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Planning Refugee Settlements

Innovative new technologies are changing the way commissioners design shelters for refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has partnered with Stanford University and Ennead, a prominent firm of U.S. architects, to create a new way of designing refugee settlements. This new method accomplishes design prep work in advance, allowing settlements to be mapped out to specifically cater to the region’s needs.

The UNHCR estimated that in 2011, 42 million people were displaced from their homes, 10.5 million of which were refugees who lived in camps. Three years later, that number has topped 50 million. On average, refugees spend 17 years in asylum and camps are increasingly becoming long-term places of residence.

Because of the growing number of refugees and the changing nature of the settlements, the UNHCR decided to “look critically at the process of planning and designing camps.”

UNHCR met with architects from Ennead Laboratories at Stanford University, and this collaboration has turned into a three-year venture with innovative results. The project lead to the creation of an innovative settlement mapping toolkit.

When refugees are pouring over borders, desperately seeking asylum, there isn’t time to labor over designing a refugee encampment. The toolkit developed by Ennead labs gives governments the ability to make a smart choice about where to set up refugee camps.

According to UNHCR’s Monica Noro, “The tool aims to provide more information about whether those sites being proposed are viable or not, and whether or not another option eventually could have a better impact, not just on the life of the refugees but also on the life of the local population.”

Using data maps, Google Earth topography and 3-D printers, proposed camps can be presented in a tangible, easy-to-visualize manner.

The New York Times described the change in camp mapping as “a basic civilizing push toward urbanization that clearly happens even in desperate places –people leaving their stamp wherever they live, making space they occupy their own.”

The Zatari Refugee Camp in Jordan is an example of such a space. Just miles from the border of war-torn Syria, this camp was designed as an informal city, complete with neighborhoods and a growing economy.

Zatari even boasts its own pizza delivery service and a travel agency with pickup service at the airport.

When refugees are living in camps, they are more likely to make a smoother transition from extreme poverty into their new lives.

Smarter planning of settlements assures that refugees are not a burden on the host country, but rather a well-planned asset.

– Grace Flaherty

Sources: IRIN News, NY Times