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Refugee CampsRefugee camps house people who had to migrate as a result of unsafe conditions in their home countries. Displaced people hve to leave everything behind in order to find safety. Recently, the United Nations reported that two refugee camps in Ethiopia were on the verge of running out of food. The refugees, dependent on organizations to bring them that food, were at risk of starvation.

What is Happening in Ethiopia?

Conflict has enveloped the Tigray region of Ethiopia. In November 2020, The Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the government began fighting. Two refugee camps in this region containing 24,000 refugees recently could not access aid. About 170 food trucks transporting the necessary food supplies ended up in the Afar region and were unable to move. Without these resources, the refugees will likely starve.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working to relocate the refugees. They are also trying to ensure safe travel out of the camp by discussing the issues with Tigrayan authorities.

The Increase of Refugees

The amount of refugees and displaced people around the world is higher than ever. As of 2020, the world had the largest refugee population ever recorded. About 25 million people experienced displacement, including 11 million children. This has only made conditions in refugee camps worse, as overcrowding compounds with a lack of resources.

The Problems with Refugee Camps

Displaced people who come to live in refugee camps often have nothing. They have no income, few to no possessions and no food. They rely entirely on what humanitarian organizations can provide for them. Unfortunately, what organizations can provide often falls short of what is necessary to survive. Two main problems that refugee camps deal with are inadequate food and water. The malnutrition and dehydration that occurs in refugee camps increase the risk of disease, like diarrhea and cholera, for the people living in the camps. Improving amounts and access to food and water will help to improve health conditions at refugee camps.

The UNHCR recommends at least 2,100 calories and 20 liters of water per person per day. However, in 2006, refugees in Tanzania received only 1,460 calories per person per day. A 1987 study of a Thailand camp showed that 30% of the camp’s population suffered from malnutrition. The UNHCR also estimates that more than half of the refugee camps across the world are unable to provide refugees with the 20 liters of water a day that they need.

Part of the problem with water is that it must also be accessible to all people in the camps. One way the UNHCR aspires to provide this is by ensuring there are water taps within 200 meters of every household. This way, individuals do not have to travel long distances to retrieve water, burning the already limited amount of calories they have.

Ways to Improve

There are a few things that can improve living conditions at refugee camps around the world. One important way is to begin to place a higher emphasis on making camps a long-term solution. When a refugee experiences displacement for more than five years, the UNHCR calls their situation a protracted refugee situation. Currently, two-thirds of refugees live in a protracted situation and the time they spend in this situation increased to 20 years. This means that more people live in camps for longer periods of time.

If displaced people are living in camps for such extended periods of time, then they are no longer temporary placements. This translates into a need to make refugee camps more permanent and more equipped to support people actually living there. The construction of more permanent housing, rather than tents, and fully functioning toilets and showers would help achieve permanent living conditions.

Camps can also allow refugees to set up businesses like barbershops and fruit stands. Some camps in Bangladesh currently allow refugees to farm patches of land to grow fruits, vegetables and spices. This is another way to increase food production and better conditions in the camps.

Looking to the Future

The struggle will continue to ensure that people living in refugee camps have enough resources to adequately survive and have livable conditions in camps. Transporting goods becomes especially difficult in war-ravaged regions. Roads are unreliable and food trucks are vulnerable to attack. Displaced persons, however, often have nowhere else to go and deserve for the world to put in its best effort toward helping them. This can begin with creating refugee camps as more permanent establishments, as cities and homes in and of themselves.

– Alessandra Heitmann
Photo: Flickr

Sesame Street's Rohingya MuppetsSesame Street is developing two Rohingya muppets to help refugee children overcome trauma. Sesame Street aims to address the effects of poverty by fostering access to education. Poverty affects all aspects of life. Children who live in poverty suffer from many physical, intellectual and emotional complications. Child stunting, for example, is a result of nutrient-deficient diets, repeated infection and a lack of psychosocial stimulation in the first years of a child’s life. This has dire long-term outcomes for children, including impaired intellectual development. Sesame Street’s Rohingya muppets aim to improve the intellectual development of Rohingya children, which directly affects education, and in turn, poverty.

Stunting and Malnutrition in Rohingya Children

The Rohingya people are a stateless Muslim minority group who have lived in a state of flux, between Myanmar and Bangladesh, since they were forced to flee Myanmar. They were violently persecuted by the Myanmar military, an instance of ethnic cleansing. Close to 800,000 Rohingya refugees have escaped to Bangladesh. It is common for refugees to live in refugee camps within Bangladesh.

A group of refugee camps, located in Cox’s Bazar, was the subject of a 2017-2018 study on the rates of stunting and malnutrition in Rohingya children. The study found that the rate of stunting “dropped from 44% to 38% in the main camp.” Although it is positive that the rate of childhood stunting declined, the rate of childhood stunting still remained dangerously close to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) critical health emergency threshold of 40%.

Additionally, the rate of acute malnutrition dropped from close to 20% to nearly 10%. Childhood deaths declined. The rate of diarrhea, caused in some instances by dehydration or bacterial infection, also declined. Nonetheless, these rates remain too high to relieve concerns and the situation is still described as dire.

Malnutrition affects a child’s developing brain, impacting education and reducing the ability of a person to lift themselves out of poverty.

