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Roberta Russo, a communication officer for the UNHCR, shows one of Ikea’s Better Shelters. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)
Roberta Russo, a communication officer for the UNHCR, shows one of Ikea’s Better Shelters. (Hussein Malla/Associated Press)

Ikea Foundation building easy-to-assemble refugee shelters Add to ...

This story is part of Crossings, a series chronicling the global refugee and migrant experience. Follow the series and add your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with the hashtag #GlobeCrossings

There is no place more poignant than Ikea. It is the place – and brand – we find ourselves drawn to, inevitably, when our lives are in transition. From that first trip to furnish student digs with white laminate bookshelves to fulfilling the decor needs of cohabitation, marriage, pregnancy, breakup and empty-nest downsizing, middle-class Westerners return to the Swedish mecca of cheap, simple design when our lives are at their most liminal. Forget the old adage that Ikea is “Swedish for divorce” – Ikea is Swedish for life change.

And nowhere is life more changeable at the moment than for the nearly 60 million displaced persons who have fled their homes because of war, conflict or persecution and are now living in refugee camps around the world. And so it seems fitting – stunningly obvious really – that the Ikea Foundation has come up with a Swedish-designed refugee shelter that is changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.

The project is the brainchild of Johan Karlsson, an industrial designer based in Hallefors, Sweden, just outside Stockholm. In 2010, Karlsson did some volunteer work with Sweden’s Refugee Services abroad and provided what he describes as “incremental modification to existing refugee shelters.” During this time working in camps in the Middle East and Africa, he noticed how poorly designed many refugee shelters are – most are cramped, lightless, damp and often made of flimsy materials such as plastic tarpaulins strung over twine. They blew over, flooded and regularly just fell apart. What was needed, Karlsson decided, was an economical, lightweight and simply designed solution to what seemed to be a growing problem: life in a refugee camp. With this in mind, Karlsson took his idea to Ikea. The board turned it down as a business model but passed him along to the Ikea Foundation, which is the humanitarian arm of the Swedish design conglomerate. With seed money and the backing of the foundation, Karlsson founded Better Shelter. He subsequently partnered with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to provide quality temporary shelters where they were most needed. At first they shipped primarily to camps in Iraq, Lebanon, Chad and Ethiopia, but they were soon overwhelmed with demand. Today there are Better Shelters in camps in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary, as well as many others.

“The average stay in an UNHCR refugee camp is 17 years,” Karlsson told me in a phone interview from his office last week. “The tents fall apart after a few months so they needed something that was built to last. Our shelters last three years at minimum. Obviously the situation is complex and goes far beyond shelter. This is just a tiny part of humanitarian aid, but it’s an important one when it comes to allowing displaced people to live with dignity.”

The shelters themselves are extremely practical – simple self-standing, modular white structures with small peaked roofs, high enough for a man of average height to stand up in. With a floor area of 17.5 square metres, they are built to accommodate an average family of five and are made of lightweight plastic and metal and ship easily around the world. Karlsson and his team designed them with special attention to transport volume, weight, price, safety, health and comfort. Conveniently, they can be assembled by hand in just a few hours and require no additional equipment or tools to do so – not even the dreaded Allen key. The houses can then then be disassembled and reused when needed. There is also a solar-powered energy system affixed to the roof, which provides energy for the supplied LED light or for charging a mobile phone. As homes away from home go, it certainly isn’t luxurious, but it sure beats a leaky, windswept plastic tent.

With a maximum production capacity of 2,500 units a month, demand has been far outstripping supply for many months now, said Karlsson. The thing he and his team did not know when they began five years ago is the way the refugee crisis would affect Europe – nearly half a million displaced people have entered in 2015 alone and that number is growing. “What started as a humanitarian project for people far away in distant, war-torn countries is now right on our doorstep. We are building camps in Germany and Switzerland, even in Sweden.”

In fact, he tells me, only 20 metres from his office just outside Stockholm they are now planning a refugee camp. “I could never have imagined it,” he says. “None of us could have predicted it. Shelter is one small part of the migrant crisis, but it’s an important one.”

In times of crisis, you’ve got to hand it to those clever Swedish designers at Ikea.

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