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Centre for Geopolitics

Providing historically-grounded approaches to enduring geopolitical problems.
refugee shelter space 3.5m2

26 May 2020

Starting the conversation…

Jennifer Ward George, Design Fellow for the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and University of Cambridge

Records show that the number of people globally displaced currently sits at around 1 in every 110 persons worldwide. As Covid-19 continues to spread around the world, humanitarian actors are preparing to deal with the potential consequences of the virus emerging in the refugee camps and informal settlements housing some of these displaced populations. But as we see the astounding effects this virus is already having in developed countries, it becomes difficult to imagine the consequence it could have in places already ill-equipped to meet basic needs. Where the recommended minimum standard for shelter is 3.5m2 covered living space per person, how can communities be expected to maintain the 2m distance advocated to the rest of the world? When Covid-19 reaches refugee camps and those living in temporary shelter, the rate of infection could be significantly heightened by an inability to self-isolate, a lack of basic supplies such as soap and food, and an already existing shortage of access to healthcare and healthcare supplies. Covid-19 could present further significant problems for humanitarians as nations turn inward to deal with their own internal difficulties and foreign aid declines. David Miliband, now CEO of the International Rescue Committee, has suggested that the result of Covid-19 in refugee camps could be “death on an absolutely appalling scale”.

Covid-19 could present further significant problems for humanitarians as nations turn inward to deal with their own internal difficulties and foreign aid declines

As we endure a lockdown in the UK, many of us have become more aware of the privilege that safe, secure housing provides in continuing to live, work, and #shelterinplace. This, in turn, has commanded a greater focus on the effect that shelter can have on physical and mental health. How will the shelter and settlements sector respond to rising displacement, an increasing focus on the importance of shelter, and depleting resources to respond?


Mark Breeze, University of Cambridge, ‘Sustainable Shelter Group’ Founding Chair, and Editor of “Structures of Protection? Rethinking Refugee Shelter”

The urgency to avoid ‘death on an absolutely appalling scale’ as David Miliband warns, despite rising displacement and depleting resources to respond, is clear. Technical criteria need to be met to protect life – but is that enough? Urgency must not override the important responsibilities of shelter.

Human shelter is more than a roof with walls that protects us from the elements. A dry, temperate indoor environment is vital, but our physical and mental health requires shelter to do a lot more: it has to keep us safe and secure; provide basic sanitary services; give us privacy, silence, light, and air; enable social, cultural, economic, and political life; and tactically harness existing resources to minimize its initial and ongoing impact on the environment. Otherwise we will create long-term problems with our notionally short-term solutions.

These complex and dynamic needs cannot be met with a static, imposed solution that only fulfills a checklist of technical criteria; they require a strategic, integrated approach that is cost-effective and durable, harnessing the specific realities on the ground as opportunities – from the local regulations, politics, and knowledge, to the limited resources, budgets, and time. Such an approach requires not only technical knowledge of structures, materials, systems, policies, environmental science, and construction, but also – vitally – creative experience in bringing these often competing demands, systems, and elements together holistically, to create a shelter that is both relevant and enabling for human physical and mental health. This is an architectural approach.

There is no perfect shelter. But human shelter must respond to human needs. The urgent challenge the Shelter and Settlements Sector now faces brings fundamental questions to the fore: what does shelter need to do, and ultimately, ‘what is life’? The urgent and important must go hand in hand.