Innovation in refugee camps

Last Wednesday I was part of a panel about innovation in refugee camps organized by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) at the conference Re:publica. I was present as co-founder of Rethink Relief and member of the IDIN network, because of the work we do to bridge the transition between short-term and long-term oriented organizations with the participation in workshops of refugees, social workers, humanitarian workers in design summits and creative capacity building workshops.
The panel also included Kilian Kleinschmidt, Marlen de la Chaux, Grace Keji and Katharina Dermühl, as moderator. As part of an ICT/media/makers conference the discussion was destined to be framed within these topics but in fact is was less about technology and mostly about the role of refugee camps, the empowerment of refugees and how a systemic change is needed to address the problems. The discussion was rather consensual in most of the points with one or two exceptions.

Refugees, but who really?
Only about 1/3 of all refugees live currently in camps. Most refugees live in cities’ suburbs throughout the world. There’s an estimated number of 6 million urban refugees falling outside of the humanitarian radar, looking for work and opportunities in less segregated and limited places. Besides these, there are also “statusless” asylum seekers who more even than refugees face difficulties accessing basic services like healthcare or housing. And there are internally displaced people, who account for most of the total 60 million people of displaced people in the world. People who seek a safe place to live.
It is important to define whether we’re talking about the refugees in massive makeshift cities like in the Zaatari camp in Jordan; if we’re talking about refugees in open, smaller camps inserted in local populations like in Uganda, refugees arriving in Europe or refugees in the neglected trafficking roots between Myanmar/Bangladesh and Indonesia. It’s impossible to speak about all in the same way. The challenges they face are different and so are their motivations, their journeys, their cultures, their literacy levels and so on. If in many cases we must speak of difficult hygiene conditions and risk of disease, challenging seasons and social segregation or stigma, in other cases, where conditions in a camp actually exceed the ones of host populations it is more relevant to discuss the need to support their transition; In Europe where there is a huge mismatch between expectations between Europeans and migrants, the abolition of “temporary” camps and concepts like integration and engagement need to be more frequently and seriously discussed in a multidisciplinary manner.

What we could speak about however is the ‘refugee status’ and what that means. This status is not an unchangeable by norm and as the landscape of humanitarian aid changes, it becomes increasingly urgent, to challenge the advantages and disadvantages of how the status of refugees is defined. Refugee empowerment, a paradigm change, as Andreas Proksch, Secretary General of the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ) called it, means that the narrative of the refugee as an impoverished, vulnerable and victimized person, is misleading. On one hand, it is positive that media bodies spread the awareness, on the other hand, this should not be done on basis of pity or invoking the need for charity. The discussion about what refugees need, needs to be done with and by refugees themselves. And it’s more than time to involve them actively in humanitarian and developmental policy decision making. A refugee is a person like any other, capable and often specialized individual. Someone who was previously a decision maker and is unfortunately, as refugee, seen as someone whose decisions are made for. Furthermore, refugees are not only individuals but groups of individuals and communities and it is important to understand the respective the dynamics of refugee groups, their origin and their ways. And as refugees take their space in decision making, humanitarian aid organization models, funding structures will also need to adapt and modify their governing models.

One question generated some controversy. Is it better to plan and design refugee camps as cities or is it better to reinforce integration? And how can refugees be empowered to take part in that design. From the point of view of Kilian Kleinschmidt, former manager of the Zaatari camp in Jordan, the design and planning of camps should be in the hands of specialists and not humanitarian organizations. He argues that neither these organizations neither refugees themselves are capable of doing this properly. But there’s a different view on this.
Camps should remain a temporary, a transitional place. We should ask refugees, not to design their camps, but to design their journeys. We should support them in achieving a goal, whether the goal is to return or not, we must create bridges, services, with existing health and education systems to support that transition period, and that is entrepreneurs, specialized doctors, teachers, farmers, etc. Building new urban spaces for refugees, designed by western urban planners and architects, supported by private investment does not address the need for these refugees to be integrated in society, it promotes their segregation. Besides that, over reliance in private investment may lead to less governmental motivation to take responsibility on the distribution of refugees, and the provision of access to healthcare, education and welfare.

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Panel “Innovation in Refugee Camps“, 4th May at Re:publica in Berlin. Foto: re:publica

Interesting links

“Treating the refugee crisis as a design problem is problematic”

And some flying thoughts and open questions about innovation definition and opportunities…
Can we develop innovations for the people or is innovation what people come up with? Is a refugee-app innovation or is the use of tourist-apps by a refugee, innovation? Are systems like rain water harvesting or hydroponics that circumvent problems of land owning and dependency on limited systems innovation (Rethink Relief)? And as Marlen de la Chaux said: “when a refugee who was previously a barber, sets up a barber’s place … is that innovation? Are programs, governmental, non-governmental and private/for profit that empower refugees in transition or humanitarian workers to use and develop their capacities innovation (e.g. Kiron University, Unicef Innovation labs)? Are programs connecting refugees with companies innovation (e.g. Intelli-grate)? Are maker spaces offering tools to refugees innovation (e.g. comunitaire)?

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