URL: http://world.time.com/2013/12/16/lebanon-says-no-to-ikea-housing-for-syrian-refugees-because-its-too-nice/

Humanitarian Engineering for Development Workers ERE 496 student Erin Jackson discusses solutions to help reach the Millennium Development Goals of developing a global partnership for development, reducing childhood mortality, combating HIV/AIDS and other diseases, as well as achieving universal primary education.

On December 16, 2013, Time Magazine published an article entitled, “After a Long Delay, Lebanon Finally Says Yes to Ikea Housing for Syrian Refugees”. Ikea is partnering with the U.N refugee agency (UNHCR) to create refugee housing. The design is flat packed, weighs less than 220 pounds and takes four hours to assemble (Figure 1).

Figure 1 show the interior of the Ikea design (A. Baker, 2013).

Figure 1 show the interior of the Ikea design (A. Baker, 2013).

It provides private, spacious living quarters outfitted with solar lighting to refugees. The goal of the project was to conduct several pilot tests prior to putting the design to work for Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. However, Lebanon was reluctant to grant permission for these more permanent structures, fearing they would increase the refugee’s stay. It took 6 months of lobbying to persuade the Lebanese government to allow the Ikea shelters to be built. Now that Ikea and the UN have been granted permission, they can address the issue of providing housing for the 125,000 Syrian refugees living in Lebanon without adequate shelter.

A BBC News Article entitled “Syrian conflict: Refugee life inside Lebanese camps” corroborated some of the statistics provided by the Time Magazine article. Both reported that the population of Lebanon had increased by 25 percent since the influx of Syrian refugees. A peer reviewed journal article out of the Forced Migration Review stated that based on official numbers alone (excluding unregistered refugees), Syrians make up 10 percent of the 4.2 million people living in Lebanon (J. Loveless, 2013). By the end of the 2013 they project this official number to be up to 20 percent. With such a high incidence of unregistered refugees, the 25% statistic reported by Time Magazine and BBC News is proven to be reasonable. The Time Magazine Article also asserted that 2 million Syrians have fled since the conflict started in 2011. This number, as of December 2013 is confirmed by the UNHCR website. However, the Time Magazine article lead readers to believe that prior to approving the Ikea shelters, refugees were not living in camps in Lebanon, but scattered throughout the country. According to the BBC report and interviews, 10,000 to 22,000 Syrian refugees have moved into the Sabra and Shatila camps, originally established for Palestinian refugees. These camps are unofficial and essentially urban slums. Other refugees, as suggested by the article in Time, are scattered about the country. The appropriateness of the Ikea shelter design varies for different metrics. In terms of cost, the technology may not be appropriate. Currently the price of one housing unit is $1,000. Without UN and Ikea funding, refugees would not be able to access this technology. Once the shelters have been made, they are easily constructed in four hours. With minimal labor required for construction, camps can quickly be constructed and destructed, adding to the appropriateness of the technology. In addition, without maintenance, the shelters are projected to last 3 years, while the average tent lasts only 6 months. This means that the well-designed shelters may save relief agencies money in comparison to replacing quickly worn out tents. However, since the materials are not easily accessible making repairs or conducting maintenance on the structure would be difficult for refugees. Attention to the cultural appropriateness of the shelter could have been increased. Just as the Lebanese government is worried about a prolonged stay for the Syrians, refugees too, fear remaining permanently stuck in Lebanon. While more comfortable shelters and official camps might improve the living conditions, they could increase fears of an extended displaced existence. In addition, there are many Syrians who refuse to register with the UN because doing so might place them on a list of “defectors” and risk the safety of relatives remaining in Syria. Neither the Ikea shelter nor the official camp will serve such individuals. The design itself, while innovative, may not be appropriate in serving the refugees. The light penetrating foam technology and solar powered lighting may be too unfamiliar to refugees to be comfortable.

The Ikea shelters can help develop a global partnership for development (Millennium Development Goal # 8). The Swedish company is partnering with the United Nations to provide the shelters in Lebanon for Syrian refugees. In this way, the project targets the goal of working with the private sector to make new technologies available to developing countries. The Ikea shelters will also reduce childhood mortality (Millennium Development Goal #4). Half of the Syrian refugees are children (UNHRC). In their current cramped conditions, they lack proper sanitation and crowding increases the potential for the outbreak of epidemics. Children are among the most susceptible to fatalities resulting from these diseases, but the shelters would also reduce the burden of disease on the population as a whole. Thus the project would address Millennium Development goal #5, combat malaria and other diseases. Finally, The Time Magazine article stated that the solar lights in the shelters would allow children to continue their studies even after dark, helping to achieve universal primary education (Millennium Development Goal #2). Humanitarian and Medical Challenges of Assisting New Refugees in Lebanon and Iraq, an article published in the Forced Migration Review, emphasizes the decentralized nature of refugee populations as the main difficulty in providing health care services and other aid. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees are scattered in 1,000 municipalities across the country. If refugees were together in a centralized location, living in safer conditions (provided by the shelters) epidemics could be predicted, tracked and reduced (Sa’Da & Serafinia, 2013). Therefore, a centralized camp of Ikea shelters would allow relief workers to address the issues of combating diseases and reducing childhood mortality.

Another design for a refugee shelter has been created by Abeer Seikaly, a Jordanian-Canadian architect (Green Prophet). It is a woven cloth structure that is highly mobile. Outfitted with solar panels, a water tank on the roof, and internal pockets for storage, the design caters to the needs of displaced peoples (Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2 shows the exterior of the woven shelter design (Green Prophet).

Figure 2 shows the exterior of the woven shelter design (Green Prophet).




Figure 3 illustrates the water heating and storage capacity of the woven shelter design (Green Prophet).

Figure 3 illustrates the water heating and storage capacity of the woven shelter design (Green Prophet).


No cost has been published for these structures, but it is likely that the woven materials would cost less than the Ikea foam. The reduction of cost would make this product more accessible to refugees with limited resources. To construct the shelter, refugees would weave together the cloths and supports. This time and labor demand of the construction process would be comparable to that of the Ikea structure. It is possible that the fabric would wear out sooner than the Ikea foam material, requiring patching maintenance or replacement. The woven aspect of the design, as opposed to the modular snapping panels of the Ikea shelter, is more appropriate for people the Syrian culture. The thermo-siphoning water system of the woven design might be complicated for refugees to reestablish each time they move their tent. But, if the users are properly taught the principles of the system, the idea of heating and moving water by the sun’s energy is very appropriate.



Abu Sa’Da, C., & Serafini, M. (2013). Humanitarian and Medical Challenges of Assisting New Refugees in Lebanon and Iraq. Forced Migration Review, (44), 70-73.

Baker, A. (2013, December 16). After a Long Delay, Lebanon Finally Says Yes to Ikea Housing for Syrian Refugees. Time Magazine.

Collapsible woven refugee shelters powered by the sun. (2014, March 6). Green Prophet. Retrieved April 27, 2014, from http://www.greenprophet.com/2014/03/collapsible-woven-refugee-shelters-powered-by-the-sun/.

Loveless, J. (2013). Crisis in Lebanon: camps for Syrian refugees?. Forced Migration Review, (43), 66-65.

Syrian conflict: Refugee life inside Lebanese camps. (2014, April 3). BBC News.