Designing a better home for refugee children

On World Refugee Day, the IKEA Foundation is celebrating its unique partnership with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Refugee Housing Unit—a partnership to design and build a better home for refugee families.

Many of the shelters currently used in refugee camps often have a life span of as little as six months before the impact of sun, rain and wind means they need to be replaced. However, refugees usually stay in camps for several years. Not only does this leave vulnerable families even more exposed to the challenges of life in a refugee camp, but it also presents a huge burden to the aid agencies and governments trying to create a more dignified life for the millions of people who have had to flee their own homes. Thanks to the IKEA Foundation’s focus on funding innovative projects and developing connections between its partners, that could be set to change.

“Building back better”

The Refugee Housing Unit started working on a project to develop emergency shelters in 2008. Johan Karlsson, Project Manager at the Refugee Housing Unit, recalls: “The Indian Ocean tsunami was still a fresh memory, and ‘Building back better’ was the motto among our humanitarian partners—meaning that humanitarian aid should not only contribute to saving lives, but also to creating sustainable communities after disasters.” The Refugee Housing Unit realised that, with their design and manufacturing expertise, they had vital skills to contribute to the process. “By adding our and our partners’ knowledge in product design and production, we were certain that we could help humanitarian agencies create a shelter which would represent better value for money and at the same time significantly improve the lives of refugees and displaced people, as well helping communities be more resilient to disasters.” But they needed funding and access to the humanitarian agencies that understood firsthand the issues communities face after disasters—and they found both of these in a place that, at first, seemed unlikely: IKEA. Karlsson says: “We could clearly see the need for innovation when it came to humanitarian shelters and needed a partner who shared our vision. We got the opportunity to discuss the project with the former IKEA design manager Lennart Ekmark. He liked it and believed it was within the ‘spirit of IKEA’, so he supported us to get a meeting with the Foundation’s CEO, Per Heggenes, who also later put us in touch with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.”

Collaborating for the benefit of refugee children

In a twist of fate, soon after the Foundation decided to fund the Refugee Housing Unit’s project, UNHCR approached the IKEA Foundation to discuss a possible partnership. Olivier Delarue, who is leading the UNHCR Innovation initiative, established with the support of the Foundation, explains: “We realised that the plastic sheeting UNHCR was using to build temporary refugee shelters was almost exactly the same material that IKEA used for their bags in stores. We also realised that IKEA had expertise in certain areas—such as logistics and flat packing—that we could learn from. “Knowing that the IKEA Foundation was committed to helping refugee children, we approached them to find out how we could work together to provide children with dignity through better housing.” Believing that the two organisations complemented each other’s skills and experience, the IKEA Foundation brought the two organisations together so the Refugee Housing Unit could benefit from UNHCR’s vast experience and knowledge, resulting in a better product. Karlsson sums up what he sees as the biggest reason behind the partnership’s success. “We share a genuine interest and understanding of innovation, and we all bring unique resources and skills to the project. The IKEA Foundation provides funding and management support, UNHCR brings the know-how and field experience, while we and our private and academic partners carry-out the hands-on development of the product.” Plus, they all have a common goal. “We want to create better and safer homes for the millions of people suffering in camps due to conflict and natural and man-made disasters. This is our key objective and what counts in the end.” Delarue agrees that this public/private partnership is not only unique, but groundbreaking. “Companies have never before helped improve refugee shelters the way the IKEA Foundation has. By introducing us to the Refugee Housing Unit, the Foundation enabled the two organisations to share each other’s expertise and experience to create a better shelter, which UNHCR is now testing in the field. We would not have done this without the IKEA Foundation.”

Hope for a better future for refugees

The prototype of the shelter is now being tested in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The refugee families who would be making the shelter their homes will have a direct say in how the product is developed, putting their experience at the heart of this collaborative process. Once UNHCR has gathered input from the families testing the shelter, the team will look at how they can make necessary changes and, hopefully, begin producing the new shelters. The IKEA Foundation is also funding UNHCR’s search for other innovations, such as solar streetlights, that will improve the lives of refugee families. Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, said: “Just as IKEA looks for innovative ways to create a better everyday home life for the many people, the IKEA Foundation is looking for ways to create a better everyday life for poor families who have lost their homes and everything familiar to them. By bringing together our partners and funding new technology, we can help make a tremendous difference to the world’s most vulnerable children.”


UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency


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