December 30, 2009

Architecture, Refugee Camp Design, and Psycho-Social Refugee Health

 How can the design of refugee camps positively  impact the psychological health of refugees?

Some time ago I asked this question in a blog post and meant to get back to it, yet it never quite happened, so I might as well explore the topic today.  Refugee camp design is a common interest among architects and urban planners, although after several years of working within this subject, I admit that it isn't not nearly as illustrious as a Hollywood movie.  Every year books and exhibitions like Design Like You Give a Damn or Design for The Other 90 Perceent spotlight initiatives by designers to solve problems in the third world often by means of new technologies, new research, and usually really expensive and sleek looking products.  But in truth, the solutions to many of these problems has more to do with just legal systems, public interests, access to capital, and then eventually to skillful implementation.  Nonetheless, everyday people read my blog looking for information on Refugee Camp Design, Refugee Camp Technology, and Refugee Shelter, so I figured I might as well expand on some of these issues.

As for innovations within refugee camp design, these are slow moving because new technologies often fail to be well implemented or are too expensive  or are  totally unnecessary.  The most common reason why architects and planners design solutions that will never see the light however is because these designers do not understand the legal framework in which humanitarian interventions exist.  For example, the plan for Dadaab below by New York based architect Deborah Gans is completely impossible due to the restrictions of Kenyan Policy as outlined in the 2006 Refugee Act, their reservations on the 1967 Convention on Refugees, and the social limits of these camps.  While the architect wants to use these camps as a means to experiment with creating a new idea on cities, the truth is that such a presumption is impossible.  Not to mention, a protracted crisis is not a laboratory for social experiments.


There are other aspects of this plan that are inconsistent with the reality of the camps.  The camps are high-density to maximize all resources and security, and  any form of agricultural production within the camps is illegal.  Consequently to expand the settlement and build on agricultural production will simply not be possible.   Although Dadaab has been in place for 20 years, long term settlement planning is against the interest of government policy and consequently initiatives such as this can never be constructed.  Therefore any planning initiatives must somehow comply with policy while advancing the interests of the population.  I'm not saying this is a good thing, but if one can't build illegal structures in America, why would that be okay anywhere else?  On last thing, the architect has clearly done only limited research as the water pathways and vegetation within the diagram are only present during the aggressive floods in October and November.  The rest of the year the place is a dry, bleak, and empty gravel parking lot as far as you can see.


When contemplating refugee camp design from an architectural perspective, a more useful approach is to analyze the architecture of the institutions.   Displaced people are only designated refugees when they obtain the legal status from the host country, which often requires the assistance of UNHCR.  Depending upon the laws of the host country, refugees may or may not have access to employment, healthcare, social services or education.  Yet this institutions appear hostile and are dehumanizing.

Life as  refugee means hours upon hours standing in line.  Waiting to for your name to be called, waiting to be addressed, waiting to be heard, being told to come back tomorrow, or the day after, and waiting for weeks or months, or even years, for phone calls that never come.  Time and again I've seen institutions abuse people through this process, failing to consider what it must be like to always wait and never have an answer.  Some agencies are even located far from the urban center, such as UNHCR's office in Cairo, and therefore people in need of assistance have to travel nearly 2 hours to stand in line with little hope of receiving attention.

If architects and planners want to really improve the lives of displaced populations, the biggest contribution they can make with new design is not within the immediate crisis.  It is by reorganizing the interface by which refugees interact with agencies.  To remove the hostile fencing and aggressive facades and to replace these structures with something equally inexpensive, equally utilitarian, and significantly more humane.  Architecture has always been the tool of the power, and to aid the powerful organizations to better assist refugees is a natural progression for the discipline.  Sustainable refugee camp design and technology is an important area of concern, yet as these only occupy a small part of the problem facing displaced peoples, it is time rather to make architecture more humane.