Towards A Rationalisation of the Construction of Refugee Camps

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James Kennedy

It has often been said that refugee camps should be planned and built as if they were towns. However, refugee camps will always fundamentally differ from towns, in that they have to be built with extraordinary speed, for a population of extraordinary vulnerability. Refugee camps are like towns in that their evolving existences have great impact upon the inhabitant refugees, and upon a complex, long-reaching network of other towns, provinces and countries. But the humanitarian emergencies which propel the camps’ existence mean that the pattern of impact must be decided within a minute fraction of the time usually allotted for town planning decisions. In all instances, the maximum amount of efficiency must be combined with the maximum amount of concern for the refugees’ well-being, in order that these two aims run in tandem with each other, and do not become oppositional. In best practise, they should be two sides of the same coin, as strategies for humane response should provide the aims for efficient action, and as models for rationalisation of works can be harnessed to the long-term needs of refugees living in camps.

It is the contention of this thesis, that if the principles of rationalisation previously applied to the urban low-income housing sector can be sufficiently adapted to the construction of refugee camps, then this may provide a framework for reconciling short-term calculations, perhaps of a more material nature, with long-term calculations, with a greater weighting towards what might be described in short-hand as being socio-economic, as defined throughout this thesis.

This adaptation of methodological framework will extend the event horizon for the study of a subject matter which in the past has been limited by assumptions of temporariness, and will expand the socio-geographic scale of a subject matter which in the past has tended to be treated in isolation. Through a combination of analysis of the existing literature, and a set of case studies, this thesis will argue that there are still areas in the state of the art of refugee camp planning where further rationalisation can be achieved at the ‘construction’ phase of the camp, but that what will ultimately take the greater weight and the greater cost-benefit, will be the adaptation of the camp environment towards promoting long-term, durable solutions with the refugees and their own livelihoods as the central features.

In doing so, this thesis will further the argument made by an increasing number of commentators but most recently and persuasively by Corsellis and Vitale1 that planned camps and camp planning can be part of a complex, integrated response to refugee situations, that even though the camps must be planned for the long-term, they are ultimately transitional, and that the best insurance for durable solutions to a refugee situation is in giving support to the refugees’ own livelihoods.