals are not trained properly.  When I first went to a refugee camp, I was the only urban planner on site.  The UN engineer was trained in the UK to create UK infrastructure and the architect from Spain was trained to build stadiums and suburbs.  Now they were in the middle of nowhere Africa and told to design a new camp.  Naturally they approach it like a London suburb, unfamiliar with the deeper political and legal substructure (which inspired me to research this issue for years).  If you want to know more about why this is a problem, check out this older Humanitarian Space article on water infrastructure and conflict.

6. The idea and images of refugees and camps as sprawling 3rd-world slums presupposes the actions taken by stakeholders.  Consequently, we reproduce the same systems over and over again, creating more 3rd world slum refugee camps because we have an idea of what they look like and how they function separately from normal society.  I'd argue that the current camps in Turkey for Syrian refugees are the closest thing to a normative planning structure to emerge. Note that those camps are entirely state operated, having borrowed technical guidelines from UNHCR, but with no managerial involvement by UNHCR.  I question how long Turkey can sustain the cost.

7. Architects and designers focus too much on building technology rather than social systems.  A good example is a recent IKEA solution to refugee shelter.  I'm sure its fine.  Except it costs more to manufacture, import, and construct than any local solution.  Consequently the folks who really do the work in the field have zero interest in a slick pre-packaged technology for import.  It is just too expensive and will require complex logistics to procure and implement.  In the meanwhile clever designers churn out sexy new refugee shelter technologies every year.  This is a waste of time and money when you consider that an imported solution is impractical and the dominant socio-cultural/political/legal systems demand low-standard and cheap but scaleable solutions.

8. A massive communication gap exists between dominating entities and camp populations.  Most aid workers are afraid of the populations they are intent to serve.  Most aid agencies and UN operations maintain highly restrictive rules that negate interaction between staff and refugees.  UNHABITAT, for example, regularly plans camps using satellite images and locally contracted social research, but never actually make a site visit to talk to locals or see the terrain first hand.  This can have extreme repercussions.  The most dramatic example is from an Ethiopian friend who lived as a refugee in Sudan for 12 years.  He told me that a UNHCR director arrived at the site and was angry because the camp was built on a piece of land different from the location originally intended.  Why?  Because maps and satellite images will never be as accurate as boots on the ground.  Again, I feel the need to direct you to this previous article on infrastructure and conflict.

9.  Camps are isolated (for focus on service distribution) and cannot participate as viable economies. This is to further encourage repatriation.  It is also a xenophobic exercise to separate refugee populations from national populations.  But consequently, any camp-based economic development initiative will have a low ceiling of growth or will fail because there is no viable supply chain for production or transit conduit to export of commodities.

10. Residents (refugees) are forced to live in conditions that make them reliant on services, negating the opportunity to advance their own situation and simultaneously undermining the ability for return. The vast majority of encamped refugees do not want to be in this position, but do to legal and political rules, are restricted from any other path.  Typically to break out of this cycle requires extraordinary measures. For example, a Somali friend of mine was born in a refugee camp in East Africa, but at 20 smuggled himself all the way to Hong Kong where he lived as an illegal immigrant but eventually achieved employment and a better quality life. Of course another guy I know attempted to do something similar ended up imprisoned in Israel.

**Bonus** 
UNHCR has zero accountability. If you ask a UNHCR professional about this they will disagree and say that UNHCR is accountable to the broader expectations of the UN or are accountable to the media and to the public.  But this isn't really true because a discontent public has no legal recourse to counteract UNHCR.  It is simply a brach of the UN, and does not go on trial under the UN system because there is no UN Court.  The biggest problem UNHCR can experience is a drop in donor funding, yet as UNHCR is primarily a political tool to exert outcomes derived by internal politics, there is little advantage in reducing funding.  Ultimately UNHCR can get bad press, but a donor still pays them for a desired outcome intent that the bad press will never come back to the donor itself.

Deep Water in a Geography of Conflict

Water tap in Lesotho.  Photo for Sutika Sipus LLC by David Lazar, 2013.
I once watched an engineering team install a well in a high-traffic area of a refugee camp in Kenya.  It was an easily accessible public space and it was close to a road making the job easier to bring the equipment and install the well.  After installing the well, the team made sure it worked, and went on to their next project, I believe somewhere in Thailand.  But a few strange things happened during the project and for a long time afterward.

1.  Many mornings the team would arrive to the site and discover the well had been destroyed.  In the middle of the desert with few other working wells nearby, why anyone would repeatedly destroy this precious resource?

