the ideal design of a refugee camp

This is an interview borrowed from TU Delft’s website, with James Kennedy who did his PhD on the layout of refugee camps.


The art of tea drinking

The ‘ideal’ refugee camp doesn’t get designed on the drawing board. “Many refugee organisations just build something, “ says Dr. James Kennedy. “ When building a camp, the long term perspective is missing.”

There’s really never enough time to design a refugee camp. Whenever people are forced to flee to avoid political conflict or natural disasters, refugee organisations have to be ready to provide a safe haven today rather than tomorrow. Supplying thousands of homeless with emergency shelter, medical aid, and food is difficult enough; making sure the situation in a refugee camp remains tolerable in the long term is an even bigger job. British structural engineer Dr Ir. James Kennedy, who in June 2008 completed his doctoral study at the Faculty of Architecture, spent three months working in a refugee camp in Kenya to find out how refugee organisations
go about building a refugee camp and how they might improve their methods.

What kind camp was it?

“I was working in Ifo, a camp within a complex of refugee camps at Dadaab, not very far from the Somali border. Ifo was built in 1991 to receive Somali refugees. The original plan was for the camp to be used for about six months, after which time the refugees would return to their country. But when I was doing my research in 2007, the camp was still there. Today the number of inhabitants is about 70,000, half of whom were born in the camp. It has almost become a real town, with markets, schools, mosques, internet cafés, everything.”

What did you do at the camp while you were doing your research?

“I wasn’t just a researcher, I was also working for the Norwegian Refugee Council as a shelter manager, supervising the construction of a new section of the camp, among other things. The new section was needed because part of the original camp had been built in a flood area. At the time the planners hadn’t considered it a problem, because they thought the camp wouldn’t be in use for more than a couple of months. The result is that part of the camp gets flooded every couple of years. Every time that happens a large number of shelters are destroyed, and the people in the camp are exposed to severe health risks.”

What was done about it?

“The unhcr (the United Nations refugee organisation) and the other responsible aid organisations decided to move the refugees living in the areas with the greatest risk of flooding to other, higher areas. I was given the job of supervising that process. My position gave me the opportunity of walking around in the old section of the camp and seeing how the settlement had developed over the past sixteen years. I could see how the camp had been adapted bit by bit and how whole pieces of it had been rebuilt. At the same time I could take part in the construction preparations for a new part of the camp in the area on higher ground. It was a win-win situation, with me gaining a lot of knowledge that would come in useful for my research while at the same time having a job that gave me my means of financial support during my doctoral studies.”

So you were both researcher and aid worker at the same time. Didn’t that make your position

“Yes, it did from time to time. As an employee of a humanitarian organisation you have a certain code of behaviour you have to stick to. For example, according to the protocols you mustn’t be in the refugee camp in the evenings and at night because of the safety risks involved, but as a researcher you really want to know what goes on inside the camp at night. On the other hand, if I had not been an employee, I would not have had access to a great number of activities. My position as a professional opened doors for me as well closing others. But you have to be very clear on this point when you present your research results.”

You have been critical of the universal guidelines for planning a refugee camp. What’s wrong with those guidelines?

“The problem is that a single concept has grown into the one and only standard design for refugee camps. According to the UN guidelines the shelters in a camp must be grouped around small squares. The idea behind this concept is that the squares will act as communal areas where families can mind one another’s children and create gardens. This led to the creation of small, semi-autonomous communities within the larger whole of the camp. This is a concept that works for people who come from communities in which the public and private
spheres tend to overlap — as is often the case in West Africa or South America. But in other types of communities this kind of layout doesn’t work at all.”

Why not?

“Take for instance the camps for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. When these refugees were given materials to build their shelters, they didn’t start by putting up a roof. What they did was to build walls around their allotted piece of land to protect their women from the prying eyes of outsiders. To them the protection of their privacy was more important than any protection from the elements. People feel the need to arrange their environment so as to feel at home as much as possible. In many cases you can’t plan for that.”

Another problem you describe in your thesis is the lack of any long-term perspective when a refugee
camp is built.

“When they design refugee camps, the planners assume that the camp will be used exactly as they expected it to be. They design a camp to be lived in for a couple of months by a certain number of people. In real life camps tend to remain in use for longer than planned, and their population grows over time. The camps simply aren’t built to cope with that and soon become overpopulated.”

How could matters be improved?

“Since one cannot determine in advance what the best layout for a camp is, aid organisations shouldn’t design a camp in one go. It would be better if they went about it one step at a time. In my thesis I call this the cycle of intervention. Setting up a camp starts for example with deciding where the water wells should be located. Once you have made that step, you wait a while to see how the layout of the settlement develops. You observe how the first groups of refugees arrange their surroundings. Where do they build shops? Where are the schools? You look at the emerging patterns and decide where you need to intervene. You have to make sure that the layout remains safe and that it retains a modicum of efficiency. You have to have firebreaks for example, and
you want food stores and hospitals to be readily accessible. The situation constantly needs to be evaluated in order to enable the original design to be adapted step by step. To many structural engineers this is not a satisfactory solution. They would prefer a perfectly conceived design that can be universally applied. It just doesn’t work like that in practice. The social and cultural context of the refugees simply varies too much.”

