Viewing entries tagged
refugee camps

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.

#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.  

The New Sphere #Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response Standards 2011


I am quite excited to see that the new edition of the Sphere Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Response standards are coming out this April.  Although the printed edition is not yet available, the pdf is may be directly downloaded from the website here.  After a cursory glance, there is a significant improvement within the new edition, as it presents information in a more concise manner.  The new standards are not perfect of course.  As Under Secretary General of the ICRC says in the video below, there are times that meeting the standards may not be feasible, such as the provision of adquate space for shelter within Haiti, however, it is important that humanitarian actors utilize the Sphere standards to understand the repercussions of planning settlements with overly concentrated density; such as furthering gender divisions and escalating health dangers.


I have a particular interest in the Sphere Settlement Standards, having previously researched the feasibility of such standards to meet the demands of refugee camp planning in a protracted settlement.    My previous research concluded that Sphere lacked the tools to facilitate protracted communities within refugee camps as it did not engage the tools, assets, and networks that developed over time.  Furthermore, I felt that it was insufficient for meeting the needs of populations displaced by violent conflict, as it failed to tie the needs of the population to the pyscho-social conditions of their legal status and departure.  By not considering how the roots of displacement are reflected within new social and settlement patterns, intervening agencies arguably provide less benefit than may appear.  

Fortunately the new Sphere Minimum Standards covers many similar issues, or at the very least, many of the of the emerging issues facing the humanitarian community including: civil-military relations, the role of protection and vulnerable populations, a discussion of rapid and long term assessments, monitoring and evaluation, aid worker performance measures, and most importantly, a recognition of the relative values of these standards depending on circumstance.   All of these new tools and frameworks accommodate a more community-centered approach and demonstrates the new Sphere 2011 as a significant improvement.  Of course the real value of its improvement is to be demonstrated over the following years through implementation.

The support of al-Shabaab through diaspora


I am pleased to announce publication of my article "The support of al-Shabaab through diaspora."  The research was conducted in two phases, in the winter of 2010/2011 and with follow up research in October of 2011.  The first phase was conducted personally in Nairobi while the second required more subtle means with the help of a local research assistant and translator whose name must be withheld to protect his identity.

The article does not go into methodology, however, research was conducted by qualitative techniques, relying upon non-participatory observation, participatory observation, unstructured and semi-structured interviews.  Research was conducted in public locations in Nairobi, Kenya.

The article posits some answers to the question, "why would those who have suffered from the actions of Somali militant group al-Shabaab be inclined to support this organization?"  Ultimately research has found that the ideology of the group to promote Islam over the interests of tribalism, the organizations socio-economic integration with the diaspora community, and its potential to provide an eventual peace are fundamental to the support of the organization.  Other initial findings include organization recruitment strategies that exploit pscho-social trauma, however additional research is necessary in this area.

Click this link to download a free .pdf copy of the Forced Migration Issue 37.  

To download a pdf of my own article,  http://www.fmreview.org/non-state/29.pdf

Refugee Camp International Development Consultancy

Some Good News

What a week!  Busy, productive, and satisfied.

The last couple months have been rather frustrating, as my search for a new and interesting employment opportunity has been rather tiresome.  Although there have been plenty of jobs to apply for, it has taken incredibly long for to hear responses, arrange interviews, and get results.

However, last night I officially accepted a position.   Although I was initially uncertain about the capacity of this organization to undertake the ambitious projects they are pursuing throughout the world, I have come to the conclusion that their ambitious work is backed with by a talented, brilliant, and dedicated staff whose objectives correlate greatly to my own.  I am quite pleased to join the team, and look forward the further expansion of this partnership.

This NGO approaches international development and aid from a different perspective than might be traditionally assumed.  Rather than giving aid, they give work.  In their words, it is a micro-work organization, that brings computer based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty.  Over several years, I have witnessed individuals within an array of companies work hard to acquire skills necessary to participate in the global economy, yet with few opportunities to put these skills to use, these efforts have remained unmerited.  It works to target the locations where skilled populations with limited economic activity are located, and collaborates with various institutions and business partners to generate income facilitating activities by means of online data entry, research, or product testing.  Samasource is a global operation, pursuing projects throughout Africa, Asia, and low in-come communities within the United States, such as within rural south-west Mississippi.

I will now oversee all projects within Kenya.  This includes 18 projects located within Nairobi, 2 within the Dadaab Refugee Camps, and the potential expansion of camps within other towns or nearby countries in the future.  This is a very exciting opportunity for Samasource, the Kenyan and Refugee populations, and myself.


Pursuing development within a protracted refugee settlement is a complicated issue.  In the classic model of humanitarian aid, the disaster happens and international agencies show up to dump lots of stuff on people - food, skills development programs, micro-loans, building materials, security, and clean water.  Certainly these things are important, because we have a responsibility to help one another in the world, and no problem can be solved if people are dying of starvation, sickness, and war.  But after awhile, new problems emerge. The infusion of food aid, might undermine the ability for the food markets to recover. For example, as free sugar will always cost less than the locally grown or sold product.  People who might have made a living growing, shipping, or selling sugar, will no longer have a livelihood and will need to find new methods to stay afloat.  Such problems have a way of spiraling out of control.  Clearly at a certain point, adding more stuff is no longer the answer.  The trick is to then start identifying strengths and to work toward removing the obstacles that keep these strengths from blossoming.  Problem is, so far no one has been able figure out how to determine this 'point of transition.'

When I was in Dadaab I noticed that the construction of a

cell-phone tower had become a major strength within the development of these camps.  After is was constructed, thousands of individuals scraped up whatever money they could find to get some sort of cell phone.  Maybe several families would buy one together, while others could be purchased through loan programs.  With a cell phone, refugees could stay in contact with relatives abroad, make arrangements for money to be wired, learn about weather conditions before grazing animals and a multitude of other advantages.  Money began to flow into the camps, and then new businesses emerged.One man would purchase an electric generator and re-charge your phone batter for a fee, while another would get hold of a used computer and provide email access via the cell phone network.  Next another man would start a business teaching computer classes so that interested men and women could expand their opportunities.  Keep in mind that people living in circumstances of conflict induced displacement are not 'poor illiterate farmers.'  These people had livelihoods and professions in their nation of origin.  Many were carpenters, lawyers, truck drivers, secretaries, and mechanics. Seeking to improve their livelihood and support their family, people always seek to adapt to market demands.  The problem with a refugee camp however, is that government policies restrict viable economic growth.  Although someone might acquire an array of computer skills and have access to a computer, it does not necessarily translate into having a job.  Someone else will need to provide that.

By giving work, they are providing a means to for individuals to help themselves.  By opening the door to the global economy, a major obstacle on the pathway toward stability and development has become available to that population.  Projects such as those undertaken by Samasource might be the essential element within overcoming the gaps between humanitarian relief, development, and a functioning stable economy.  I am grateful to have this oppurtunity to work on the forefront of such a project, and look forward to a healthy and vibrant experience in the near future.

I will be relocating to Nairobi within the next couple weeks.