Coming to your local refugee camp: Ikea

Everybody’s favorite do-it-yourself furniture warehouse, Ikea, is getting in on the humanitarian game.

The charitable arm of the Swedish company Ikea unveiled a new partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Refugee Housing Unit to design better homes for refugees.  It is a part of a €73 million commitment to improving the lives of refugees in camps in Ethiopia, Sudan and Bangladesh. Shelters are one facets of the commitment which also touches on education and family reunification, but they are certainly catching some attention.

The “Refugee Shelter” comes with solar panels, higher ceilings and insulated walls. It is a sturdier structure than the tents are often used and one that can maintain temperature for regions that face harsh winters, such as Syria and its neighboring countries.

True to Ikea form, the shelters are packaged in only a few flat boxes that are easy to transport and the structure itself is lightweight and easy to construct.

1682416-slide-shelter-3“It is important that the shelter is lightweight enough so that it can be easily and cost efficiently transported, but strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions of refugee camps,” said the Project Manager at the Refugee Housing Unit, Johan Karlsson to Fast Company. “The design is to balance the mechanical properties such as UV, structural strength, insulation, cost and a very specific requirement for this application: privacy.”

It also comes packed with some neat innovations. A screen on the top of the shelter that provides 70% solar reflection during the day to keep the shelter cool and acts as insulation to keep heat in at night. Solar strips sit on top to capture energy that powers the shelter. Steel holds up the house, but the plastic sides are a new polymer that allows light to stream in during the day, but does not cast shadows from inside at night. This provides families with the privacy that they desire.

The project itself dates back to 2008 and was inspired in part by the tsunami in 2004 that devastated countries in south-east Asia, says Karlsson. The group wanted to develop shelters that can protect families and build communities. To do so they needed money and a partner who could actually build the shelters in a way that meets the challenges of a post-disaster or refugee situation. Enter Ikea.

The Ikea Foundation decided to fund the project at the same time UNHCR expressed interest in forming a partnership.

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“We realized that the plastic sheeting UNHCR was using to build temporary refugee shelters was almost exactly the same material that IKEA used for their bags in stores,” said Olivier Delarue, leader of the UNHCR Innovation initiative. “We also realized that IKEA had expertise in certain areas—such as logistics and flat packing—that we could learn from. ”

An estimated 3.5 million refugees live in tents, says UNHCR. Providing a more stable structure that can weather the elements would be a vast improvement.

“This is a better solution than tents,” Paul Spiegel, an official with the UN Refugee Agency, said in an interview with WSJ. “It has potential to be better in the elements and the weather.”

The project will be put to the test in the coming months. More than 50 shelters will be deployed in Ethiopia, Iraq and Lebanon to see if theory stands up to reality. Then UNHCR and other groups will have to determine whether they want to use the shelters and if they are a cost-effective alternative to the tents already in use. It is most promising in situations where families remain in refugee camps for years. UNHCR’s Pierre Oliver Delarue cites that families will spend an average of 12 years in a camp.

“We want to create better and safer homes for the millions of people suffering in camps due to conflict and natural and man-made disasters. This is our key objective and what counts in the end,” says Karlsson.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.