A refugee is an individual, who under some unfortunate circumstances is forced to leave his or her native country or residence and flee to another. They are termed as ‘Asylum seekers’ until they are granted refugee status by the host country and or UNHCR.

The architecture fraternity is being celebrated for designing various innovative solutions for disaster relief around the world. Which includes brilliant concepts like mass customization, local materials, vernacular architecture building techniques, etc.

Refugee Rehabilitation is one of the major crises the world is facing right now.

Refugee camps are often termed as “temporary housing” by architects, which goes against the fact that the average life span of the refugee camp is 25-30 years and an average stay of an individual is 17 years. Clearly, this time scale does not fit within the normal concept of “temporary”

Hence, in today’s scenario, as contentious as it sounds we need more permanent housing solutions for refugees. Architects should look at the camps or shelters with a different design perspective. Reason being

1. The unfortunate rise in the population of asylum seekers.

Currently, over 70.8 million individuals have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.1 in every 113 people around the world is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.

2. Ardent need for a more stable sustainable approach, resulting in eco-friendly and green solutions.

Al Zaatari, one of the largest housing with 83,000 refugees, hardly offers shelter from freezing temperatures or flooding. Refugees mostly have to build their own houses from thatch and plastic so they can be removed. None of the mentioned material guarantees insulation, privacy, etc

Waste disposal is a major issue that is linked to refugee shelters. Waste is generated during displacement as well as inside the camps, it mostly includes waste from refugees throughout the journey. Also help provided to them in the form of food and water which is packed in plastic containers and bottles, life jackets and boats, etc generate tonnes of plastic waste.


While designing a refugee shelter, the foremost priority is focusing on providing housing that shields its residents from adverse weather conditions and provides a physically safe environment. However, it is also significant that we consider the emotional well being of refugees as numerous refugees are exposed to poor living conditions that affect their health and can even result in anxiety, depression, and suicide.


The negative narratives mentioned should be highlighted and focused on while designing a housing solution for the displaced communities.

There are two types of systems that are considered during community designing-

  • Closed system.
  • Open system.

The closed system, as the name suggests, is when the communities are rehabilitated in seclusion, maintaining the essence and culture of a particular group of refugees.

The open system includes cohesion of the community with the outer world, which results in avoiding complete seclusion.

The ideal solution to any design for community living in the “open system” as it promises the socio-cultural well-being.

But, according to experts, urban planners and architects Open system results in Unstable evolution and a closed system results in – harmonious Equilibrium.

The architectural solution that we must infer from the above data is a balance of the two systems, which ensures that the cities become more adaptable to this incoming group while maintaining the natural core of the group.

Sustainability is another important aspect that should be taken into consideration:
Some of the methods of achieving sustainability and green solutions are mentioned below.

1. Adaptive reuse of abandoned building

Buildings that have served their purpose in the past and now are abandoned can be reused for the rehabilitation of displaced communities.

Fine examples of this concept are –

a. Germany’s largest refugee shelter inside Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport.

Based on the official statistics, in 2015, more than 1 million refugees arrived in German with hopes of a better life. Due to the lack of accommodation space in cities like Berlin, the municipality provides temporary shelters for refugees with a completely different perspective, of reusing Berlin’s Tempelhof airport which was closed down.


b. Occupying abandoned Olympic Village by refugees in Turin

The Olympic Village, now called Ex-Moi initially was been designed as a part of a project for Turin urban transformation while conveying sustainability intentions. Later, it was reused as a shelter for refugees. The refugees were more than 1000 people from almost 30 different ethnic groups, with a large number of women and children and inhabited in the four buildings of the setting.


2. Vernacular architecture techniques

‘Weaving a home’ by Jordanian/Canadian designer Abeerseikaly
This design showcased how vernacular techniques can be incorporated while designing for displaced communities. It Proposes a disaster shelter for refugees that is based on temporary huts of nomadic tribes. The use of structural fabric references ancient traditions of joining linear fibers to make complex three-dimensional shapes – the resulting pattern is easy to erect and scale into various functions, from a basket to a tent.


3. Use of local materials

Local materials are ideal for designing as they are cheap, they respond better to the climate and can be used by the refugees to construct their own houses when in need.

Post-Tsunami Kirinda Project in Kirinda, Sri Lanka

An inspiring disaster relief project from the mind of Shigeru Ban these houses were built from bricked earth and locally-sourced rubber tree wood. 100 of these small houses were built after a tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004


In conclusion, I would like to add that, as architects we are fortunately bounded by a social obligation, to give it back to society. Rehabilitation centers and shelters for the displaced and needy is one of the few prominent opportunities that we get, to show gratitude towards the humankind.

Let’s rethink the refugee camp.
Let’s go beyond the tent.


A firm believer of J.K Rowling’s famous quote, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, the most inexhaustible source of magic”. Samruddhi Kulkarni is a 23 year old architect, an ardent reader, coffee enthusiast, loves to explore places and preserve them in her diary.


  1. I am a final year student of architecture, doing a thesis on refugees settlement for Rohingyas in New Delhi. Would love to discuss about the topic with the author….

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