In your role as aid worker at the Ifo camp, didyou have the opportunity to put this ‘cycle of
intervention’ into practice?

“I wasn’t given carte blanche to do exactly what I would have liked to do. There already was a rough design for the new section, and I had to stick to that as much as possible. But I was able to influence the construction process of the new camp section. For example, because initially we had only few materials available, in my capacity as shelter manager I had to decide our priority, huts or schools. I decided to start with the schools, because I knew that the refugees were capable of constructing their own huts, and because the presence of schools would motivate the refugees to move to the new area. It wasn’t long before other economic and social initiatives were launched. Shops, madrassas (Islamic schools), and mosques were soon being built.”

Did everything go well of its own accord?

“My method did pose a few problems from time to time. There was one occasion when some refugees wanted to build a mosque on a spot that the planners had singled out as a landfill site. We had had quite a heated discussion about that.”

Did you have much contact with the people in the camp?

“When you walk through the camp, people will come up to you to talk to you. This was how I immediately found out during my first week in Ifo that people were reluctant to move to the newer sections of the camp, because they didn’t feel safe there. The reason for their fear was simple: the new sections didn’t have police patrols yet. Why was that? Simply because there were no police posts where the policemen could change shifts and find a lavatory. That’s what I spent my time doing during my first week in the camp: supervising the construction of police posts and lavatories. Some staff members are always so busy that they don’t take the time to talk with the refugees themselves. That’s silly, because those contacts are extremely important for the quality of your work.”

How do you maintain those contacts?

“My motto is that there is always time for another cup of tea. Once you sit down to drink tea with the population, you soon start to notice other things. You get to know the people, you get to hear who visits which mosque, you notice where children play and where they don’t. If you notice that some groups are hard to reach, you need to ask yourself why this is. Are the people who approach you in the street all men? Just go to a market to buy a pound of tomatoes, and ask the woman selling them where she grows the tomatoes and how often she gets a crop. Just by making conversation with people all over the place you can find out quite a bit about life in the camp.”

Is there much contact between the refugees in the camp and the local Kenyan population?

“The local population has mixed feelings about the refugees. On the one hand there is a kind of kinship. Ifo is in an area with many Somali inhabitants, and culture-wise there aren’t that many differences. At the same time there is a great deal of anger. The Kenyans consider it unfair that the refugees are given new schools and free food by the international community, while the host community receives nothing. With the advent of the refugees the pressure on natural resources has increased considerably. The refugees use the water which the local people need for their camels and goats, and they chop down trees for construction materials and firewood. On the other hand the presence of the camp gives an economic impulse to the area. Many Kenyans are now working in the camp, and a lively trade has sprung up — and it includes materials that the refugees were given by the UN.”

Such as?

“Plastic tarpaulins. There are stories of unhcr employees handing out plastic tarpaulins, and refugees loading the tarps onto a truck a few yards further on to sell them on the black market. The Kenyan authorities have forbidden the refugees to make a living by any legal means, so in order to make a little money many refugees sell the goods they receive from aid organisations.”

If refugees sell on the plastic tarpaulins, what do they use to build their huts?

“People use what they can find, branches, straw, and loam.”

To many people a refugee camp is all about living in tents. Apparently that is not the correct image.

“No, it isn’t. Tents have quite a few drawbacks. To begin with, they are far from durable, lasting no more than six months, or nine at a stretch, after which you can throw them away. Also, tents offer very few possibilities for expansion. The composition of a household changes over time, and people need to be able to adapt their living environment accordingly. You cannot simply tack an extra room onto a tent. If you look at the world in general, you’ll see that there are very few non-nomadic peoples living in tents on a long-term basis. People prefer to go out in search of other materials to built a dwelling with.”

As a structural engineer, do you have any say in the construction of the refugees’ huts?

“People in refugee camps usually build their own dwellings, but I have supervised the construction of schools and police posts. These tend to be simple structures, but you have to remain creative when building them. In some areas in Pakistan for example, the primary concern is that buildings need to be resistant to earthquakes. It’s just one example of how local conditions should always be taken into account. And of course, there’s no money to spend, and time comes at a premium.”

It sounds like a real challenge, but is there any joy in it for a structural engineer?

“Refugee organisations are often sent designs by architects proposing the world’s most amazing shelter. Most of them are totally unfeasible and in actual use would create more problems than they would solve. In an emergency situation the last thing people need is a spectacular, never-beendone-before, architecturally pleasing structure. What people want is a house, a place they can feel at home in.”


About Brita Fladvad Nielsen

I'm a Postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. My focus is on Smart Energy Communities in urban settings as well as design of energy-devices for emergency settings and design for humanitarian markets, especially for refugee camps in rural areas of Africa. I blog about my research approach Design Thinking on and about humanitarian design at . I am also a mother of a child who is deaf, and I blog about her language development on
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2 Responses to the ideal design of a refugee camp

  1. Claire says:

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