What we’re reading: Refugee Cities

By Anya Brickman Raredon, Global Associate

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a front-page article by Michael Kimmelman about the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, naming it as a “Do-It-Yourself City”.  Here at AHI, we’ve spent part of the spring and summer speaking at conferences and raising a related set of questions to humanitarians and global housing finance experts:

What is the nature of long-term humanitarian settlements? Can we continue to see refugee camps as “camps” or are they actually “instant cities”?

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Four years after the earthquake this IDP camp is now a thriving community. Port-au-Prince, Haiti 2014. Photos by author.

UNHCR recently reported that the number of refugees wordwide exceeds 50 million.  This number is only likely to increase as cities and countries face increasing instability and environmental risk, making the question of where refugees live and what the conditions of those places are an ever more pressing question.  Furthermore, when entire cities are displaced, the demographics of refugee populations cut across economic lines, and new 2013-11-08 15.05.39settlements (camps) include tradesmen, entrepreneurs, educators, and a whole range of professionals – challenging our preconceptions of camps filled with the poor, unskilled, and helpless.
Individuals, even when displaced from their homes, will shape the spaces in which they live – whether that be through planting vegetables in pots by their door, hooking up their tent to electricity, or working with their neighbors to pave the road and reduce dust.

As the NYT article points out in the case of Zaatari, “There is even a travel agency that will provide pick-up service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.”

This sure sounds like the beginning of a city to me.  So how do we shift humanitarian thinking, actions, and systems to acknowledge this reality and redirect the expenditures of supporting these settlements into investments in long-term development which can benefit both the current refugee families and the surrounding host communities? How do we shift the paradigm from seeing refugees as ‘beneficiaries’, and instead view them as proactive and able to contribute to the environments in which they live?

For more information read the article here: “Refugee Camp for Syrians in Jordan Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City”

Or download our presentation from the InterAction Forum in Washington DC, Shelter Camp or Instant City: June 2014 where we held a joint discussion with Charles Setchell of USAID/OFDA and Seki Hirano of Catholic Relief Services.  In this discussion it was highlighted that there are many similarities between long-term humanitarian resettlements and urban conditions – such as heterogenous populations with specific needs and skills – and that humanitarian and relief organizations need to integrate urban planning into their contingency planning and pre-positioning strategies.  As Charles Setchell said in his presentation, “shelter is more than a house, tent or sheet, it can generate greater economic activity than any other humanitarian sector in -disaster-/crisis-affected settlements, and jump-start longer-term development.”  We here at AHI agree, and want to push this thinking into action.

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