What Design Can Do for Refugees

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Better Shelter
Better Shelter supports UNHCR in a shelter assembly training program at Karatepe transit camp in Mytilini, Lesvos, Greece.

An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world are currently displaced, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. More than half of these people live in urban areas. Others are jammed into refugee camps, waiting desperately to go back home one day. Now, designers are working on solutions to improve their lives.

In February, UNHCR, the Ikea Foundation, and the organization What Design Can Do launched a global competition for ideas that would accommodate and integrate refugees. Among the finalists announced in July was AGRIshelter, a 35-square meter durable, biodegradable shelter unit that can be erected in just a few hours. Second place went to The Welcome Card, which stores all of the essential information for an asylum seeker in one digital card.

Similarly, in the Netherlands, the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers announced the winners of their ‘A Home Away From Home’ competition in June. One of the winners was The SolarCabin. The cabins have large, visible solar panels to generate electricity and are designed to feed the surplus energy back into the local community.

This isn’t the first time that design has been instrumental in finding solutions for refugees. In 2015, Ikea and UNHCR came together to design Better Shelter. The waterproof units for five are designed to last at least three years. Recyclable panels “were designed to withstand the strong winds yet be light enough to be shipped halfway around the globe in flat-packed boxes,” according to the official website. They are now used in Botswana, Niger, Greece, and Iraq, among other places.

“The issue [of refugees] is too big for national governments, too big for NGOs, and too big for the divided European Union,” says Richard Van Der Laken, founder of the international platform What Design Can Do. “And although it’s certainly too big for designers, we can offer something that others cannot.”