Nothing says misery like a hot tent in a refugee camp. That's especially true when a family spends year after year under a triangle of canvas meant to last only six months.
More than six decade after the United Nations passed a convention pledging to protect refugees, very little has changed about the way they are sheltered – until now.
The IKEA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the iconic Swedish furniture maker, has helped come up with a more comfortable refugee shelter. Just like the coffee table or nightstand sitting in your home, the IKEA shelter is flat-packed, requires no tools to assemble, and can be taken apart and rebuilt again elsewhere. Instead of canvas flaps, the shelter is made up of hard panels, which stand up better against harsher climactic conditions and offer more privacy.
The clever innovation heralds a new era of refugee assistance, one where the United Nations approaches the private sector for ideas and investment, not just donations. If the shelters work, the design will be made available by IKEA to other companies for commercial production, while the swelling numbers of refugees from conflicts like those in Syria will have a more humane place to call home.
"We've been working on this for three years and it's… a significant investment," says Per Heggenes, the CEO of the IKEA Foundation. "[W]e hope that this will be a product that can be manufactured commercially and offered in the market to all organizations that are dealing with emergency and disaster situations."
An estimated 3.5 million of the world's refugees – civilians driven from their homes and across international borders by conflict – are living in tents.
Searching for a better alternative, the Refugee Housing Unit, a Swedish design firm specifically aimed at improving the living conditions of displaced persons, approached the IKEA Foundation in 2010. Intrigued by the idea, IKEA reached out to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the initiative was born.
Each of the IKEA shelters is designed to house one family. The shelters employ technologies to keep the interior cool by day and warm at night; a solar panel on each provides electricity.