Safe refuge - housing and sheltering refugee populations

31 May 2017



The global number of forcibly displaced people is at its highest since the Second World War, causing an unprecedented surge in refugees entering Europe. With member states stretched and camps outside Europe turning into permanent cities, the practical question of how to house and shelter refugee populations is more urgent than ever. Philip Kleinfeld explores how architects, designers and planners can respond to one of the greatest challenges of our time.


It was a story from his brother, holidaying on the small Greek Island of Nisyros last summer, that made Richard Economakis finally snap. It might not have been on the scale of Lesbos or Kos – the front-line islands most affected by the refugee crisis – but when his brother told him of a group of bedraggled Syrians stumbling off a rubber dinghy and staggering towards the town’s main square, Economakis realised he had something in common with them.

“There was a doctor, there was an engineer and there was an architect,” he says. “What shocked my brother was that these desperate people who had landed on the wrong island were people like us. That was very moving to me. I thought, ‘What if it was me?’.”

As the thought lingered, Economakis, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, did some digging. He discovered that in 1922, towards the end of the Greco-Turkish War, up to 17,000 Ottoman Greeks had been living as refugees in cities across Syria.

“Only so many decades before, people I might be related to were in the exact same position,” he says, “begging for hospitality because going back to where they came from probably meant death. That was the clincher for me. I said, ‘Okay: what’s being done about this?’.”

The answer, at least as far as architects and designers are concerned, is: not very much. Last year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that 59.5 million people had been forcibly displaced around the world. Although the vast majority live in developing countries, an unprecedented number entered Europe last year, placing a huge amount of pressure on European governments. The lack of adequate shelter, sanitation, food and water for those in transit was obviously not the fault of architects, but, to many, the lack of response from the architectural community has been puzzling.

Part of the problem, Economakis says, is the speed at which things have been changing. “What do you do when you don’t know what the situation will be like tomorrow?” Economakis asks. “That confusion is reflected in the paucity of visions put forward by architects. I think what many have been doing – myself included – is essentially just watching the situation, which is changing day by day.”

Shelter from the storm

A case in point is the latest deal between the EU and Turkey, designed to halt new arrivals by designating Turkey a “safe third country”. Last November, after hearing his brother’s story and seeing what he describes as “horrific images of suffering”, Economakis pitched the idea of a refugee village in Lesbos to the European high commissioner for refugees.

We need to give agency to the refugees that have had their lives torn apart. They need to be given more control over their circumstances, rather than being placed in an alien shelter that is unfamiliar to them.

In an attempt to reduce the numbers of young children shivering on the beach in space blankets, the plan was to provide locally sourced mud-brick housing that could be repurposed in the event of the crisis abating. With the new deal, though, that now seems unlikely to happen. “It’s been confirmed to me that the Greek Government likes the idea,” Economakis says, “but nobody wants to write to me and say ‘let’s talk’, because nobody knows what the policy will be.”

While the EU-Turkey deal complicates matters, there is, of course, the fate of those refugees that have already arrived to remember. In 2015, over a million asylum claims were made in Europe – many in Germany, whose open-door policy encouraged hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the country.

“In England and other places in Europe, architects probably don’t have to do so much in this regard, as there aren’t that many refugees,” says Peter Schmal, director of the German Architecture Museum. “But in Germany, it’s been quite amazing.”

At first, Schmal says, German architects didn’t actually have that much to do either. As thousands streamed in from Austria, states across the country simply scrambled to find whatever shelter they could provide – empty hotels, army barracks, abandoned factories or old psychiatric clinics. They improvised, says Schmal. From the outside, it looked like a pretty heroic effort, but much of the shelter offered up, according to Economakis, was unfit for long-term habitation.

“Practically speaking, it takes one to two years for your typical refugee arriving in Germany or Sweden to be able to actively seek their own housing on the open market,” he says. “What do you do in the meantime? As temporary as these places are, they still need to be structured; they still need to have an urban master plan.”

Opening the closed community

Integration has also been an issue, particularly in East Germany, where abandoned communist-era tower blocks on the fringes of towns and cities have suddenly been put back into use. “The greatest mistake would be the prospect of the ghettoisation of migrant communities,” Economakis says. “They need to put people in a place where positive interactions are fostered, among themselves and the local community alike.”

Now, with some German states having run out of facilities to repurpose, Schmal says, and city halls elsewhere wanting to regain control over public buildings, architects are becoming much more active. Last October, Schmal and his colleagues put out a call for housing projects for asylum seekers and recognised refugees, which has since been uploaded to an impressive online public database.

Some of the projects – which are being presented by Schmal’s team at the German pavilion of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale – are little more than container complexes and tents, but compared with what came before, most are a stark improvement. Intended for actual housing, they offer more privacy and proper communal spaces; they are durable and can be repurposed in years to come as affordable rented housing; and, in some cases, they involve a mixed resident base of locals and refugees, avoiding the problem of segregation.

