LEIDEN, Netherlands- Swedish furniture company IKEA, in collaboration with the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) has developed a flatpack refugee shelter, designed to be easily and quickly assembled in crisis areas. At 188 square feet and 100 kilograms, the shelter houses five people and can be set up in four hours with no tools required. The shelter is made of lightweight plastic with a metal frame and features a solar panel to power the built-in lamp and USB port. It differs from others of its kind in that the lightweight plastic is designed to last up to three years, compared to the six-month lifespan of most refugee tents.
The IKEA Foundation has reportedly invested $4.8 million toward developing these shelters. 50 prototypes were sent to refuge camps in Syria in September to help house those affected by the violence. Though the shelters have already been tested in Syria and other crisis areas, some parts of the world have objected to the new introduction. Most notable is Lebanon’s refusal to allow the shelters to be imported, a decision that was reversed mere weeks ago.
Lebanon has become home to an influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the war. Indeed, out of the two million Syrians that have fled to neighboring countries, at least half have moved into Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now comprise a quarter of the population. This has added a huge strain to an infrastructure that was already struggling to support the needs of locals.
The Lebanese government initially refused the emergency shelters out of fears that their comparative comfort and advanced amenities would encourage refugees to stay. When Lebanon welcomed Palestinian refugees in 1948, the temporary shelter turned into a permanent home. Today, the Palestinian population has reached half a million. Fearing a similar situation, the government has been reticent to set up refugee camps. Nevertheless, they have finally given approval for the IKEA shelters to be brought into the country.
The government’s decision is being viewed as a positive step in their attitude toward those fleeing Syria. However, authorities caution that it will not mean an immediate turnaround in conditions for refugees. Given that it took six months to convince the government to allow the IKEA units, it is likely that there will be quite a delay in actually getting the shelters into Lebanon. This means that many families will still be facing the winter elements with little more than a tent and emergency supplies. Jean-Marie Garelli, UNHCR’s program director for Syrian refugees, calls the situation a positive development, but cautions, “You won’t see a miracle in a week.”
– Rebecca Beyer