Rethinking Communities, Rethinking Design.

” ‘Camp’ is kind of a misnomer. It already labels it as a second-class place and these places should be thought of as cities.”1


There are narratives with nuances that makes the story go on a completely different track. One would be of the refugee camp, a place that is too, rich with stories that is narrated through its military-like, rigid grid fabric.


Annette Tan, is an aspiring humanitarian aid worker, who strived to be a lawyer. She got into the career of her dreams, yet over the course of her employment, she felt empty and ended up on a 3-month backpacking expedition in various third world countries. The hike in third world countries and upon seeing the plight of the people juxtaposed against experiencing clients fight over money was the turning point of her life, and gradually formed the idea to apply to work at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). There, Annette interacts with countless refugees, listening to their stories as they shared about their lives. That was where she came across a Tibetan Refugee camp in Pokhara, Nepal, that opened her mind to real world issues.


“I think these life accounts make me appreciate rights I never thought were actually rights I had enjoyed…”


Speaking with Annette brought about the harsh realities of refugee camps. Yes, we hear about them through the media- only to realise how much of it was filtered off, that the realities of their lives go way beyond our comprehension. Refugees are forced to leave their war-torn homes, seeking refuge to be safe from attacks, and along with this came a whole different set of difficulties says Annette.


“They run away from their home countries into a different set of difficulties. Only 5% or less get resettled in third countries now because of the slow down on resettlement policies in countries like Australia and America. The refugees don’t have many viable options now…”


There, they are resettled into Refugee Camps. Those places are, however, vast areas assembled as a series of shoddy tents, laid out over bare ground created for transient and temporary lodging, creating so-called “homes” for refugees. Yet, we fail to realise how long they actually live in such displaced conditions, that averages out to be about 17 years.



“… refugees run away from persecution from their home country to a country of asylum for better lives but face a different set of problems such as economic hardship because of the lack of legal status in their country of asylum. They do not have employment or education rights or rights to live in countries unless the country is a signatory of the Refugee Convention and has obligations under international law. A lot of the asylum seekers and refugees who are here get rounded up by mass raids by the police and end up locked up in detention centres.


It was interesting to hear Annette talk about her first-hand experience with refugees, and about the harsh realities of their lives while she assists them in their progress of being granted refugee status. There, she spoke about how refugees perceived home, where home truly is to them, and their utmost desires were to return home.



“I asked him what his story was and in English, he replied “Everyone loves to live in their Homeland because Homeland is like mother, we are still in love until forever because I was born there. I am Hazara and one of the most peaceful people in the country.”. What I found different from his account to other refugees that I talked to was the hopes in it. And I think hope is a beautiful thing and what we could learn from this 17 year old.”
Upon hearing that, it got me thinking about how we, as urban dwellers, are in this continual race to strive for better living conditions through place-making initiatives as contrasted to the realities of the refugees. At refugee camps, the populace lack almost everything, their basic human rights, clean water and food.


An aerial view of UNHCR tents for internally displaced Sri Lankan people are seen at Menik Farm refugee camp in Cheddikulam, Saudi Gazette.


“Why do we put refugees in tents? We [know] that commonly refugees stay for years, sometimes for decades, in refugee camps. It’s not like they [are] going camping.”2


With the escalating refugee crisis in recent years, much has been discussed with regards to better refugee camp designs and solutions amongst architects. The rise in initiatives like refugee relief design competitions has made palpable the urgency of the refugee crisis. This however, seem to liken as a typical architectural design response to emergency and disaster crisis. The role of designers seemed to be deceptively elevated due to the emergence of such competitions- Shigeru Ban’s humanitarian works for instance, may have overlooked who they are designing for. Refugee camps are built with the sole intention of being demolished, and have no signs of permanency in this world, and hence undeniably are tucked away. They are built with structures that celebrates the temporal, that when funding is given, no form of permanent design solutions would be executed due to political restrictions on the construction of refugee camps3, and to demolish anything that seems permanent. The need to keep such temporality is one that is forced upon by political influence, which questioned the role of architects in this realm.


Laylan Camp in Kirkuk, Iraq, Map of Displacement.


“Refugee camps are designed for the short term: to meet an emergency need and then disappear. The temporary nature of camps shows up in their architecture… Their homes are constructed with destruction in mind.”4

Architects and designers alike, have been on a continuous journey towards creating and designing structures for todays’ urban fabric. We see place-making as one that would help elevate our quality of life, causing a shift on the psychology and memory of users. Would this then be one that would potentially work in emergency and disaster relief areas? Refugee relief design charrettes offer platforms for new solutions and approaches to develop strategies to empower refugee communities; and are no doubt great initiatives, yet all of it has all come to naught- humanitarian aid were as per 70 years ago, and nothing has changed since5.


Refugee Communities with central open spaces, UNHCR Innovation.


“The lack of control of their own fates, the apparent hopelessness of their situation, as it has been, more or less, for 25 years6

Despite the good intentions, such design briefs can be perceived as incongruous, where it strives to form solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economical in nature7. It is bizarre for us as designers to try to empathize and relate to the lives of refugees- because we will not understand fully their spoken and unspoken ordeals.


