Improving Refugee Settlements: Collaboration between Refugees, Architects, and Volunteers
by Architecture for Refugees: Dennise Castillo, Nasr Chamma, and Bence Komlósi
Informal refugee camps are vivid empirical examples of transitory architecture and continuously transforming urban settlements and landscapes. Their inhabitants build them from scratch to accommodate themselves and their families for an undefined period of time. They might stay for weeks, months, or years before leaving the camp and making way for new refugee arrivals. Different nations, cultures, and religions live side by side in these mutable environments, forming settlements that are defined as refugee camps. Architects from all over the world are inspired by these distinctive places and their displaced residents — who are also the designers and builders of the camps.
There are currently very few architects dealing with architectural questions relating to refugee crises and camps. As architects we are generally united in the aim of improving refugee settlements and living conditions within camps, motivated by kindness and the common desire to be the “Hero Architect,” trying to help others with our knowledge and skills. But perhaps we should ask ourselves what refugees expect from us. And, most importantly, what we can learn from refugees. Are we really serving refugees well and are we doing it in the right ways? If we really want to improve the lives of refugees, we should listen to them and learn from their experiences and knowledge. This exchange of understanding and ideas and the need for collaboration is vital, and we as architects ought to integrate these considerations into our work.
“… As designers we are the servants of this community: whatever we do should serve the people.”  This is Andres Lepik quoting the words of Hannes Meyer from 1929. As architects, when we engage with refugee camps, the refugees should be seen as our clients and we should consider that we are providing services to them. In any normal situation, clients employ architects and have their expectations as to how the architects will work. This should not be any different when it comes to responding to refugee crises. Together we have to develop short- and long-term solutions that suit the needs of refugees and ensure them a good quality of life.
Refugee camps: paradigms for understanding and designing the cities of the future
Refugee camps can be compared to small-scale cities. Like cities, refugee camps are designed to provide a variety of vital services to their inhabitants. From schools to healthcare and sanitation, these services depend on the support of flexible, reliable, and scalable infrastructure. Unfortunately, refugee camps frequently fail to deliver these most basic services, generally due to a lack of appropriate infrastructure. The provision of infrastructure is often the biggest challenge that governments, architects, and nonprofit organizations face when establishing refugee camps.
Many European cities are currently experiencing enormous changes and challenges due to a massive influx of new inhabitants: the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and conflict as refugees. In order to face the current crisis, emergency measures are being taken. In Germany, for example, building standards and codes have been adapted to allow faster and more cost-effective construction. And while “integration” is the latest buzzword that guides many of these measures, “acceptance” in wider society has proven much harder to achieve. Several strategies have been proposed to address this issue, but how many of them actually consider the needs and desires of the refugees? Are there lessons from previous refugee crises that we can leverage to prevent marginality in these cases?
Lessons from the past suggest European cities that welcome refugees ought to regard refugee camps as instructive examples for gaining a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding integration of different cultures, traditions, languages, and ways of living. Similarly, architects should think of refugee camps as practical laboratories of architecture and formal and informal urban design, providing unique insights into the needs, culture, and behavior of refugees. Architecture students from across the globe should visit refugee camps to increase their awareness and understanding of the issues at hand and to connect with their clients, the refugees, in order to collaborate in finding the answers to the dilemmas of integration.
Despite many refugee camps, such as Za’atari in Jordan, having been home to tens of thousands of people for several years, refugee camps are supposed to be temporary. This idea of the camps as temporary emergency interventions hinders access to consistent financial and political support to provide decent living conditions, and contrasts with the actual long-term nature of many refugee camps and the experiences of many refugees. In contrast, many cities have both the political and financial power to drive positive change, both within their city limits and beyond to refugee camps. With acceptance and respect, true integration is possible and we might envisage a future where refugee camps will no longer be needed.