2.  At times while working the project, children would throw rocks at the team, and their parents would simply look on, allowing the children to abuse the people who had come to provide a better quality of life with clean, accessible water.

3. When the project team finished the project (clearly after many delays) they exited and people began to use the well.  Within a matter of days there were violent, physical fights among locals at the site of the well.

What does this mean? From the outside, it is easy to say that the engineering team was doing a good thing in the refugee camp and that the local population was disrespectful out of heathen ignorance. Unfortunately stories like the above tend to fuel racism and prejudice among people in developed nations more than actually teach the deeper lessons.

Unpacking the situation is not easy.  To break it down I've composed the simple table below.



Outcomes
Without realizing it, the engineering team had thrust themselves into the spatial center of a long-standing problem of inadequate government policy and local social tensions.  Not only was the project in the geographic center of two populations with a history of conflict, but a series of poorly implemented technologies in the past left these populations with an immediate distrust of any new intervention.  In addition, by not formally interacting with the people living near the well at the outset of the project, their project was seen as an intrusion not a benefit.  Certainly another place to access water is appreciated, but many in the community knew that it would be another finite resource to drive arguments and conflict, not an asset.  But why tell this to the project team?  After all, the engineers were not even polite enough to introduce themselves let alone ask for advice.  Clearly they were the experts.


Beyond
The lessons of this case study should be easy to recognize.  The most basic infrastructure project is not merely a technical process, it is also a social process.  There may have also been actions within the community to mitigate the future problems.  For example, it is possible that the nightly acts of sabotage were intended to force the engineers to create a better and more resilient water well, considering the long history of inadequate infrastructure in the camps (see the context of the chart).  Maybe previous complaints had been ignored?  Unfortunately we can't be certain.

If the team established valid, working relationships among stakeholders in the water well project it would have prevented many of the negative consequences.  It would not have required extensive work by the project team, but maybe one week of interacting with the locals, asking questions, and learning about their lives could have led to a more strategically located intervention with clear lines of ownership, and the cooperation of the community in the project creation.   

The community doesn't necessarily need to be part of the development process, but they certainly have the right to know the project process and objectives in advance. Where relationships cannot be established (such as the long history of conflict between the tribes), at least discovering and acknowledging those obstacles could have provided with the engineers the data necessary to create a better project design.  We cannot know if it may would have become more successful, but at the minimum, it would not have introduced new problems.

#Dadaab Research and Information, #Somalia #Refugees, and #Architecture


Events within the Dadaab refugee camps have reached a fever-pitch in the last few weeks.  Or more accurately, there has been a surge of interest in the Dadaab camps, as circumstances have always been dire. I have lately received many emails from those interested in working at the camps, designing solutions, or basic requests for information.  

At the moment I am traveling and have limited access to a computer so I apologize for the delayed responses.  However this week I added a new page The Humanitarian Space, specifically compiling some resources and information about Dadaab.  The resources are drawn from my own work or is work on which I am quite familiar and can answer questions.

In the next few days I will provide a more thorough background on recent events,  information about refugee camp design, and answer some of the most recent questions.  

Now Online: An Assessment of Sphere Humanitarian Standards for Shelter and Settlement Planning in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camps

Photo: Evelyn Hockstein for The New York Times

I am pleased to announce that my graduate Community Planning thesis in International Development is now online.  Although it has been published to various academic research databases, I am also making it available online through this blog.  For those interested in the Sphere Humanitarian Charter's Minimum Standards, this thesis examines the applicability of the Sphere emergency shelter standards to a protracted crisis, specifically the Dadaab refugee camp.  The research process includes an assessment of local shelter construction, refugee camp design by the Norwegian Refugee Council within Ifo II, and an older pres-sphere agency shelter design.  Research was conducted in the Dadaab camps  in 2007 with follow up research in 2009.  To download the pdf, just click the link below.   I am also pasting a copy of the abstract below.





Abstract

This thesis examines the viability of Sphere Humanitarian Shelter Standards within the construction of Ifo II, a new refugee camp in the Dadaab refugee camps of northeastern Kenya in 2007.  One of the largest refugee settlements in the world, the Dadaab camps contain over 300,000 refugees and have been in place since 1991.  As the Sphere Standards have been designed for use within an emergency crisis, this thesis investigates their applicability in the protracted settlement of Dadaab by utilizing a recent shelter initiative as a case study.

