Shelters, Not Homes: The Hollow Souls of Refugee Camps

In the last few decades, international intervention, failed democracy, and terrorism have combined with growing Islamophobia to create refugee crises that leave millions in perpetual states of displacement. The latest influx of migrants fleeing the Syrian Civil War marks a turning point: Western countries must decide whether or not they will grow past their histories of isolationist and xenophobic policies.

When humanitarian crises such as warfare, natural disasters, or geopolitical strife act as an impetus for the displacement of a people, the expected response for other countries is to begin the construction of refugee camps. Designed to house worn-down families and individuals temporarily, these camps can range from 2,000 to over 300,000 people and, over time, can begin to resemble small cities. Many lack facilities and institutions to support their populations for more than a few months and are designed expressly as holdovers for people fleeing danger to metaphorically catch their breath before continuing their journeys. However, the advent of the Syrian Refugee Crisis has demonstrated that sometimes, prolonged threats that prohibit the safe return of refugees results in the transmutation of refugee camps into permanent residences. In these unintended cities, there often lingers an ominous atmosphere: a collective sensation of transition, of intransigence, of fear. As their populations multiply and new generations grow up among the white tents of the camps, many countries—especially in the West—must reexamine the camps’ design to reflect refugees’ real needs of permanent relocation and desires for productivity.

During the initial stages of the refugee crisis, many might have expected—or thought, or hoped, perhaps—that Syrians would filter calmly into the camps prepared for them, stay for a few months, and, once the violence died down, that they would leave. However, crisis is disinclined toward quiet, quick, or tidy resolution. The Syrian civil war has dragged on, now in its fifth year, with no indication that it is nearing an end. Moreover, camps around the world have seen an increase in the typical refugee’s tenure as a resident of these nominally temporary arrangements: refugees are  staying for 10, to 12, to even 17 years on average, depending on the camp. Regardless,European nations have pushed the narrative that Syrian refugees are only to sojourn briefly before returning to their war-stricken country. This has led to the impression that refugees should be provided with shelter, not with homes.

Organisations like the Amsterdam-based What Design Can Do (WDCD) have launched programs that invite innovators from different fields to come up with improvements in the architecture and accessibility of the camps, providing them with cash incentives. But these neoliberal initiatives emphasise the temporary nature of the camps, rely on an unstable free market for innovation rather than on governments for subsidized construction, and aim to improve the efficiency of the shelters rather than building infrastructure, facilities, and railroads. Refugees are therefore relegated to a global underclass, denied the opportunity to plan and design their own residences, perpetually stuck in an arrangement that indicates Westerners’ distaste for and fear of them. The camps reflect these sentiments: often, people living in these “temporary” conditions are stuck in the camps for decades, unable to work or get an education and thereby become productive in capitalist society.

And it is clear that this fear plays a large factor in the willingness of European countries to ignore the facts of the crisis. In the Netherlands, the same country where WDCD is based, the refugee collective We Are Here lacks access to any form of education for its residents, as well as proper housing, infrastructure, or telecommunications. By contrast, Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world—which houses 330,000 refugees from the Somalian civil war in five encampments—employs refugees as 90% of its planning staff; has access to primary, secondary, and tertiary schools; and pushes initiatives of female education (now, Dadaab has nearly a 50-50 split of girls and boys in primary education). The differences between We Are Here and Dadaab are also evident  when one looks to the inceptions of these camps. Opened in north-east Kenya 25 years ago, Dadaab is an example of the worldwide trend toward assessment of refugee crises as protracted situations requiring long-term solutions. Now seeing its second generation of children born and raised as refugees, Dadaab emphasises the future maintenance of its communities, as well as the perpetuation of hope for a better life. On the other hand, the Dutch position on refugees stresses the importance of keeping people away from the Netherlands. The ruling VVD party has expressed a desire to “make the conditions for refugees as austere as possible, to discourage others from travelling to the Netherlands.” They imagine camps with minimal services, consisting of container-shaped housing more resembling “storage facilities for people,” in the words of humanitarian aid expert Kilian Kleinschmidt. Instead of working to make the camps more habitable, most European countries are expending much of their effort on prevention, disincentives, and campaigns for relocation.

The fact that the vast majority of today’s refugees are Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa lends a particularly embarrassing sense of clarity to the situation. It is almost certain that the rising levels of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric in Western countries contribute to the unwillingness of those governments to accept and integrate refugees into their communities. The American presidential candidate Donald Trump has even proposed an explicit ban on all Muslims attempting to enter the country, regardless of immigration status, and the creation of a registry to keep track of those already in the country. The spike in Islamophobic tendencies among developed countries becomes deeply ironic, however, when situated within context: the West largely contributed to the Syrian civil war, even funding and training troops on both sides of the conflict; and the Islamic State, the terrorist group largely responsible for the strife that initiated the refugee crisis, was birthed from the fallout of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and from the remainders of American-created extremist organisation Al Qaeda. This knowledge makes the nascent xenophobia in the West all the more bitter; Europe and the United States are indirectly responsible for the refugee crisis, and now, they are failing to account for it properly.

Instead of pushing an isolationist policy that works actively to make refugees uncomfortable, the rest of the West would do well to look to Germany or Dadaab for examples of how the influx of people could bolster the state. While Dadaab has utilized its facilities to create skilled workers who will be capable of contributing to Kenya’s economy, Germany has treated the housing crisis as a financial stimulus, allowing the building industry to create thousands of jobs in order to construct hundreds of thousands of affordable apartments. Otherwise, Kleinschmidt suggests, it would be pragmatic to set up “special development zones” in impoverished or neglected areas for migrants to come into and reinvigorate. By turning refugee camps into new cities, constructing acceptable infrastructure, and creating purpose for the people living in them, the West would not only fulfil its moral imperative for humanitarian aid, but also achieve a higher level of development and prosperity.