Wars have always existed in human history, but while some countries have somehow managed to secure their territories and guarantee a relatively peaceful life to their citizens, some others are still trapped in protracted wars. People who live in areas affected by long-standing conflicts usually lack all sorts of basic needs and are often forced to flee their homes. In Somalia, as an example, the twenty-year conflict has produced large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as refugees; the latter have long crossed the Kenyan border. Over the years, the ongoing flux of people escaping violence and famine has resulted in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya to be the fourth largest city of the country. But it’s not a city!
The problem of refugee camps management is huge. It involves a series of different issues related to accountability, statelessness, military control, aid agencies’ work. In this context, technical and regulatory issues are linked together with the emotional and psychological ones as a consequence of the traumas experienced by the affected people. Being a refugee is not a choice. People are usually forced to move away by external and adverse circumstances; they are forced to leave all their belongings and go for a nowhere destination; they are forced to completely change their lifestyle.
As a result, refugee camps are set up to cope with extreme living conditions that, due to their exceptional nature, are not supposed to last long. However, protracted national and international conflicts have transformed a temporary situation in a permanent one. In fact, life span and territorial extension of these settlements are turning many refugee camps into cities, raising the questions of how to manage them.
Urban areas are a complex system to be managed, and that requires a series of public infrastructures shared by its inhabitants such as clean water supply and distribution, energy supply and sanitation to list a few. Of course operating in a refugee camp is different from operating in a standard city, since it’s difficult to develop a proper urban planning in an context where everyday thousands of people reach the camp in search for aid. However, planners and urban designers should be much more involved in this process. They could apply their knowledge to provide flexible solutions able to face with the ever changing conditions within the camp. On one side, the emergency of new arrivals requires quick responses on basic needs such as shelters, food and health care assistance; while on the other side, permanent “residents” determine the need for infrastructure and regulations able to guarantee adequate standard of living.
At the same time, it is important not to forget side aspects that affect a displaced person as it’s the case of traumas. The many atrocities that often individuals have experienced during a war and that have somehow determined their flee from home will remain in their memories forever. It’s very difficult to recover from such situations. This aspect reinforces the importance of providing people with proper homes. An individual, who has lost his own house and has left his own country, feels like someone who has lost his own identity. Trying to recreate a proper place to live as soon as possible is a way of regaining people’s identity even if it takes time to identify in a new house the domestic feelings that we had in our homes. The sense of fear and insecurity among the refugees remains very strong for a long time after their escape from the conflict.
Governments and international institutions should then work together with practitioners to face those spatial and psychological issues that have too often been mistreated. Since it has been assessed that, despite their nature, refugee camps are not temporary at all, it is important to act and provide people with the means to rebuild a proper life abroad and giving them the chance to enhance their lives and redeem from their past.