In 2007, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) initiated a new housing and camp expansion project in Dadaab to accommodate future population growth and to overcome many of the problems of the earlier camps.  Committed to sustainable solutions for displaced populations, the agency relied upon the Sphere Standards as a means to provide culturally, environmentally, and economically appropriate housing and infrastructure planning.   To determine if Sphere Standards meet the needs of the refugee populations, three months of qualitative research were undertaken within the Dadaab camps in 2007, with additional follow-up research in 2009.   Field research focused on the socioeconomic roles of informal housing consolidation strategies in the camps, pre-Sphere agency-provided housing, and the new NRC camp expansion.

Field research revealed that Sphere does not provide the tools necessary to contend with the matured socioeconomic dynamics of a protracted settlement. By expanding the standards to include a stronger recognition of the conditions which frame the lives of those in protracted displacement such as national policies, regional conflict, and local market activity, Sphere will provide humanitarian agencies with the means to provide displaced populations with better shelter and settlement solutions.

Architecture, Refugee Camp Design, and Psycho-Social Refugee Health

 How can the design of refugee camps positively  impact the psychological health of refugees?

Some time ago I asked this question in a blog post and meant to get back to it, yet it never quite happened, so I might as well explore the topic today.  Refugee camp design is a common interest among architects and urban planners, although after several years of working within this subject, I admit that it isn't not nearly as illustrious as a Hollywood movie.  Every year books and exhibitions like Design Like You Give a Damn or Design for The Other 90 Perceent spotlight initiatives by designers to solve problems in the third world often by means of new technologies, new research, and usually really expensive and sleek looking products.  But in truth, the solutions to many of these problems has more to do with just legal systems, public interests, access to capital, and then eventually to skillful implementation.  Nonetheless, everyday people read my blog looking for information on Refugee Camp Design, Refugee Camp Technology, and Refugee Shelter, so I figured I might as well expand on some of these issues.

As for innovations within refugee camp design, these are slow moving because new technologies often fail to be well implemented or are too expensive  or are  totally unnecessary.  The most common reason why architects and planners design solutions that will never see the light however is because these designers do not understand the legal framework in which humanitarian interventions exist.  For example, the plan for Dadaab below by New York based architect Deborah Gans is completely impossible due to the restrictions of Kenyan Policy as outlined in the 2006 Refugee Act, their reservations on the 1967 Convention on Refugees, and the social limits of these camps.  While the architect wants to use these camps as a means to experiment with creating a new idea on cities, the truth is that such a presumption is impossible.  Not to mention, a protracted crisis is not a laboratory for social experiments.


There are other aspects of this plan that are inconsistent with the reality of the camps.  The camps are high-density to maximize all resources and security, and  any form of agricultural production within the camps is illegal.  Consequently to expand the settlement and build on agricultural production will simply not be possible.   Although Dadaab has been in place for 20 years, long term settlement planning is against the interest of government policy and consequently initiatives such as this can never be constructed.  Therefore any planning initiatives must somehow comply with policy while advancing the interests of the population.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but if one can't build illegal structures in America, why would that be okay anywhere else?  On last thing, the architect has clearly done only limited research as the water pathways and vegetation within the diagram are only present during the aggressive floods in October and November.  The rest of the year the place is a dry, bleak, and empty gravel parking lot as far as you can see.


When contemplating refugee camp design from an architectural perspective, a more useful approach is to analyze the architecture of the institutions.   Displaced people are only designated refugees when they obtain the legal status from the host country, which often requires the assistance of UNHCR.  Depending upon the laws of the host country, refugees may or may not have access to employment, healthcare, social services or education.  Yet this institutions appear hostile and are dehumanizing.

Life as  refugee means hours upon hours standing in line.  Waiting to for your name to be called, waiting to be addressed, waiting to be heard, being told to come back tomorrow, or the day after, and waiting for weeks or months, or even years, for phone calls that never come.  Time and again I've seen institutions abuse people through this process, failing to consider what it must be like to always wait and never have an answer.  Some agencies are even located far from the urban center, such as UNHCR's office in Cairo, and therefore people in need of assistance have to travel nearly 2 hours to stand in line with little hope of receiving attention.

If architects and planners want to really improve the lives of displaced populations, the biggest contribution they can make with new design is not within the immediate crisis.  It is by reorganizing the interface by which refugees interact with agencies.  To remove the hostile fencing and aggressive facades and to replace these structures with something equally inexpensive, equally utilitarian, and significantly more humane.  Architecture has always been the tool of the power, and to aid the powerful organizations to better assist refugees is a natural progression for the discipline.  Sustainable refugee camp design and technology is an important area of concern, yet as these only occupy a small part of the problem facing displaced peoples, it is time rather to make architecture more humane.