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Open House exhibition tackles issue of shelter in humanitarian crises

A refugee housing unit in Genthod displayed for Open House, a multi-disciplinary exhibition designed by art curator Simon Lamunière. (Credit: Annick Wetter)

Amid the stately lakefront properties of Genthod, near Geneva, a new outdoor exhibition traces the concept of housing in all its forms by drawing on projects from the art and architectural world.  Among them, three projects tackle the issue of shelter and living conditions in emergency settings. 

The result of a long reflection by organisations and aid groups confronted with migration or climatic problems, their designers question our own relationship with space and the challenges faced by up to 45 million people last year in need of shelter after having been displaced by war or natural disasters.

A place to call home, an exhibit proposed by Shelter Projects (see picture below), is a radical and symbolic title for an area of cleared land measuring just 3.5 square metres (sq m). This is the minimum living space foreseen in a humanitarian crisis.  Yet this potential space, which increases to 17.5 sq m  for a standard family of five displaced persons (Sphere minimum standards), is still only a target. By way of comparison, in Switzerland, an adult bedroom cannot legally be less than 10 sq m and a complete single space or studio smaller than 26 sq m. Joseph Ashmore, who coordinates publications by Shelter Projects, a humanitarian cluster aimed at supporting self-help shelter for disaster and conflict-affected populations, admits that this minimum space is rarely achieved.

“Often the resources are so tight that it’s not even possible… The total shelter assistance for the 38 million people who needed shelter among the 177 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2019 was $403m, which is $10 per head. You cannot build a house with that but we try to be the most efficient with what we have.”

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Lessons learnt. To respond most effectively to needs, projects must closely involve those people impacted “in order to better understand their intentions, resources, needs, capacities, vulnerabilities and priorities” according to Shelter Projects. The 250 case studies compiled since 2008 by the fifty or so humanitarian actors involved in the initiative show that operations are more effective if, when a crisis breaks out, the first responders and shelter providers come from the affected communities, who are also empowered in the process. Ashmore:

“Effective projects enable rather than provide. They need our humanitarian input but they are not around waiting for assistance. If people are given land and opportunity, they will build. They will invest in where they live as people do here with their houses to upgrade them. It’s the same type of thinking.”

Access to land is often the root cause of conflict, he adds.

“The poorest and most vulnerable people live on the most insecure land most at risk from hurricanes, floods and other disasters... How do you deal with the most vulnerable people in an environment with little resources, where social security has fallen through, where people have lost their ID cards? How do you provide assistance to those who most need it?”

To build up a strategy response, the Shelter Project’s publications serve as a reference. For instance, in Tigré, from where Ashmore just returned and where he works as a global shelter and settlement specialist for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 1.7 million people have been displaced in the last six months. Humanitarians looked at examples from similar complex urban environments and considered the same tools and approaches used in Haiti and documented by Shelter Projects to provide rental support and solutions to decongest emergency shelters.

A question of dignity. In recent years, shelters have increasingly been seen as a process rather than a design or a product. "Process" is also the name of the first session of the Open House exhibition, which will take place in four stages from 2021 to 2022 and in several places in the canton of Geneva. The exhibition questions the notions of land demarcation, occupation, construction methods and techniques, materials, and the idea of living spaces.

Another of the exhibits, The Refugee Housing Unit (RHU), is the result of a ten-year process of reflection by Better Shelter and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) with the support of the IKEA Foundation. The emergency shelter is capable of ensuring greater dignity for refugees and displaced persons whose numbers surpassed 80 million by mid-2020. Ammar Al Mahdavi, a senior technical shelter officer at UNHCR who supervised the project for Open House, told Geneva Solutions:

“Sometimes there is no material available locally or there is not enough time to build a shelter with local materials, so there was a need to find a solution to give more dignity to people affected than a tent made of plastic that will not last long in a harsh environment.”

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Caption: “The RHU was tried in hot and cold climates with feedback from refugees themselves.” (Credit: UNHCR)

A modular shelter as easy to build as an IKEA piece. After extensive laboratory testing, field analysis in various climatic conditions and consultations with universities and refugee communities, the RHU was born: a pre-packaged, ready-to-assemble and easily transportable kit for a minimum 17.5 square-metre living space for a family of five. It consists of a lightweight steel frame, roof and wall panels, floor covering, solar panels for light and phone chargers, and is as easy to assemble thanks to an IKEA-style illustrated instruction manual. Al Mahdavi, a refugee himself after fleeing from Irak and his family ended up being displaced from Bagdad in 2015:

“You may find it difficult to deal with IKEA manuals when you assemble a piece of furniture comfortably sitting at home but when you become a refugee, when you cross a border to flee, you’re in survival mode and you end up more mature to deal with everything.”

More than 60,000 units have already been deployed in more than 50 countries. Individual housing units or modular shelters where several units can be assembled into classrooms, registration rooms, reception centres, and clinics were widely used for the Covid-19 pandemic emergencies. The RHUs provide better protection for the households of these populations, but also for the most vulnerable among them, such as women. The RHU took into account their needs and feedback into the design including an interior lock so that a single woman can protect herself from external aggressions, window sizes not to allow an adult to enter, or a separation to protect their sleep...

Caption: “More than 60`000 units have already been sent to 50 countries. The cost per unit is 1095 euros.” (Credit: UNHCR)

“This is the reality. We are not talking about a concept. People who visit the shelter will be able to see it, feel it, stay inside and experience their reality,” concludes Al Mahdavi.

Open House: From 8 may to 30 August 2021 in Parc Lullin Genthod

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