What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge-a design competition that sought ideas “for accommodating, connecting, integrating and helping the personal development of refugees”, UNHCR.

Here, the question of how refugees conceptualize their existence as part of a community arises. How do they deal with that great deal of trauma after all the running away and being victims of torture and gross human rights violations? We urban dwellers talk about place-making, about our attachment to place that forms over time due to its impact on our memory and our experience of place. How then are these people establishing their attachment to a place, when this camp is seen as a temporary shelter? How does one cope with the ephemeral nature of the camp’s fabric, and translate that into a place where they will spend most of their lives, or even being oblivious to their stay while having hopes to return home, to be reunited with family.


That said, refugee camps are built based on existing design manuals that outlined organizational and design techniques for the planning and building of refugee camps8. However, this inexplicable manual of having rigid grids of tents, would make no sense to any planner’s perspective. This shows that wider political forces are dormant in keeping the refugees trapped at where they are, in this military like grid “homes”, leaving them nothing but a sense of placelessness. They will never truly belong at such camps, and this transient movement from camp to camp, and of fleeing, may be one that lingers on.



“Given that camps are unlikely to be truly temporary, why do the developed nations … continue to fund them rather than push for more permanent solutions? In theory, camps make humanitarian aid more efficient. By collecting displaced people in a central location, aid agencies can reduce the costs of assessing refugees’ needs … But displaced people are put in camps as much for political purposes as for humanitarian ones. Camps in the Third World keep displaced people offshore and out of sight.”9


With all that has been discussed, there are organisations that had recognized the need for a broader design approach to this alarming refugee situation, than to the mere creation of innovative sheds. The idea of democratic design as practiced across cities may be one that might help alleviate existing conditions, bringing better design solutions catered to the specific needs. There is no doubt that top-down initiatives are still required in emergency settings, however it is this these same initiatives that still hold the same view and policies of backward thinking. And only a change in the political influence can allow a gradual shift towards including bottom-up approaches that better recognizes what is needed on the ground, leading to architects and designers creating better and more adequate design solutions, This would no longer be an issue of border control or the need for continual funding for temporary shelters to cater to the increasing flocks of refugees.


It is for the government authorities to see the refugees as a boon instead of a burden. It is the shift to allow the refugee community to take control. Only then, design solutions of any kind can be perceived useful. All these has to start with a change in political influence, from standing fast on the belief that refugee camps are temporary measures to accepting that once the need of a refugee camp surfaces, it will be more permanent than we think. Only then will it lead the way to bringing new possibilities and hope to such dire living spaces.


It isn’t so much about theorizing place making in refugee camps, but rather, what more can we as designers do with the privileges we have; to make the temporality be one that endures through the years, that brings new possibilities to such dire living spaces. Or is there really nothing left in our power to do anything?



Tan, A., interviewed by Yurong Tan, 2017, Perth CBD, Perth.

1. “Rethinking the Refugee Camp.”
2. “Rethinking the Refugee Camp.”
3. “Stories of cities #44: will Dadaab, the worlds’ largest refugee camp, really close?”
4. “The Failure of Refugee Camps.”
5. “UNHCR teams up with MIT’s D-Lab to overhaul “very top-down” refugee design strategy.”
6. Åberg, “When you cannot do anything, that’s the greatest problem in life.”
7. “UNHCR teams up with MIT’s D-Lab to overhaul “very top-down” refugee design strategy.”
8. “Camp planning standards (planned settlements).”
9. “The Failure of Refugee Camps.”



Åberg, Ingvill Bjørnstad. “”When you cannot do anything, that’s the greatest problem in life”, Place and Identity, Power and Agency among Karen Refugees on the Thai-Burmese Border.” Masters Thesis, University of Bergen, 2010.

Cullen, Elizabeth D. “The Failure of Refugee Camps.” Accessed May 17, 2017.

Fairs, Marcus. “UNHCR teams up with MIT’s D-Lab to overhaul “very top-down” refugee design strategy.” Accessed June 2, 2017.

Jacobs, Karrie. “Rethinking the Refugee Camp.” Accessed May 15, 2017.

Permaculture Research Institute. “Re-designing refugee communities, settlement design, large community site design.” Accessed May 29, 2017.

The Guardian. “Refugees describe death and despair in Malaysian detention cdnetres.” Accessed May 30, 2017.

The Guardian. “Stories of cities #44: will Dadaab, the worlds’ largest refugee camp, really close?” Accessed May 29, 2017.

UNHRC The UN Refugee Agency. “Camp planning standards (planned settlements).” Assessed June 3, 2017.


Image References:

AFP. 2012. “An aerial view of UNHCR tents”. Saudi Gazette. Accessed June 3.

Hawre Khalid. 2017. “Laylan Camp in Kirkukm Iraq.” Map of Displacement. Accessed June 2.

UNHCR. “What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge.” Dezeen. Accessed June 2.

UNHCR Innovation, 2015. “Rethinking Refugee Communities” UNHCR Innovation. Accessed May 15.

Remaining photographs were taken by Annette Tan and used with permission.

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