Sesame Street’s Rohingya Muppets

The majority of humanitarian funding is deployed to address acute effects of poverty like stunting and malnutrition. Sesame Street aims to address the effects of poverty by focusing on education and intellectual development. Sherrie Westin is the president of social impact for Sesame Workshop and she identified that “less than 3% of all aid is used for education.”

Sesame Street’s Rohingya muppets consist of two characters, Noor Yasmin and Aziz, to connect with Rohingya children on an intellectual and emotional level. Westin feels that without intervention by Sesame Street, Rohingya children risk growing up unable to read and write or do simple math.

Westin cited scientific research as the basis for her concern. Similar to the way inadequate dietary nutrition and disease lead to physical stunting, stress and trauma stunt brain development. Sesame Street aims to address the effects of poverty by providing emotional and intellectual support to Rohingya children who have endured trauma.

BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Lab

In Bangladesh, Sesame Street partnered with BRAC. BRAC’s Humanitarian Play Labs are designed to help children learn through play and recover from emotional trauma in the process. BRAC designs its play labs to resemble settings that are familiar to the children it works with. In Bangladesh, this means that Rohingya children are surrounded by “motifs and paintings significant to Rohingya culture.”

Sesame Street’s Rohingya muppets reflect an integral part of BRAC’s approach. Children relate best to characters that they can identify with and they flourish in settings that are familiar and comfortable. BRAC’s success speaks for itself. Close to 90% of the kids that BRAC works with complete the fifth grade of schooling.

Sesame Street Addresses Rohingya Poverty

While the humanitarian crisis among Rohingya refugees is ongoing, recognition of the long-term effects of stress and trauma on intellectual development is crucial to lifting the Rohingya out of poverty. Education alleviates poverty and negating the effects of trauma will allow for proper intellectual development to take on educational endeavors. Sesame Street aims to address the effects of poverty by focusing its attention on the intellectual development of Rohingya children.

– Taylor Pangman
Photo: Flickr

University of Southern California (USC) has a course called “Innovation In Engineering and Design for Global Crises.” As part of the class, a team of USC undergraduates visited the Moria refugee camp to learn from and engage with the displaced peoples about their experiences. The need for more livable housing was the impetus for students’ project development. The result was Torch Tile — an adaptable, low-cost, user-friendly solution to the sheltering challenges of the displaced peoples in Moria.

Living Conditions of the Sprawling Moria Refugee Camp

On the eastern coast of the Greek island of Lesvos, is the Moria refugee camp. Moria is the largest refugee camp in Europe. It is the landing pad for the daily stream of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, Syria and Turkey via a harrowing boat trip across a six-mile stretch of the Mediterranean Sea. The camp was originally designed to shelter 3,000 people. Currently, it is overflowing with over 13,000 refugees.

Tents sprawling the foothills surrounding Moria have constituted as impermanent shelters or “homes” for these refugees. Some asylum-seekers have even established residence with flowers, hand-made tandoori ovens and power cords for hijacking electricity. Despite these additions, the tents are no match for the temperature swings of Greece’s climate. In the summers, heat waves can break 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters on the island bring lasting snow from the sea moisture. Asylum-seekers can expect to wait a year before their asylum applications are processed ensuring they will experience both extreme weather conditions.

In the past, asylum-seekers have employed cardboard and tarps in an attempt to block out the extreme cold and heat. Increasing the temperature a few degrees led to refugees living in environments with dank, humid air that condenses on the tent inner walls. Running water is only available inside of Moria, and these moist environments put asylum-seekers at risk for health complications. Many suffer from pneumonia and heat stroke, which there are limited resources with which to treat.

In stepped the Torch Tile.

The Product

After over thirty different prototypes and dozens of hours of overnight testing, the team created the Torch Tile. The users’ needs were at the forefront of the creation’s design. The product comes in 36 or 55 sq. ft. sheets that can be laid side-by-side (like tiles) to fully surround a tent. The sturdy, lightweight and flexible material of the tiles is Aluminet.

The knitted screen-like material allows for airflow, reduces indoor humidity and lets light into the tent for visibility. Secured using zip ties and draped over the tent ceiling, the Torch Tile cools the interior by deflecting outdoor heat and light on warm days. Similarly, in winter weather one layers a tarp over the Torch Tile to warm the tent by 5-15 degrees by reflecting body heat inward.

Then, the team founded Torch Global Inc., a nonprofit currently fundraising to mass produce tiles for distribution. The goal is to provide tiles for those in Moria and for the unsheltered populations in Los Angeles.

Protecting Homes during the Coronavirus Pandemic

The distribution of Torch Tiles has been paramount to enabling people to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic. One Torch Tile user from Los Angeles shared, “I have COVID and can’t isolate because my tent is too hot. This product will keep my tent cooler, so I can actually stay inside and isolate.” Recently Torch Global Inc. fundraised $13,000 for the ordering of 1,500 more Torch Tiles — protection for 1,500 more people in their homes.

The collective, global mobilization and coordination of resources necessary to resolve the refugee crisis in Greece is unlikely to occur soon enough. Even when it is, situations and conflicts will likely displace more people in the future, and asylum-seekers living in tents will be inevitable. By thermo-regulating shelters, Torch Tiles alleviate one aspect of refugees’ vulnerability and address the downstream effects of displacement.

Tricia Lim Castro
Photo: Flickr