Architectures of Displacement: The Experiences and Consequences of Emergency Shelter

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: International Development


The experience of forced displacement is profoundly shaped by where people find shelter. The most urgent concern for migrants is how to find safe and stable spaces in which to live, rest and sleep, both during their journey and when they arrive at their destination. Tents and camps dominate media images of forced displacement, but forced migrants find shelter in many other ways. They may make use of abandoned buildings, stay on the floors of friends and relatives, find rest in self-built shelters, or sleep under trees in the natural environment. Some may find themselves placed in reception centres and immigration detention facilities against their will. Others may be housed in specially created spaces, such as 'villages' made from shipping containers or IKEA-designed prefabricated shelters. Still others may find accommodation through private rentals, supported by cash transfers from aid agencies or forms of welfare from governmental bodies. These types of emergency shelter form a vital infrastructure that result from human improvisation and contingency as much as design or planning. At present this infrastructure is very poorly understood.

Architectures of Displacement begins with the observation that material forms of shelter offer unique insights into migration and refugees. By developing a new interdisciplinary approach to the physical dimension of the refugee experience, this research will provide unique perspectives upon the processes of human adaptation to new circumstances through displacement. The project will explore the impact of different shelter on the fate of refugees, as well as the political and legal consequences of forced migration and its entanglement with the exigencies of shelter. Given the scale of global displacement and the number of people living in 'non-traditional' spaces in large urban areas, there is a particularly urgent need to understand the variety of forms that shelter takes and the experiences and consequences of living in its various forms.

The project draws together three disciplines with distinct but complementary approaches to the study of material forms: Anthropology, Architecture and Archaeology. It will develop a new approach to recording and understanding the variety of temporary architectural forms and material ephemera that are so central to the experience of forced migration. It will document and categorise, for the first time, the diversity and consequences of emergency shelter. And by focusing on the connections between material environments and human experiences, the data gathered by the project will assist policymakers in making informed choices about how to manage the arrival of refugees.

The cross-disciplinary approach of this project builds on three main bodies of research and practice.

1) Architecture brings a focus on the significance of the built environment for human life. It provides a way to consider how forms of shelter are constructed and used, a method for categorising different forms of shelter, and a technique for examining how spaces function.

2) Archaeology brings an awareness of time, duration, and loss to the study. It enables the project to explore the connections between abandonment and shelter, the material circumstances of the repurposing of existing structures, the ephemeral interventions and adaptations made in the natural environment in order to shelter in it, and the traces left by refugees through sheltering practices.

3) Anthropology offers a technique for studying how people react to displacement. It enables the project to study everyday life in different forms of accommodation, exploring how beneficiary populations understand, alter, reimagine, and accept or resist the shelters they are provided with; examining the processes, motivations and practicalities through which they find places to shelter for themselves; and exploring the ways in which sheltering practices lead to adaptations in social life.

Planned Impact

Architectures of Displacement will benefit three main stakeholder groups: humanitarian organisations involved in the provision of shelter to refugees, forced migrants themselves, and public audiences.

1. Humanitarian Organisations.

Aid agencies will be closely involved in planning and advising on the locations of the research. Existing contacts at the Refugee Studies Centre will help identify suitable partners in the six fieldwork countries, and representatives from three organisations will sit on the project's steering committee. A planned special issue of Forced Migration Review will reach out to practitioners (circulation 15,000 across 160 countries) collecting articles that outline key concerns and debates in the sector. Findings will be communicated to humanitarian practitioners in the following forms:

a) An 'inventory of possibilities' on the project website. This will document the diverse range of options for emergency shelter, featuring architectural drawings, photographs, and descriptions of existing shelters in all their diversity. This can be used as a resource for aid agencies in understanding the full spectrum of possible options and interventions to assist refugees in their accommodation

b) Ten detailed 'portraits' of various accommodation types. This will include a full examination of the legal, political, cultural and social implications of ten emergency shelters, accompanied by narratives of lived experience and photographic images. They will be collected as a book manuscript, become part of a documentary film, and visual materials will be curated as an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The portraits can be used by aid agencies to help make informed decisions, helping understand in detail what shelter options look like, what they feel like to live in, and what their implications may be.

c) Seven collaborative workshops, one in each field location and a final workshop in Oxford. In these workshops the project findings will be discussed and the implications for the provision of emergency shelter examined. The workshops in each field site will be informal and participatory, with refugees and frontline aid staff discussing work in progress. The final workshop in Oxford will be for policymakers and staff from UK-based aid agencies, presenting entire project findings and generating briefings on good practice shelter programming.

2. Forced migrants.

Forced migrants will co-produce detailed 'portraits' of emergency shelter. They will be involved throughout the research and will benefit in three principal ways. First through the documentation of their experiences and memories - a form of 'writing against the wind' and ensuring key elements of their journey are preserved. Second, through their involvement in producing quality, detailed information about disaster shelter, which will help improve policy and practice in the shelter sector. Third, through improved public understanding of the refugee experience, which will help build opportunities for advocacy on refugee rights.

3. Public audiences

Greater public understanding of the refugee issue will be promoted through:

a) Two public workshops held in UK Refugee Week, 2017 and 2018

b) One exhibition of narratives, photographic images, and material remnants of refugee accommodation, to be installed at the Pitt Rivers Museum (400,000 visitors annually) alongside a programme of talks and public events. The exhibit will also be promoted to arts centres in Jordan and Lebanon through aid agencies.

c) One feature length documentary film, exploring five lives in emergency shelter. Film is the most appropriate way to communicate the spatial aspects of refugee shelter as well as a powerful medium for communicating the complex lived experiences of forced migration. The film will be a major part of the impact strategy. It will be archived at the Pitt Rivers Museum and promoted to film festivals in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.


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