Lebanon finally approves Ikea houses for Syrian refugees
Months after the proposal first surface, Lebanon on Tuesday finally granted permission to allow IKEA-made tents to be used to provide temporary shelter for refugees fleeing the violence in civil-war afflicted Syria.
The Lebanese government had initially refused to authorize the supply of the smartly-designed tents, which are more durable and comfortable than the current UN-issued dwellings provided to the refugees, fearing they would prove too comfortable and urge the refugees to remain indefinitely.
According to a report in Time Magazine, it took more than six months of lobbying to convince the Lebanese government to allow even a trial run of the Ikea units and will likely take just as long to get a sufficient number of the shelters into the country.
The UN's refugee assistance arm, UNHCR, has reportedly delivered tens of thousands of emergency kits containing plastic tarps, blankets and timber to the estimated 125,000 refugees in Lebanon. 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.
"The government turnaround is a positive development," Jean-Marie Garelli, UNHCR’s program director for the Syrian refugees told the magazine. “However it will take some time to put these shelters in place. You won’t see a miracle in a week.”
UNHCR and the philanthropic arm of the Swedish home furniture giant spent three years developing the new tents.
The structure is made of a light, flexible steel frame lined with polymer-foam panels that lets in light during the day and 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. The entire unit weighs less than 100 kilograms and is easily transportable.
“We were really enthusiastic when we saw it,” Russo said. “It provided solutions to so many issues — children can study homework at night, there is privacy and it’s easy to set up.”
“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,” she told Time.
"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," said Johan Karlsson, project manager at IKEA's Refugee Housing Unit.
“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,” Karlsson added.
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.