BA Thesis on Refugee emergency architecture

How can refugees improve their living conditions and quality of life in refugee shelters?

Refugees across the world flee before natural disasters, war and politics. They find shelter in UN organised camps or self-made communities. These camps are supposed to be temporary; however, in reality, people will live here for months on end or even years. 

In this thesis, I researched the resilience and persistence of refugees in self-organised camps such as The Jungle in Calais, France (2016) and compared the results to refugees in government organised refugee centres in the Netherlands. What followed was an understanding of how refugees want to contribute to their wellbeing by working on their living conditions, supporting each other and being in contact with the local population in order to integrate into a new society.

Down below, are the sub-questions and conclusions subtracted from the thesis and translated to English, which helped find answers to the main research question: ”How can refugees improve their living conditions in refugee shelters in the Netherlands?”

  1. What sorts of refugee shelters are there?
  2. What is a society like in a refugee camp?
  3. How can refugees improve their stay in a Dutch refugee camp?

NOTE: This is a summary of my thesis, not the whole research.

Date: July 2016 | Study: BA Spatial Design, HKU School of Art | Research location: Calais, France and Utrecht, Netherlands

''Often too many people stay in shelters for too long, resulting in a cramped atmosphere where there is no room for structural change, as it is meant to help as many people as possible in the shortest timeframe possible.''

1. What sorts of refugee shelters are there?

There are two types of refugee camps; planned and unplanned. Following that statement, a refugee camp is always temporary and modest. They come in all shapes and sizes; from considerable to limited size, tents to more permanent structures and new shelters to camps that have been in use for years, despite being built to last only one year. The corresponding factors of these different types of shelters are that they are almost always modest, with a notable lack of privacy. Often too many people stay in shelters for too long, resulting in a cramped atmosphere where there is no room for structural change, as it is meant to help as many people as possible in the shortest timeframe possible. This leads to a dehumanising standard of living as people spend years of their lives in unfit living conditions.

''People are proud of what they have achieved here and what they have accomplished during their travels but want to move on to a better life. They make the best of a bad situation.''

2. What is a society like in a refugee camp?

The Jungle, Calais, France: Cramped along the highway leading to the ferries leaving for Dover, United Kingdom, lies the self-made camp of stranded refugees in Calais. The shelters are made of timber, mouldy sleeping bags and tarp. The food is prepared in self-built ‘restaurants’, and the sugary tea is shared with everyone, including strangers. Everybody helps each other, knows each other and trusts each other. There are rules, there is a watch, and there are many volunteers such as doctors caring for wounds and scabies and volunteers helping to build new shelters and giving legal advice. There is also the French Riot Police. They come in and harass people, force them to remove evidence from their phones and scare volunteers away. The atmosphere is hopeful, and people tell us where they have been and where they want to go. They are eager to work and get out of this situation. The people are resilient and innovative, judging from the self-made daycare, school, library and the many restaurants, markets and cafes. Still, during the many moments of boredom, it does not stop the endless thoughts of traumatising events while getting here and the realisation of being stuck, unable to move further. People are proud of what they have achieved here and what they have accomplished during their travels but want to move on to a better life. They make the best of a bad situation.

Heumensoord, Nijmegen, Netherlands: Walking along in a stream of refugees, to an open spot in the forest, we see rows of shiny white barracks made of plastic with fences and watch posts. 2700 asylum seekers are sheltered here, in rooms of 8 people without a door, where even the bathrooms are monitored. They are not allowed to make tea in their rooms, but our guide, a male staying in the shelter, offers us a cup nonetheless. The biggest problem here is privacy; never a moment alone when there are 2700 other people around and no secluded spaces. However, they seem to be more adjusted to Dutch ways and customs than the people living on the outskirts of Calais where they are met with suspicion by the French. There is almost no sense of community within the camp, but a better connection with the local community due to organised events. Boredom, the feeling of being unable to move forward and not being productive are among the problems here. Refugees have offered to help clean the common spaces and bathrooms to have something to do and feel useful. There are initiatives to organise events among the refugees, but they are not allowed to cook. They eat Dutch mashed potatoes every week. Nobody is proud of their living conditions or their contribution to society and morality is low. These people can and want to contribute, but they are not allowed.

''The solution to the short-stay mindset can be to organise easy accessible longterm activities where multiple people can join and leave without it compromising the continuity of the project.''

3. How can refugees improve their stay in a Dutch refugee camp?

In many Dutch refugee shelters, especially those who are more permanent than Heumensoord, there is an understanding for the basic needs of humans as well as the mental needs. Integration is the local community is stimulated by shared events as well as language courses. Dutch people are asked to be a ”buddy” to a refugee and help him find his way in The Netherlands. Refugees in Heumensoord find connections with Dutch people through a Facebook-page. The COA (Centraal Orgaan opvang Asielzoekers) restricts what they are allowed to do and organise, but there are plenty of posters offering fitness, suitcases, cultural activities and languages courses on the bulletin boards in the common rooms. A community kitchen, as well as bedrooms with fewer people, would be the best improvements according to the residents of Heumensoord. 

The COA is only allowed to provide a bed, bath and the proverbial bread, however in the new refugee centre in Zeist, experiments with a community kitchen where residents are allowed to cook for themselves is about to start. 750 refugees, mostly single men, live here in sizable halls and a few families in temporary housing units. The mayor of Zeist is aware that something has to be done to battle the boredom and help refugees integrate into society. However, the refugee centre provides a school, free wifi and a cinema. For other activities, such as cooking for the community, learning how to ride a bike and language courses, refugees depend on volunteers coordinated by COA. Luckily, in Zeist, many volunteers and organisations such as Trees for Peace are active, but it does not get refugees out of their beds. Refugees do not plan as they might have to move unexpectedly. A day in advance is the earliest option to ask somebody to join an activity. 

The solution to the short-stay mindset can be to organise easy accessible longterm activities where multiple people can join and leave without it compromising the continuity of the project. The city of Utrecht tries to make sure that people staying in short-term emergency housing, will be transferred to asylums in Utrecht only. This will help them keep in touch with their network within the refugee community as well as integrate faster into their new surroundings. The first years after arrival in a new country are crucial for the integration process and wellbeing of refugees. 

Therefore, problems such as lack of privacy, information and participation in refugee camps need to be addressed by COA to cater to the human basic needs, and to improve refugees' mental health there should be long-term activities that help refugees participate and integrate into our shared society.

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