Ever since the UN declared shelter a “human right” in 1951, the number of refugee camps has escalated. Across the globe, NGOs, humanitarian organizations, and architects have been involved in designing provisional housing for refugees—a term that covers peoples displaced by ethnic, political, economic, and environmental reasons, both within and beyond their countries. Initially designed as temporary solutions, many are now the size of cities, in some cases with populations that have soared to half a million people. The number of refugees worldwide, currently set at about 65 million, is expected to grow rapidly, given the accelerating climate crisis. The camps themselves fall into different typologies. News organizations frequently report on the more recent ones—in Kenya, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Pakistan. Older camps such as the Palestinian ones or Dadaab (Kenya), have become a permanent home to several generations of residents who, though born in the host country, are nevertheless stateless and thus extremely vulnerable. Less visible, but equally ubiquitous, are detention and internment facilities established by liberal democracies in Europe, Australia, and the US/Mexico border.

This seminar analyzes refugee camps and detention centers from a transnational perspective, probing the limits and problems evident in different cases, as well as the state of exception and extraterritoriality that applies to all of them. It will also study disaster relief housing around the globe sometimes built with the help of refugees. What metrics should we use to judge successful design? In 2017, ten thousand shelters produced by IKEA had to be recalled because of fire hazards. While Shigeru Ban won the Pritzker Prize in 2014 for the housing work he did with and for refugees in Japan, Vietnam, Italy, Kenya, and Rwanda, many architects have been widely criticized for their overriding formal concerns and for devising top-down approaches that ignore the migrants’ needs, culture, and religious habits. Stringent budgets, often below $100 per family unit, are another major obstacle to good design. Faced with the need to scale up response, it is imperative to address the housing problems faced by a growing number of displaced people. The camps’ urban characteristics are another crucial topic: their spatial configuration can contribute to loss of identity, violence (symbolic and actual), and social shortcomings that weigh heavily on women and children who usually make up the majority of the population.

Refugees, however, are not passive victims, and this seminar will study some of the ways in which they constantly work to urbanize the repetitive, featureless rows of shelters imposed upon them, carving out public space for leisure, education, and retail. Resilience in the face of constant violence are one side of the equation which depends on local conditions: camps across the world have also seen a rise in suicide, self-mutilation, and despair.

Part of our agenda is to understand how ex-habitants themselves produce space and institute different forms of urban governmentality that accords with their social customs and religion. Without their voice, there can be no durable and acceptable solution to housing record numbers of displaced populations. That said, camps are places of ever-changing and extraordinary complexity that continually challenge our ideas, strategies, and best practices. No two are alike. Rife with internal divisions, they can react violently to the humiliating strictures placed upon them by “humanitarian” aid and the increasing presence of military personnel.

In addition to the urgency of the topic, this seminar is aimed at reaching our students who are deeply concerned with social and environmental justice. As the Yale Law School is deeply involved in this issue, this course will count on the participation of Professor Julie Kornfeld from their International Refugee Assistance Project.

All Semesters

Spring 2022
From Shigeru Ban to IKEA: Designing Refugee Camps
Esther da Costa Meyer