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IKEA Is Now Designing Housing for Refugee Camps

The Swedish furniture store is partnering with UNHCR to produce flat-pack IKEA tents for refugee camps around the world.
March 5, 2014, 1:10pm
Photo via AFP

In an expansion beyond bookshelves and meatballs, IKEA will soon be furnishing refugee camps around the world.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is partnering with the Swedish furniture giant to help build refugee housing in areas of conflict. The charitable wing of the company, the IKEA Foundation, has agreed to collaborate with UNHCR to design “flat pack” huts for the Kawergosk refugee camp in northern Iraq for Syrian refugees.

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The new housing units are about twice the size of the typical UNHCR tent, equipped with insulated walls, solar panels, and private rooms. They take about four hours to assemble with the requisite illustrated instruction manual, and look somewhat like a sterile garden shed.

“The huts were tested in Ethiopia and proved to be very successful,” said Olivier Delarue, a senior advisor for UNHCR Innovation, who has a pivotal role in the partnership. “Refugees have been very happy about the living conditions because they were designed with their feedback and 60 years of UNHCR experience,” he said.

In a video produced by the IKEA Foundation that shows how to assemble the housing unit, an engineer explains: “It is like an IKEA bookshelf, easy to be transported and set up in the field.”

IKEA partner with UNHCR to develop refugee housing in the Kawergosk camp in northern Iraq.

The older model of the UNHCR tent is made of non-weather resistant fabric and flimsy poles that provide little protection from the elements. They are designed to only last about six months whereas the new shelters are said to last up to six years.

It took the Lebanese government six months of convincing before they begrudgingly allowed a trial run of these shelters. Even then, they did not allow nearly enough for all of the refugees who needed them. About half of the 2.5 million refugees fleeing Syria’s brutal three-year civil war have settled in Lebanon, and Lebanese officials are in no hurry to make it a permanent visit.

Lebanon’s concern that the massive influx of Syrian refugees might become permanent is founded in history. In 1948, after the mass exodus of Palestinians following the establishment of Israel, tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to the surrounding countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The tents that were originally set up to absorb these migrants were gradually replaced by concrete houses, and they have been there ever since.

Or take Jordan, where the Palestinians who fled there now make up two-thirds of the total population, the majority of whom are still living in the original UNHCR camps that were set up generations ago. Now 60 years later, the camps that were supposed to be temporary are dilapidated slums that are rife with crime, drugs, and unemployment.

UNHCR is aware of these concerns. “The shelters have been designed so that they are modular and you can dismantle and take them down, if the refugees wish to return,” said Delarue. But they will still not be able to fully solve the rapidly deepening refugee crisis in Syria.

The UN estimates that eight million Syrians will be displaced by the end of 2014, according to Reuters, and it is unlikely that all of these people will be living in IKEA housing.