Future Tense

Better Than a Tent, Worse Than a House

Ikea’s flat-pack shelters for refugees may make life more comfortable. But they won’t solve any problems.

An Ikea “Better Shelter” prototype, Hilawyen refugee camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, July 2013.

An Ikea “Better Shelter” prototype, Hilawyen refugee camp, Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, July 2013.

Photo by R. Cox/BetterShelter.org

Although more than 600,000 refugees have flooded into Europe this year, more than 58 million displaced people remain, mostly in the developing world. Millions are stuck in refugee camps, housed in row after row of tents, enduring the cold and blistering heat and dust that blows in from every direction. But Ikea, the furniture giant, has just made its first delivery of 10,000 technologically innovative shelters for refugees to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Ikea’s “Better Shelters” arrive in four flat-packed containers and take 4–8 hours to assemble. Made of lightweight steel frames and sleek polymer panels, the shelters offer 188 square feet of living space, nearly double the size of the standard tent provided by the UNHCR. They have mosquito nets, lights, ventilation, and solar panels to provide electricity. The Better Shelter is a good value, too. Although it costs $1,150, roughly three times what a tent costs, it promises to last six times longer than tents, which often rip or rot in less than six months. UNHCR claims that the Ikea shelter “provides more dignity for its occupants.”

The Ikea shelter is part of a movement to use Western technology to improve life in refugee camps. In Turkey, refugees use debit cards provided by the World Food Program to shop in stores rather than waiting for food packages. In Jordan, refugees get texts from UNHCR when aid money is deposited and then use an iris scanner to withdraw cash at an ATM. Facebook just announced it will bring the Internet to camps around the world. There is a spirit of technological optimism in the humanitarian community that sees refugees’ problems as logistical issues amenable to high-tech solutions. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg argued that the Internet is a “force for peace” and an “enabler of human rights.”

In Berbuki, a camp for internally displaced people in the Republ

In Berbuki, a camp for internally displaced people in the Republic of Georgia, internally displaced people use blankets donated by the United States Agency for International Development to block nearly constant wind and dust.


Photo by Hannah Mintek

This is a crucial issue for the European Union, since even the most ambitious plans for resettlement have Europe and the United States together admitting fewer than 1.5 million resettlements. In order to pursue the explicit goal of keeping displaced people from being stuck in poverty and violence or to achieve the implicit goal of preventing an even more massive influx of migration into Europe, donor countries must find a way to turn camps into places where people can rebuild their lives. But using technology to update life in a refugee camp may not be enough to help displaced people.

Refugee camps are meant for short-term emergencies. They are supposed to be temporary way stations where displaced people can get medical care, food supplies, and shelter until they can either return home or be resettled elsewhere. They aren’t designed as villages or cities where people get jobs, raise children, or pursue educations. The fact that a camp is a holding pen shows up in every building there. Because most host governments do not want refugees to permanently resettle, they demand that UNHCR raze the camp as soon as refugees can return home or go elsewhere. So shelters have to flimsy: made with bamboo sticks and flammable roofs, as in Nepal’s camps, or out of unbaked bricks that can easily be bulldozed into dust, as in Nyarugusu Camp in Tanzania. Ikea’s new shelters are also impermanent, meant to be easily torn down and carted away. Essentially storage units, they are better than tents but far worse than real houses.

But although camps are designed to be temporary, the average length of stay is now more than 17 years. More than half of the world’s displaced people are in what UNHCR calls “protracted displacement.” In Nepal’s Beldangi Camp, refugees have waited 18 years to resettle or return to Bhutan. In the Republic of Georgia, people displaced from Abkhazia 23 years ago are still crammed into decaying Soviet hotels that have become vertical refugee camps. Many Palestinian camps, some almost 70 years old, are now outright slums.

n Prezeti, a camp for internally displaced people in the Republi
In Prezeti, a camp for internally displaced people in the Republic of Georgia, residents are nearly two hours away from an urban area with employment or services. The settlement, which is on a freezing slope with constant wind, has no indoor running water or gas.

Photo by Hannah Mintek

So camps are not temporary, but nor do they have the infrastructure for permanent residence. Many lack electricity, shops, schools, and places to worship; almost none have sewers or indoor running water. When shelters—like Ikea’s—don’t have indoor plumbing, women risk sexual assault to walk to communal toilets. Urinating or defecating in the open, nearer to the shelters, puts the entire community at risk of cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A.

Camps also often few opportunities for paid employment. Without jobs, there is no way for displaced families to gain permanent housing, provide their own food, or fully educate their children. Yet because host governments want to prevent refugees from taking jobs away from locals, many camps are far away from urban areas where displaced people might find work. In Prezeti, a camp in the Republic of Georgia where unemployment is over 80 percent, many of the people given housing there have given up and returned to their villages, which are under military occupation.

Azraq Camp, which was built to house 130,000 Syrian refugees and cost more than $63.5 million, is so far out in the Jordanian desert that camp residents have no hope of finding jobs. Many of them have either returned to Syria, where they risk Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs and attacks by ISIS, or left for Europe, where they at least have some hope of finding work. Just 18,500 live in Azraq Camp now.

The fundamental problems of refugee camps are political, not technological.

However technologically advanced Ikea’s temporary shelters are, they do not provide the political and social conditions or the permanence for people to begin new lives—and without that, many refugees will make the perilous trek for Europe.

To avoid the refugee crisis turning into a refugee catastrophe, the U.S. and the EU must plan now to permanently resettle millions of displaced people, either in Europe or in countries in the developing world. Obviously, the EU will have to grant asylum to more the 160,000 people it plans to. Even Germany will have to accept more than the 800,000 refugees it has pledged to take. This isn’t just charity, though: Many European countries face a severe demographic crisis because of rapidly aging populations. With proper supports, young, hardworking, entrepreneurial immigrants may provide a much-needed renewal for European economies.

But not everyone can go to Europe or the United States. Eighty percent of displaced people are in the developing world. Whether because they want to return home eventually or remain in countries with a common language or religion, the overwhelming number of displaced people are likely to resettle there, if they can find a way to integrate into local economies and societies. The EU, the U.S., and UNHCR must press governments in Turkey, Pakistan, Tanzania, and elsewhere to grant refugees full citizenship and permanent residence. Rather than investing in more temporary shelter—even technologically advanced Ikea shelters—donor countries should invest in durable infrastructure, industry, and urban services. The influx of development money and new jobs that come from turning camps into cities may make refugees a welcome source of income, rather than a burden.

The refugee “crisis” is not a temporary problem that can be solved with emergency aid. As more people are uprooted by war and natural disaster, forced migration will become one of the defining problems of the 21st century. The answer isn’t to improve conditions in refugee camps, whether by warehousing them in boxes by Ikea or getting them on Facebook, but to find ways to get them out of the camps and into permanent housing, full-time jobs, and new lives.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.