Copertina Inter

Rethinking refugee camps

5 July Jul 2016 1200 05 July 2016
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With the refugee crisis still ongoing, Vita International spoke to Veronica Lai, a student in Science of Architecture and Planning program at the Faculty of Architecture of Alghero, under the supervision of Prof. Paola Rizzi, currently working on her research for Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan about how emergency architecture and refugee camp design can help provide refugees with a space in which they can “find a sense of security, of belonging, and where their human dignity is fully respected.”

Veronica, could you tell us a bit about your research on Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and emergency architecture?

Currently my research focuses on how we can reconsider the way in which we - architects and planners - think, conceive and plan spaces for refugees.

Of course, our hope for the future is to no longer need camps at all, making them real exceptions, temporary measures, in response to critical situations and only if there is no other solution available. Unfortunately, at the moment, refugee camps are a reality and the worst thing we could do would be to pretend that they don't exist, or that they are not currently needed and being created. They are being created for those people who are caught in limbo or denied any other living solution or had no other alternative. These people are trapped there for an indefinite length of time.

In refugee camps we have two major considerations: on the one hand we have the NGOs who do an incredible job in providing help and aid, working under huge pressure while dealing with some of the most delicate human crises imaginable; on the other hand, we have the people who are living there and still suffering from those crises and tragedies. In a refugee camp these two parties have to co-exist and different fundamental needs have to be met on both sides.

It is necessary to create camps in such a way that they are both efficient for the NGOs, but also provide refugees with security and some suitable level of comfort, where their human dignity is fully respected and a sense of belonging is provided.

Zaatari shows us how complex and delicate these needs are and how the dynamics can change and evolve over time, especially in the long term. In my role as architect and planner, I try to comprehend and analyze these dynamics, why they evolved in the way they did, what caused problems in the camp or if we forgot to keep in mind some key aspect that could have provided a more effective solution, find these key variables and factors and then devise an alternative solution.

What are these factors?

For example, one of the factors to consider is the cultural identity of the people living in that specific camp. This factor can determine many aspects of how the camp will work or how it’s going to evolve and develop over time and what problems may occur if this is not taken in account.

In the case of Zaatari, for example, the NGOs built the camp according to a grid system/structure. Obviously, that is the most practical and effective way to lay out a camp, and there was no way for the NGOs to know how migration fluxes in relation to the Syrian conflict would develop or affect the camp itself. Within a year they had to expand the camp up to five time its original size, following the most practical and fastest layout -a grid system- in order to provide shelters as quickly as possible.

The population of Zaatari is primarily of Islamic traditions and their way of conceptualizing space and community reflects this cultural belonging. There were specific cultural needs and criteria at odds with a grid system organization of the space. As a consequence, the population slowly modified the original grid into a more relatable structure that better suited their cultural background.

Can you give me a concrete example of what they've done?

In my research I analyzed many aspects of the camp and was able to study what happened in Zaatari over time. Probably the most intuitive and observable examples of the development of the camp and its human aspect that come to mind are these three examples: The first, as I already stated, is how the population - and I call the refugees that live in the camp “population” because the camp has become in many ways a city - moved the tents and the containers within the camp. If you look at aerial photos, you can see how the shelters have been - and are being - moved over time. At first you can see that the roads that separated the rectangular areas hosting the containers and tents, slowly started to be filled in with more shelters.

In a second moment, the first shelters were rearranged in such a way that three or four containers were placed to create a private courtyard at the center. The reason for this? In the Arab culture it is extremely important to have intimate private space for the family to come together. If the house/shelter is the space of the single family, the inner courtyard is the space where the family members (or close relatives and friends) can come together and enjoy a private life.

Architecture and planning can help in creating spaces and environments to assist those in need of psychological attention or assistance

A few months later, the tents and containers had been concentrated into very dense and compact nuclei, and more arrow streets - typical of Arab cities - become the primary roads for access to the shelters. It’s likely that this development of the space reflects the more familiar urban space of historic town centers of most Islamic cities and, therefore, on a psychological level it provides a feeling of security and belonging.

A second example is what happened in the two main roads of the camp that provided access to the camp facilities. By looking at many Islamic cities we can observe how the centers of commercial activities are located in the main street and perpendicular roads. Shops, activities and public and social life are not reserved for town squares (a more western concept of public space) but to these main roads where the bazaar/suqs find their natural development.

The criteria for these spaces was found in the primary roads of the camp and we can now see how the population demonstrated its resilience by creating commercial activities in such spaces.