Mapping informal refugee settlements: the case of the Jungle
Through mapping the Jungle, an informal refugee camp in Calais, France, we can understand its transitory and continuously changing urban landscape and the “architectural” development process it has undergone, and which continues apace . The camp is continuously growing and changing without pause. Only long-term residents and volunteers are able to keep track of the constant changes and provide an overall picture of the current state of the camp. Amid this constant mutability, new maps are being developed by different groups and organizations in order to provide an understanding of the context and current situation for the planning of new interventions and projects. Despite the difficulty of keeping up with the ongoing transformations, these analyses are crucial in understanding what currently exists and what is needed in terms of further development. The maps contain spatial, infrastructural, and social aspects and aim to show how the camp works on a daily basis. This is a settlement that has already been torn apart and rebuilt three to four times in the last 15 months, making the continuous job of mapping the camp even more important.
It is possible to map the street networks, visible infrastructure, and buildings of the camp. However, it is much more difficult to analyze the hidden socioeconomic and cultural aspects of the camp. In order to map these elements, it is crucial to collaborate with the residents and volunteers. They know the answers for the why and how. They know how the nightclub — run by Ethiopians — functions. They know the different nationalities’ neighborhoods and they know how their communities work. Besides this knowledge of the existing situation, they also know what is needed to develop the urban, spatial, and architectural aspects of the camp. Long-term residents can explain individual elements of the camp and can also describe the whole camp in terms of its past development and its present situation. For newly arriving refugees and migrants the maps that are being produced can help with orientation and integration into camp life.
NGOs and volunteers also play a key role in the mapping process. The bigger NGOs and their long-term employees and volunteers know the most about the camp along with the long-term refugee residents. The fluctuation of residents is continuous, while these organizations and their staff are engaged over the long term. They are thereby able to develop long-term strategies for supporting refugees and developing the camp, and can support the realization of new projects. Maps of the camp can also help with orientation of visitors and new volunteers and NGO staff.
In refugee settlements in general, and particularly in informal refugee camps, the lack of resources such as money, materials, human capacity and time are the biggest problems. That is why it is even more important to assess the existing situation in order to use resources in the most effective and efficient way possible. Collaborative mapping with all stakeholders can reduce wasted resources and increase the efficacy of interventions.
A shelter is not enough…
Architects do not just plan, design, and construct buildings; they are also responsible for creating, shaping, and establishing communities. They construct not only the physical elements but also help to define the social, economic, and environmental framework. In the case of refugee camps, the refugees themselves are the best people to consult with about needs, ways of living, and community development. They come from regions and countries where they have developed their cultures and societies over centuries and millennia. Being displaced or uprooted from their home countries does not mean that they are suddenly incapacitated or do not know how to “build.” Refugees are often skilled, educated, and trained in a variety of professions.
What is currently being provided in formal refugee settlements is failing to ensure an adequate quality of life for refugees, particularly when considering a long-term perspective and the long duration of time that millions of refugees are often forced to spend in refugee camps. Millions of dollars are being spent in the humanitarian “market” on tents, caravans, and prefabricated units, envisaged as providing temporary responses to humanitarian crises.
Even when refugees are grateful for these temporary solutions on arrival, the reality is that these types of shelters fail to offer what refugees would consider a suitable “home,” given that they often spend many years in the camps. These temporary solutions fail to consider and adequately address the long-term nature of many refugee crises. It is like using the wrong key for an unsuitable lock — the involvement and leadership of refugees could help to provide better answers and responses.
In informal camps, refugees are able to change things, personalize their environment, create opportunities, and build their shelter units and micro-communities in the best and most functional ways, even with limited available resources and materials. Architects can learn from this process of refugees creating camps from scratch and developing them as conditions allow. At the same time, architects can provide camp inhabitants with a macro-vision of the whole camp, architectural knowledge and construction methods, and assistance with designing spaces and building shelter units and services.
Humanitarian organizations, NGOs, and volunteers are also part of this process and can help to facilitate this collaboration and exchange of knowledge and skills. This is precisely what happened in the Jungle, where architects and volunteers played a massive, key role in supporting refugees in different phases of the camp’s development. Schools, community centers, shops, shelter units, and other services were built through these collaborations and are serving refugees today as a result, making the Jungle a unique refugee camp and a fascinating case-study for future interventions.
 Lepik, Andres. “Think global, build social! Contemporary architects are actively involved in society.” In Builders, edited by Péter Pozsár, 24. Budapest: Hello Wood Kft, 2016.
 The mapping project was organised by the MapFugees team. MapFugees on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/junglemapping/?fref=ts.