As every new homeowner knows, Ikea’s flat-pack furniture fills the niche for cheap, trendy and ultimately disposable housewares. So it only made sense that Ikea’s philanthropic wing would team up with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, to develop a similarly of-the-moment solution to the vexing problem of temporary refugee housing, which hasn’t substantially evolved beyond the tent since the Israelites fled Egypt. The only problem is that the flat-pack Ikea Refugee Housing Unit, with its roomy interior, solar lights and insulated wall panels — all designed to last three years compared to a tent’s six months — isn’t temporary enough for some. Nowhere is that more evident than in Lebanon, where government authorities had, until last week, prohibited their use for the mass influx of Syrians fleeing the war, worried that the upgraded housing may just incite refugees to stay.
It has taken more than six months of intense lobbying to convince the Lebanese government to allow even a trial run of the Ikea units. Now that they are permitted, it’s likely to take just as long to get a sufficient number of the shelters into the country, leaving entire families exposed to the elements as Lebanon’s vicious winter storms drive freezing rain, snow and wind through the informal refugee settlements that have sprung up across the country. UNHCR has delivered tens of thousands of emergency kits containing plastic tarps, blankets and timber to the estimated 125,000 refugees that have not been able to find adequate shelter. Still, it means that many can expect to spend the winter with little more to protect them from the elements than a thin plastic sheet. The government turnaround is a positive development, says Jean-Marie Garelli, UNHCR’s program director for the Syrian refugees. “However it will take some time to put these shelters in place. You won’t see a miracle in a week.”
More than 2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries since the conflict started in 2011. At least half have settled in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up nearly 25% of the population, taxing an already weakened state infrastructure that can barely support the educational, health and sanitation needs of local Lebanese. It is for this reason that government authorities, unlike those in Jordan and Turkey, have refused to establish refugee camps. When Palestinians fled Israel in 1948, Lebanon welcomed them for what was supposed to be a temporary stay. More than 60 years later, the Palestinian population has reached half a million. Lebanese authorities don’t want to risk a repeat. “In Lebanon the government has been reluctant to set up any structure that has any resemblance of permanence,” says Roberta Russo, UNHCR’s Beirut-based spokesperson. “After what they went through with the Palestinians, they want to make sure the presence of Syrians is temporary.” And that means that even an Ikea house that that can be put together — or taken apart — in less than four hours raised hackles.
At the beginning of the Syria conflict, Lebanon encouraged refugees to integrate into local communities by renting houses or sheltering in unfinished construction sites instead of setting up formal camps. It worked up to a point, but now the staggering numbers are taking a toll. The refugees are now scattered across the country, making it much more difficult to deliver adequate assistance. Even though the government is opening up to the idea of better shelters, it is opposed to any kind of formal camp. Still, says Russo, Lebanon has been far more generous in terms of hosting Syrians than any other country, so while the government’s stance on the temporary houses is frustrating, it is also understandable.
UNHCR and the Ikea Foundation have spent three years and more than $4.6 million to develop an alternative to the traditional tent. The final structure is made of a light, flexible steel frame lined with polymer-foam panels designed to let in light during the day while providing privacy at night. A shade net embedded with a lightweight solar panel provides warmth in the winter, shade in the summer, and electricity when needed. It weighs less than 220 lb. and, when unassembled, is easily transportable. “We were really enthusiastic when we saw it,” says Russo. “It provided solutions to so many issues — children can study homework at night, there is privacy and it’s easy to set up.” Most important, she says, is that it’s portable. “It’s a structure that can be taken with the refugees when they go home. It’s quite likely that when these refugees return to Syria, they won’t have a house to go back to, so this structure actually better facilitates their return.”
The houses are currently in testing, and still cost around $7,500 to produce. Once they have completed field trials in Iraq and Ethiopia — 12 were to be tested in Lebanon starting this summer, prior to the government’s refusal — they will be mass-produced, which is expected to bring the price down to around $1,000 or less. That’s still more expensive than a tent or a sheet of plastic, but it won’t have to be replaced nearly so often. UNHCR estimates that some 3.5 million refugees around the world live in tents, and on average they stay in camps for about 12 years. The Ikea house isn’t likely to change those metrics, but it can at least make the lives of refugees more comfortable.
And that is part of the problem, says David Sanderson, a visiting professor of urban planning at Harvard University who specializes in disaster management. “The idea that you can solve the refugee problem with a new house design offers false comfort. The risk now is that we will see photographs of 50 Ikea shelters set up for the Syrians, and we think, ‘O.K., they are all fine, we can think about something else.’ The houses are better than tents, of course, but the families are far from fine.” It’s a grim trade-off. Give refugees better conditions, and there will be less international pressure to get them back home. And that is exactly what the Lebanese government was worried about. Once the flat-pack houses are in place, that theory too will be put to the test.