The third example is of a religious nature. In each district of the camp (12 districts in total) containers have been reserved for the mosque. The camp was never meant to be permanent - even though it has been there now for five to six years - but in times of conflict and especially considering the cultural background of the Zaatari population, religion is or can be a vital element. It's fundamental to take in account this human necessity, especially when this element is fundamental to the customs and society of the population we are referring to.

It is necessary to provide refugees with security and some suitable level of comfort, where their human dignity is fully respected

With regards to Greece, can you explain a little the plans for emergency architecture there?

Personally, I have not concentrated my studies on the situation in Idomeni, but there are some analogies with the strategy adopted in Zaatari and other camps that I can point out and some notions that I acquired through the experience of colleagues and partners I have contact with.

The dynamics that are involved now in Greece are different from the ones in Zaatari, and I believe that each case should be studied separately in order to prevent mistakes based on generalization.

The camps that are being currently settled on the borders of the EU are facing some common dynamics as the ones in Jordan, or those in Turkey, Lebanon or Iraq, but other geopolitical factors are very different and require a deep understanding.

These camps are made in a short period of time and in a more “instantaneous” way, with the NGOs trying to provide help and comfort in a different psychological situation.

Whereas the refugees arrived willingly in camps such as Zaatari, considering the camp a safer place (compared to the riots and war that they were facing in Syria) to stay for a short period of time, in a case such as Idomeni the refugees are not solely of Syrian nationality. Some of the refugees in Idomeni are “economic refugees” or “political refugees” from other nations, but this does not make them any less “refugees”. The people that now are living in this camp and camps like this one were not expecting to live in a camp.

Psychologically, the situation is presenting new and different developments. When I asked a coworker of mine what was the main request and need expressed by people in the camp, the answer I received was “information”. They want information about what was required of them in order to cross the border that was 50 ft. away from the camp. You see how this is a different set of problems.
Anxiety, frustration and exhaustion are factors we have to address, because they cause people to develop other needs. However, the core criteria that we should follow are the same and they have to guarantee humanity and dignity to the people we help.

In many cases, women suffer - both in camps and crossing borders - gender specific traumas or may have specific needs due to a separation of gender according to the culture they belong to...some of the basic criteria for planning may include good lighting in the camp streets, the separation of bathrooms to allow privacy and safety, a “house of the women” may also be planned.

What would these criteria be? What are the fundamental characteristics necessary to maintain humanity and dignity through urban planning and architecture?

Some of the main criteria concern the cultural background of the population we refer to - that, sometimes, will include gender-specific needs - other needs have to do with the specific climate and consequential comfort, but another main criteria is “time”.

Three months might sound like a relatively short period of time to you and me, but to the people living in refugee camps that is an excruciating amount of time.

Not only can time can be perceived differently when facing a difficult situation, especially under traumatic situations, but also the way we perceive time in a refugee camp as a structure is a key criteria and element.
We commit a mistake in considering refugees camps as “temporary” - sometimes we commit the mistake of thinking of them as not existing at all after the news agencies stop talking about them - but they can be a reality for three months, six months, a year or more. After we allow ourselves to face this fact, we will be forced to change the way we think about the needs we have to address, taking in account many more variables when planning or organizing these spaces.
By doing so we will be better able to plan for the needs that must be addressed and, as a consequence, be prepared to face them and guarantee the human dignity that those needs represent.

What are the recommendations and guidelines? What has your research shown you that can be done to give more humanity and dignity to refugees through emergency architecture?

What we can learn from situations like Zaatari is a lesson way overdue. Zaatari is only one of the fifty largest camps around the world (and I’m only taking into account the largest).
Guidelines? They vary according to a number of factors.

At the moment I’m working on new concepts of modular settlement plans and modular units of services and facilities that can be adapted according to criteria such as climate, cultural background, demographic specific needs and, of course, the time factor.

I hope these elements of my project will evolve into the guidelines you asked me about.

Overall, one of the fundamental things to keep in mind are the two major parties that will be affected by any future proposal or project: the population and the NGOs. They are whom we have to think about when advancing any new proposal.

Are they keeping these two categories of people in mind in camp planning right now?

There are some problems in allowing the two parties to fully function and coexist.This is nobody’s fault. Emergency architecture is a complicated and difficult subject and there are many extraordinary professionals that work hard to find solutions to delicate situations like this one.

Extraordinary work has been done and is currently being done, but I believe we are still learning and trying to find the best solutions possible.

