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Refugees

UN test: Shacks instead of tents

While refugee camps offer tents as dwellings, the United Nations teamed up with Swedish furniture giant Ikea to find more durable alternatives. A new kind of shelter is being tested in Ethiopia.

For decades tattered white tents have symbolized UN refugee camps around the world. Depending on the force of the sun, the wind and Mother Nature’s mood, the lifespan of such tents is about six months.

"They were designed for an emergency situation," said Rocco Nuri, a spokesperson for the innovation team of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN’s refugee aid organization.

But the makeshift shelters present their own problems. The tents are not very private, particularly at night when shadows can clearly be seen in the tents, something Nuri said is unacceptable for some cultures. An additional shortcoming is their lack of insulation.

"It's very cold during winter and very hot during summer … the tent is no longer a viable solution," Nuri said. Nevertheless, it's not uncommon for refugees to live in such tents for years.

A Swedish organization, Refugee Housing Unit, looks to change all that.

Refugee transit camp in Dolo Ado, Ethiopia

The Dollo Ado refugee camp in southern Ethiopia imparts a sense of the impermanence of the UN tents

New, shed-like huts are now being tested for their viability as refugee quarters. The shelters were developed over a three-year period under direction of Refugee Housing Unit, a foundation funded by Ikea. So far 3.4 million euros ($4.5 million) have gone into the project. It makes sense that Ikea is involved - construction of the cabins isn't that different from the closets and shelves of the Swedish furniture giant.

At the end of June, the UNHCR shipped a load of cabins - about 100 kilograms (220 pounds) each - to the Dollo Ada region in southern Ethiopia, where some 190,000 refugees from neighboring Somalia live.

Each cabin assembly kit can be carried by two strong individuals. The cabin walls are made up of various pieces made of lightweight and flexible plastic. A bag of metal braces, wire and connecting pieces completes the components. True to Ikea’s legacy, not a single tool - just some patience - is necessary for assembly.

Foreign aid, foreign concept

At any rate, the cabins are more durable than tents, said Dirk Donath, professor for architecture at the Bauhaus University in Weimar. But he criticized them as an artificial and imported solution.

"A metal frame house has nothing to do with the people at the site, nothing to do with the region," the professor said. "They're unwieldy."

Donath has been working for five years at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia’s capital city. He supervises projects that seek habitation solutions for ever-growing metropolises. His particular focus is providing housing for poorer segments of the population.

He also participated in the search for alternatives to the UN tents, suggesting that locally available materials, along with regionally tried and true techniques, should be preferred.

"We filled food sacks with sand and made houses out of that," Donath said.

Problems with alternatives

Despite its reliance on local items, Donath's sand-sack variant hasn't been implemented for various reasons. Traditional materials like clay, bamboo and cement blocks are "out," Donath said, while more modern materials like glass, plastic and metal are "in."

During his two visits to Dollo Ado, Donath also said it seemed that not all refugees were willing to help erect their shelters, with some even demanding high wages for doing so. Given that situation, schlepping around sacks of sand would be out of the question.

Exterior of the plastic refugee shacks. (Copyright: IKEA Foundation)

The refugee cabins are made of more modern, "in" materials

So, back to the plastic cabins - which are supposed to last for three years compared to the tents’ mere six months. Solar cells provide electricity for a lamp and other devices. They also more closely resemble a home, providing better privacy and protection from the elements. In addition they're also easier to repair and disassemble.

"If the cabins are rejected by our beneficiary, we’ll just have to make improvements," said UNHCR representative Nuri. "Or find a new solution."

But Nuri says the plastic shacks are likely to see success. And at a price of about 1,000 euros ($1,300) each, they’re even cheaper than tents.

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