Designed as temporary living places, refugee camps mostly offer shelter and food. The reality of conflicts makes them enduring spaces. Should they go from a short-term logic to a sustainable organization?

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan - Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank
Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan - Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Refugee camps are here to stay

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 68 million people in the world have fled their home in 2017; about a third of them live in refugee camps, with no other choice than living off humanitarian aid. Since the Dadaab camp was created in Kenya in 1991 to welcome refugees from the Somali Civil War, a whole generation has grown up there. In Algeria, Sahrawi refugees have been living in the camps around Tindouf since 1975. The Zaatari camp, in Jordan, has welcomed refugees since August 2012. Like the causes leading refugees to flee, refugee camps are only too rarely temporary.

A change of paradigm in the organization and construction logic of these places could open true economic opportunities for their inhabitants. The managers of the Refugee Cities project promote the idea that real “refugee cities” should be established, with, among other things, a special economic status that would allow refugees to work. According to them, even if refugees return to their country in the long run, these structured spaces would not turn into ghost towns: local communities could reinvest them. Refugee camps could then be conceived like drivers of development for host countries. Especially as 86% of refugees live in developing countries.

Camps are spaces than can be urbanized and managed like cities. The Zaatari camps hosts about 80,000 inhabitants, mostly Syrian refugees; it’s the fifth biggest city in Jordan. For Phoebe Goodwin (UNHCR), humanitarian presence should progressively decrease and give way to a long-term collective organization. Because it is not the job of an NGO or of the United Nations to build and manage a city, according to Kilian Kleinschmidt, former manager of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan for the UNHCR: “they do not have the right reflexes to develop a functioning system that is ecologically and economically sustainable”, unlike central and local governments.


For more inclusive refugee camps

Refugees are the potential citizens of these cities of tomorrow that are reception camps like the Zaatari one. They have a right to benefit from basic urban services (transports, electricity, water…) and are able to manage their organization. For Jessica Anderson, it is possible to put refugees at the heart of camp organization and to hand them the keys of it, which remains impossible under the current governance system organized by UN agencies. The City of Amsterdam gave the inhabitants of Zaatari about 500 bicycles: refugees have developed a real economy around bicycles (rental, garages, etc.) and regained the autonomy to circulate without the humanitarian shuttles or cars.

Technological innovations can make cities more inclusive, more sustainable and more human: it is also the case when they are introduced in refugee camps
, as demonstrated by the inhabitants of Azraq, a refugee camp in Jordan. Since the Ikea Foundation financed a solar farm to power the camp, life has got a little closer back to normal. For Marcelo Garcia, an expert in Smart Cities at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), giving access to connectivity in refugee camps can meet crucial needs, especially through the use of mobile services (online training, employment, e-health, etc.). It restores the dignity of refugees because they can get in touch with their relatives who stayed in their country, learn to know their new country or use online translation tools to communicate with the humanitarians or inhabitants.


Discover each month on ID4D the “Development News”, with a brief overview of a topical issue, and the “Press review”, with a selection of web articles, reflections and analyses. 

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