This is what we do. We study and analyze problems and try to learn, even through our own mistakes. If we stop doing so, we will stop evolving and doing our job. Being humble puts you in a constant state of learning and improving.

For example, my research on Zaatari suggested to me that for every single unit of tents that gets put in place, we need to add a basic unit of service and infrastructure. For a small compound of tents/containers, so maybe 200 people, maybe 100 (a small number compared to the actual numbers in the refugee camps), we need to keep in mind that they are going to need some basic services, reachable in a walking distance radius.

Even this little adjustment can improve the quality of life in the camp.

Provisions for self-sufficiency to develop you mean?

Yes, precisely.In the case of the temporary camp that doesn't stay temporary but is subjected to fluctuations over time, all these units and central service facility can be created following the development of the camp, according to the needs and providing the basic needs, being a little more autonomous. People can start creating a sense of community, feeling a little safer.

Facilities like first aid, daycare, psychological assistance - most of the health issues that are faced in the camps are of a psychological nature, like PTSD - with special attention towards women, whom in many cases suffer more gender specific traumas, also need to find their location.

This condition, of course, would need to be planned according to the availability of the NGOs and volunteers providing medical assistance.

Three months might sound like a relatively short period of time to you and me, but to the people living in refugee camps that is an excruciating amount of time.

Through emergency architecture, is there a space that can be created to help heal trauma?

Emergency architecture has to face multiple challenges, one of which is the same nature of the conditions it has to operate in.

We need to keep in mind that psychological trauma in the population is likely, and be ready to provide the help that may be needed. Architecture and planning can help in creating spaces and environments to assist those in need of psychological attention or assistance.

Are they being kept in mind at the moment?

Unfortunately I don’t have any way to know the internal management of every camp.My role as an architect and a planner would only be to make sure to provide adequate spaces in order to make this possibility a future reality -compatible to the eventual availability of the camp management.

With regards to the woman question. Does emergency architecture take into account the needs of women in urban planning and in the planning of these camps? What would need to be done, and what isn't being done?

Sometimes it is hard to take into account all the variables while dealing with crises and emergencies.

As I said earlier, in many cases, women suffer - both in camps and crossing borders - gender specific traumas or may have specific needs due to a separation of gender according to the culture they belong to.
A comprehensive project would require keeping these factors in mind. Some of the basic criteria for planning may include good lighting in the camp streets, the separation of bathrooms to allow privacy and safety, a “house of the women” may also be planned. A day care center for the children can also greatly help parents to gain a greater sense of tranquility.

Do they have women's spaces in Zaatari? Is it a woman friendly camp?

According to camp reports, Zaatari has an extremely low rate of violence directed at women but keep in mind that Zaatari has been established for five years, and a sense of community has developed.

Over time, the people in the camp have organized themselves into districts based on the cities where they were from. So there is the area of people from Homs, from Aleppo, and so on. I think that also created a safer environment, due to a greater sense of empathy among neighbors.

Nevertheless, the importance of “women friendly” spaces remains. Not only in Zaatari, but in the eventuality of future camps.

Data shows that is not uncommon for pregnant woman to attempt the journey crossing borders. You have a lot of women who are not just thinking about their own safety, but also their children's safety.

What would you say if I told you that at the moment in the Greek government camps, there are no schools, no separate toilets for a time, no spaces for women. Could emergency architecture help with this?

The nature of the Greek camp presents different challenges than the one in Zaatari.

When faced with creating a camp and its structure from scratch, it’s possible to plan facilities from the start and decide how to structure the camp to best govern the overall functioning.

Other camps may be located in pre-existing facilities that must be utilized due to the degree of humanitarian crisis - In these situations the parameters we have to work with change and new approaches are required.

At the moment, camps such as Idomeni are considered extremely temporary, offering shelter and providing basic assistance to those waiting to cross the borders but sometimes little else is permitted or allowed to be done. The refugees living there are currently in a “waiting” state. This “temporary” state has now been a months’ long realty.

Our concept of “temporary refugee camps” is a matter of perception. From our point of view it has only been a few months, for many of them the time has been much longer.

Unfortunately Emergency Architecture has the sad duty to keep in mind the “not-temporary” aspect of these emergencies and be prepared to face the reality that, in every camp, we might need to plan for a “medium-long term” camp life span.

We can face such eventuality only if we plan effective camp structures ahead of time in order to accommodate long term needs such as the ones you mentioned.

Of course, we hope that in the future we will not have to face such an eventuality.

Cover Photo: Veronica Lai