“The supply of improvised facilities is finished, so we have to build anew,” explains Schmal. “The database serves as information for cities that are trying to decide what to build, which materials to use, and so on.”

Among the projects under construction, a few take Schmal’s fancy: “There is a great one in Oranienburg, near Berlin – a massive building – that’s interesting, because it’s going to last for 30 years, and it’s cheap, well-done housing. There’s an open staircase, open balcony access – it’s like something you would see built in Dessau in 1925.”

Long-term solutions

While the refugee flow into Europe has escalated to the point of a full-blown humanitarian crisis, it is often pointed out that the vast majority of displaced people actually reside outside of Europe. Of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees currently registered by UNHCR, for example, 2.1 million are living in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and 1.9 million in Turkey. The majority of those refugees are based in cities and urban centres, but huge numbers remain confined to camps, where the chance of returning home looks slimmer by the day – and where the need for expertise is critical.

Sheltering over 80,000 people, the largest of the Syrian refugee camps is Zaatari, established in July 2012 in northern Jordan. It was run for some time by Kilian Kleinschmidt: a gruff, sharp-tongued German who knows better than most the difficulties facing architects and planners involved in refugee camps. The key problem, according to Kleinschmidt, is the way camps are perceived as temporary and designed according to an ‘emergency response framework’.

“UNHCR, or any other agency, might deploy architects and urban planners,” he says, “but they are put into this framework of humanitarian response. Basically, you are instructed to work on a storage facility and nothing more. In that storage facility, you have certain social services, of course, like schools and hospitals, but it’s the same grid more or less adapted to any different landscape. They aren’t designing things to last, and they aren’t looking into service delivery in the long run.”

For architects, this restricts what they can actually do, and for refugees, it means spaces are produced that are often inadequate to their needs. The average stay in a refugee camp, experts say, is now a staggering 17 years, and Kleinschmidt wants that fact to be recognised: “I’m arguing that first responders should be the first responders but that when it comes to the next stage, we need to have a different framework. The right expertise and partners should be brought in to set up longer-term spaces that work, from economical, ecological, security and social points of view. And that would involve architects and city-planners.”

But how can that argument be made to host nations, who balk at the idea of refugee camps becoming permanent fixtures in their own backyards? According to Don Weinreich, founding partner at Ennead Architects in New York, it is about nurturing mutually beneficial relationships between refugees and host communities.

“If the representation to a host community or a host government is, ‘We want to send a quantity of people who will, at best, contribute nothing to your country or locale or, at worst, become a drain on your resources,’ that’s not a very good bargain,” says Weinrich, who has developed a toolkit alongside UNHCR to help make the case. “We’re advocating using a methodology of analysis that can quickly measure the absorption capacity of a host community’s resources. Maybe they have an abundance of water but no medical care, in which case a bargain can be struck that says, ‘If you will accept this community of refugees, we will build a medical centre that can handle the refugee population and the host population. And when the refugees move on, that facility is yours to keep.”

Empathetic architecture

Another major challenge for architects working in large refugee camps is understanding how displaced populations tend to engage in the process of making their own homes and communities.

“Zaatari is a good example of the huge disconnect between what humanitarians do and the real requirements of people living in such spaces,” says Kleinschmidt. “Within a year of the camp being set up, we had something that wasn’t what UNHCR site planners had been designing. It was a constant battle between surveyors putting containers exactly where they thought they should be, and refugees dismantling and reassembling them five minutes later.”

Those designing the kinds of high-tech shelters that look good on the picture galleries of European architecture magazines should bear this in mind, Weinrech adds. “As important as shelter type A or B is, we need to give agency to the refugees that have had their lives torn apart,” he says. “They need to be given more control over their circumstances, rather than being placed in an alien shelter that is unfamiliar to them.”

However challenging the situation might seem, it is only likely to get worse in the coming years. A recent report by the Environmental Justice Foundation found that climate change alone could mean another 150 million people are made
refugees by 2050.

“The reality is that there will be increasing mobility in the world, thanks to climate change and poverty,” Kleinschmidt says. “People are no longer confined to the places they live. Before, they didn’t know where to go; now, globalisation and technology mean the poorest man in the world knows what it looks like in Vienna.”

Architects might be fortunate in the skills they have and the contribution they can make, but in the end, Weinreich says, echoing the discovery Economakis made, this is an issue that effects everyone collectively: “All of us, as humans, should entertain the possibility that at some point in our lives, we ourselves may become refugees,” he says. “This is not something that ‘happens to others’; this is happening now, to all of us.”

Forward-thinking housing designs are vital to ensure the safety and well-being of refugees.
“A Home – For Refugees Too”: a construction to house 50 refugees in Oranienburg, Germany.
A refugee accommodation hall in Munich, Günther & Schabert Architekten.


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