Somali refugees walk through an area housing new arrivals, on the outskirts of Hagadera Camp outside Dadaab, Kenya. Rebecca Blackwell/AP

As displacement rises from crises around the globe, the need to provide meaningful and sustainable communities for migrants grows.

In his 2016 book, City of Thorns, Ben Rawlence writes about the time he spent in Dadaab, a sprawling refugee camp in Kenya, and grapples with the misnomer the term “refugee camp” has become. “Dadaab was established in 1992 to hold 90,000 refugees fleeing Somali’s civil war,” wrote Rawlence, adding, “At the beginning of 2016 it is 25-years-old and nearly half a million [people] strong, an urban area the size of New Orleans, Bristol, or Zurich [but] unmarked on any official map.”

Rawlence, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch, describes in compelling and empathetic detail what it’s like not only to live in the camp but to know nothing else. A quarter of a century later, there are those who were born, raised, and educated in the the camp; a second generation has been born, even a third.

The permanence of refugee camps was never the intention. But in light of continued and growing refugee crises around the globe it has become a harsh reality. Frustrated with the status quo, a growing number of innovative thinkers argue that architecture and design are key in transforming camps into more meaningful and sustainable communities.

Benin-born Anicet Adjahossou is one of those innovators. Working for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2012, he helped design and implement a pilot project in the Dollo Ado camp in Ethiopia, home to 200,000 Somalian refugees. “The camp was being developed in a manner that was not necessarily functional enough,” he says. “There was no concern for building connections or establishing a normal social life for the inhabitants.”

Adjahossou figured the best way to remedy this was to talk to the inhabitants directly and find out what they envisioned for their new community. “We asked them what their lifestyles were like back home and what would help them integrate into their new community. We also wanted to involve the local community outside the camp to see what opportunities and links might be created between both sides.”

The resulting settlement had a different design than the rest of the camp: this one organized houses into U-shaped compounds in an effort to create communal spaces that would foster links between various families and residents. The design also provided space for a garden in each compound.

Named an Innovation Fellow by the UNHCR in 2014, Adjahossou is now bringing his expertise to Kenya, where he is working on a project (Kalobeyei Social Economic Integrated Development Program–KSEDP) that goes even farther than the one in Ethiopia. He is working to develop a master plan and infrastructure component for the project that promotes the interaction between the local community outside of the camp and the refugee communities inside.

Working on projects like those in Ethiopia and Kenya has caused Adjahossou, like Rawlence, to rethink the word “camp.” He prefers the term “sustainable human settlement” to describe what he’s working on; an approach that will not only help refugees but also ease reliance on UN support, he says. “To spend one’s entire life in a refugee camp is unacceptable. It’s also impossible for the UN to continue to financially support this system.”

The sense that the traditional model is broken is partially what prompted Kilian Kleinschmidt, a former UNHCR employee, to branch out on his own. Now the founder and chairman of the Innovation and Planning Agency, a global network of humanitarian experts based in Austria, he is trying to effect change from the outside in. “If you feel that in fact the system is too slow to respond to a fast moving world, that innovation is not actually reaching the people you work with, then you begin to feel that it’s better to provoke the system from the outside, and it frees you from the institutional restrictions,” he says.

The traditional “storage facility approach” in constructing refugee camps, as Kleinschmidt calls it, should only be used as a response when the need for shelter is actually going to be temporary, like in response to a natural disaster or short-term political upheaval. Longer problems—such as a civil war—call for a drastically different approach and way of thinking.

“If you have people seen simply as a logistic challenge for the next 10, 15, even 20 years, then you are missing opportunities,” he says. “Instead of seeing this as a burden, transform it into an opportunity as a living space. People in crisis need to rebuild their identity and individuality, and only then can they give to community.” Kleinschmidt adds, “That’s another important point which we discovered again and again. We see that in Germany, and Jordan, and anywhere else. People need to have the feeling that they are treated and can live as individuals, that they can regain their identities.”

The solution, according to Kleinschmidt, is to engage the private sector and envision refugee settlements as cities rather than camps. “The whole investment model is wrong. If you depend on donations, you will try to develop cheap and unsustainable systems,” he said, adding that a business-driven model rather than a charity-driven model also serves to empower inhabitants. “If you’re assisted for 20 years, you’re getting everything for free, you’re not part of a sustainable ecosystem. How on earth will you go back when all of a sudden you have to pay for everything and take care of stuff yourself?”

Kleinschmidt describes the current refugee crisis as a turning point and impetus for change. “Everybody now realizes that we have seen the failure of the aid system,” he said. “It really requires a big rethinking, but it somehow seems to be happening. People are doing things without going through the established mechanisms.”

Amsterdam-based group What Design Can Do is an example of concerned citizens trying to build a bridge between fresh thinking from the outside and traditional aid structures. The organization, founded six years ago, promotes the role of design as a source of untapped potential in finding new ways to approach the refugee crisis. “It was about what design can do beyond making things beautiful. Designers think in terms of solutions, and this could be sued for other things besides making something that was nice to look at,” explained spokesperson Bob Witman.

A rendering of “Argrishelter” (What Design Can Do)

Describing the refugee crisis as “a challenge too big for governments and NGOs alone,” What Design Can Do came up with The Refugee Challenge, an invitation to designers, architects and thinkers to come up with creative solutions. In July, five finalists were selected, all of whom will receive financial and advisory support. Projects include Agrishelter, a temporary and ecological shelter that can be quickly built and integrated into urban spaces; Welcome Card, a streamlined identification card and pass for refugee seekers designed to give quick access to essential information; Eat & Meet, which transforms renovated city buses into food trucks run by refugees; Makers Unite, a project envisioned to unite makers and creative thinkers across refugee and local communities; and Reframe Refugees, a photo agency run by refugees.

What Can Design Can Do initially envisioned itself as an alternative to governments and NGOs, but it has gotten help and support from big players along the way. The group counts among its partners the UNHCR and the Ikea Foundation. “We didn’t want to just have ideas, we also wanted to create something that would really work,” says Witman.

Witman and the designers behind the Refugee Challenge are realistic about the small impact they can have in the context of such an immense problem, but they are also convinced that this is the very reason they should become involved. “We shouldn’t have the pretension that we can solve the problem, but we are hoping we can bring some enlightenment or improvement to the situation,” he said. “If you say politics should solve it and then you just go on with your life, I don’t think that’s the best attitude.”

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