Swiss ditch Ikea refugee shelters over fire concerns

Credit: Better Shelter

Ready-to-assemble refugee shelters made by the Swedish furniture giant Ikea pose a fire hazard, leaders from the Swiss city of Zurich charge. They announced that the 62 shelters purchased by the city will not be put to use, shortly after they arrived. Ikea responded soon after, saying that the shelters meet European safety standards.

Stress tests performed by Ikea “on the walls and covering panels showed that the material held a security level superior to that required for temporary shelter,” said Maerta Terne, a spokeswoman for the Better Shelter project, to Agence France-Presse.

The Better Shelter project is the result of a collaboration between the Ikea Foundation and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR). Together the organizations are working toward developing cheap and sustainable housing solutions for refugees that are easy to ship and build – much like the products made by Ikea for retail consumption. The innovative partnership was touted by various publications, including Humanosphere, as a potentially important solution.

Leaders in Zurich felt assured by the tests that buying Ikea refugee shelters would help house 250 people by early January. It conducted new tests when questions were raised by a German report challenging some of the safety findings in the Swedish study. A new round of tests found that the shelters are “easily combustible,” according to a statement by the city.

The Better Shelter project and UNHCR say they are investigating the new safety test findings. Neither has commented on the test findings themselves. Terne said they are waiting on a translation in order to compare their results against the new tests.

“Safety is of course a priority and we’ll be looking carefully at the fire study reports,” said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards to AFP.

Some 10,000 of the shelters have been ordered by the U.N. so far this year. Refugee camps in Chad, Ethiopia, Iraq and Greece are using them already. More than 500 shelters were brought to Lesvos, Greece, in September. Roughly 1,200 shelters were constructed in Greece this year in order to support the influx of refugees.

A video taken by Better Shelter shows how easily the shelters are constructed. At $1,000 each, the Ikea shelters are roughly twice the cost of alternatives. Their stability, ability to deal with extreme hot and cold, and privacy are among the selling points for investing in the shelters. Proponents boil it down to having the ability to preserve the dignity of refugees who have already suffered the terrible experience of fleeing their homes.

“If you look at it long term, it’s actually cheaper than a tent,” said Terne, to Fast Company back in September. “We hope that this will become the standard for how people live in refugee camps.”

That is all in doubt if the shelters pose a significant fire hazard.

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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.