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  • 12.14.15

Ikea And Better Shelter Are Sending Flat-Pack Housing To Refugees In Greece

The UN Refugee Agency has put in 10,000 orders to provide refugees with shelter that is more dignified than a tent.

When refugees arrive in Greece and wait for papers–sometimes for days–some sleep in tents and some sleep on the ground. But others have the chance to try a new place to stay: Sturdy, flat-packed refugee shelters that can be built in a few hours.

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“It’s safer and more dignified than a tent. It feels more like a house,” says Märta Terne from Better Shelter, a Swedish social enterprise owned by the Housing for All Foundation, a nonprofit established by the Ikea Foundation. It designed the simple buildings in a partnership with Ikea and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

In September, Better Shelter brought over 500 of their new shelters to Lesvos, Greece, where nearly half a million refugees have arrived this year from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war-torn countries. With a simple frame and panels, each shelter goes together quickly with a handful of tools.

“They’re designed to be as easy as possible to build,” says Terne. “I’ve built a house many times, and I’m not a construction worker. It really is very easy to do without having any of that knowledge before.”

The buildings come in two flat boxes, with four sets of simple instructions. “They’re quite similar to Ikea,” she says. “I hear from many people who see them and have been to Ikea that that’s the first thing they think. But they’re slightly more complicated than a Billy bookcase.”

Unlike a tent, the shelters have lockable doors. “Just being able to close a door behind you is very key,” Terne says. “That privacy and that feeling of safety is so important.”

As refugees flood into Europe, Better Shelter is building shelters as quickly as it can. In places like Macedonia, they serve as first aid clinics or rest stations for children. In Switzerland, local governments have purchased the shelters for refugees there (because the shelters are designed for mild weather, the Swiss shelters are inside a larger warehouse). Better Shelter has also delivered the homes to Ethiopia, Iraq, and Nepal.

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They can’t make the shelters quickly enough to meet demand, and many more are needed. UNHCR bought 10,000 of the shelters earlier this year, but that’s an incredibly tiny fraction of the nearly 60 million refugees around the world who need a safer place to stay. In part, one challenge is cost: At a little over $1,000, the shelters are twice as expensive as a tent.

But over time, because the shelters last much longer (and because refugees often end up living in camps for years or even decades) they might more more sense. “If you look at it long term, it’s actually cheaper than a tent,” says Terne. “We hope that this will become the standard for how people live in refugee camps.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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