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“Humanitarian Architecture” in a land of conflict

“Humanitarian architecture” – fortunately, has become a popular term in the field of architecture that aims to improve human livelihood by providing necessary architectural interventions. It signifies that we human beings are evolving more positively despite having so many conflicts among us. Passionate architects are getting more involved in this practice and also receiving the adequate recognition they deserve.

If we try to sketch a rough concept of “Humanitarian architecture” in today’s world, what we will find? Firstly, a group of people who needs help to build basic infrastructures for themselves as in most cases they don’t have enough budget and other resources. Secondly, a recognized authority who has the responsibility or interest to help them with budget and resources. And lastly, the architects who bridge these 2 groups with their knowledge in the relevant field. “Humanitarian architecture” is different from normal architecture practice in the sense that the client (who will provide the budget) and the end-users (who needed the help) are not the same. So, in this scenario, the architects play the role of an umpire and negotiate between the 2 groups. And that's why architects are expected to do more than just design in this concern.

If one goes through the projects of “Humanitarian architecture” he/she will be astonished by seeing so many successful and amazing projects with a bunch of happy people and their smiling faces. But the real scenario is not that simple in some cases if seen from a practical angle. And the difficulties regarding this start to reveal themselves gradually only when one starts to work in that context.

In this article, I am going to share my experiences of participating in a “Refugee camp design workshop”- where I, along with my teammates had to prepare a sustainable design solution for “AL ZAATARI refugee camp”.

AL ZAATARI refugee camp

Al Zaatari Refugee Camp started its journey on July 28, 2012, in Jordan to house the helpless people who were displaced by the Syrian civil war. Jordan's government supplied land for Zaatari’s development and provide security within the camp. Since then, Zaatari has developed from an empty stretch of desert into a home of roughly 100,000 people.

In the beginning, refugees were provided with tent shelters.

These tents were made of canvas and prone to fall at any moment. They could barely protect against cold, rain, or windstorm. Caravans were introduced later when the displacement lasted longer than expected and more stable housing solutions were required. Caravans are far superior due to their protection against weather and vermin, increased privacy, and overall structural stability and tenure[ii]. But both of these are unable to provide necessary thermal insulation to indoor living spaces which is the crucial requirement to ensure comfort in that hot dry climate.

The formal layout of the camp is a grid system with caravans placed in rows; the space of the caravans is designed to accommodate vehicles, guard against fire and promote hygiene. Surveyors decide where to put the caravans and aid workers are required to place the caravans where the surveyors requested. The informal layout of the camp arose after the residents received the caravans. The residents, rather than maintaining the row shapes, re-position their caravans in “little compounds” — typically with a U-shape or a courtyard shape — so that they may live together with their extended families. Other rearrangements of the camp allow refugees to move closer to people from their villages. This unsanctioned modification results in a redrawn, “maze-like” map.

Mental health is a major concern for camp residents. Psychological trauma is common in adults and children who operate in survival mode after coming from the conflict zone. Combating the terrific events of this conflict on children’s mental health is difficult. In just the journey to Zaatari, camp residents suffered the psychological impact of traveling kilometers in the dark and the risks that come from traveling in a war zone. Many believe that efforts to avoid producing a “lost generation” of Syrian children are most effective at the individual counseling level, provided the finances are available.


As we started to find out the sectors which need architectural interventions to improve the lives of the refugees, we began to face contradictory terms regarding this. We were studying the need of the refugees as well as the rules and regulations of construction set by the authority. And soon it was clear that this was unlike any humanitarian project we were familiar with.

Firstly, we were struggling to decide what should be the suitable material for the shelter. As the current shelters were poor at thermal insulation performance. According to the context (hot dry climate) of Jordan, the building envelope should be able to provide adequate thermal insulation to make a comfortable indoor atmosphere. And to achieve this, the thickness of the building envelope can play a vital role. Greater the thickness, the better the performance. But here comes the problem! UNHCR discourages the establishment of formal settlements (Emergency Handbook 4th edition, 2015) and in some cases “any kind of permanent structure is not allowed”(Zaatari-The instant city). The shelters are suggested to be temporary, portable, and prefabricated. And it is quite difficult to find something that is lightweight (prefabricated concern) and at the same time thick enough to create a thermal barrier between indoors and outdoor. Not only that, the material must need be budget-friendly as there is no scope for doing extravagant things.

Creating adequate space for refugee families was the next challenge. Naturally, we were thinking to expand the shelter unit vertically as there was a lack of footprints on the ground. Moreover, the existing haphazard situation of clusters was created by the refugees while trying to expand their shelter horizontally. But, climbing upward to seek the solution was not accepted by the authority either.

As the need of the habitants and the regulations of the authority were contradictory, we were puzzled about whether to follow the needs or follow the rules! And started to dig deeper into the context to get a better grip on the situation.

The conflict between “Temporary” and “Permanent”

Refugee camps are large settlements where the inhabitants neither belong nor are invited. They just come here in response to an emergency. And as comes the term “emergency”, here comes the term “temporary”. Refugees are not expected to be here permanently and they don’t want to be either. But, it is unfortunate that their stay just keeps extending as no one knows exactly when their country will be habitable again for them.

Refugee camps today are envisaged as "temporary emergency settlements" spaces in which people are provided with aid and support until such time that they can return to their “permanent” homes; yet according to UNHCR the average lifespan of a refugee camp is seventeen years. Therefore, the term ‘temporary’ in reality often means several years or even decades, particularly in the case of refugee settlements caused by conflicts. During this extended “temporary” arrangement, refugees suffer hard living conditions due to camp designs not taking into consideration the long-term perspective or refugees’ needs, culture, and background.

But except in extraordinary situations, refugee populations never disappear; either they become integrated residents of their new location or they turn into embittered outcasts. Everyone involved wants to deny this; the host country’s government (because then it would have to provide for the newcomers), the relief agencies (because then they have no ‘exit strategy’), the host country’s citizens (who see the newcomers as a cultural and economic threat), and the newcomers themselves (because then they have to postpone their dream of returning to the time before). (Zaatari-The instant city)

Different parties- different demands- different interest

The “Refugee community”, the “host community” and the “authority” are the 3 main groups which are needed to be considered while working in the refugee camp context. And problems arise with the contradicting view of each group. Their interest and demands don’t match each other. The situation here is quite different other than only proposing a design for a group of people (refugees). One needs to consider the interest and demands of the rest of the 2 groups also as they work as a catalyst to create the environment of the camp. And it is a very tough job to find an in-between solution and make a priority sequence of interest.


After a pretty long quest of 2 months, we finally were able to come out with our proposed design for the refugees of the Zaatari camp. The detailed analysis of the context helped us a lot to get a clear view of what could be done to meet both ends meet. At the beginning of the journey, we were focusing only on the needs of the refugees as they were our end users. But during the workshop, we came to learn about other factors that are similarly important to shape a more suitable and practical design. Our amateur ideas were being sharped through the expert eyes of honorable guests of the workshop who were experienced in this field. We gradually learn to develop practical ideas to solve problems rather than dreaming about imaginary innovations. “The first question you need to ask yourselves is that, who is going to pay for it,” told Layla Zabir, one of the guest speakers of the workshop, when we were exploring building materials without being concerned about the cost. The experiences from the workshop open a new horizon of architecture practice as the formal curriculum of the universities rarely offers such learning opportunities.

[Author: Sadia Tabassum Surovi, Chittagong University of Engineering And Technology, Bangladesh]


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