As the refugee crisis intensifies across European borders, one of its most notorious epicenters, the Calais “Jungle” refugee camp, is being evacuated as we speak, hours before its pending demolition. At least 10,000 migrants fleeing from war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan en route to the UK are being forced to relocate by the French government, in a hastened move that aid groups say will make refugees vulnerable to homelessness and even poorer living conditions.
But in spite of the precariousness that led to its closure, the Calais camp has become a remarkable example of resilience and community-building for architects and planners. Built by and for refugees, the informal settlement grew over the past few years from a outcrop of scrappy tents to a self-contained mini-city complete with a main strip, restaurants, libraries, mosques and churches.
Alumni Nasr Chamma, a cofounder of Architecture for Refugees together with Bence Komlosi, says there is much to learn from both the flaws and virtues of camps like the one in Calais, where he spent a week last July carrying out a field report for to assess and map the camp. “Improving the quality of life within the camp and changing the relationship with the camp residents will ultimately lead to more positive and productive outcomes.”
The report for Architecture for Refugees, “an open source online platform which collects and shares questions, problems, ideas and solutions dealing with the architectural aspects of the current refugee crisis,” features updated information about the state of the camp through site evaluations, interviews and a participatory mapping project carried out in parallel with MapFugees and in collaboration with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team.
Nasr and Bence argued in a recent open letter that the Calais camp was worth saving and that what was needed was a more positive approach to these settlements, but now that the camp is being razed, they believe that the kind of data collected in their field report is essential to improving camp planning. Speaking at our Refugee City conference earlier this week, another former student, Nerea Amoros, said “collecting data on and mapping these settlements is essential to finding alternatives, and that is perhaps the most important thing architects can bring to the table.”
The efforts of Architecture for Refugees echo that of a growing number of architects in the field, and AfR hopes that together, they can influence local governments to rethink refugee camps by backing up their approach with concrete data.
What follows is an interview with Nasr and Bence about their field report on the Calais camp. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NC: As a Lebanese citizen and architect, I have been following the results/outcomes of the Syrian conflict since it first erupted in 2011. My interest in refugee camps arose when I started evaluating the design and planning of Syrian refugee camps in Jordan as part of my master’s in Sustainable Emergency Architecture and placements with UNHCR. My analysis focused mainly on Zaatari and Azraq refugee camps, two of the most recent and advanced camps in history, particularly in regards to shelter typologies and services provided. But are they well designed and planned to accommodate tens of thousands of people for years or maybe decades? The answer was no. We can definitely design, plan and build smarter refugee settlements where refugees won’t be a burden on the hosting governments, or dependent on humanitarian organizations. That’s what I am working on in the meantime.
BK: Even though the refugee crisis on a global scale is not a new phenomenon, we first met with it face-to-face in September 2015 in Budapest. That was the time when the flux of Syrian refugees and migrants from different countries, reached Hungary and lived in terrible conditions in the “transit zone” next to the “Keleti” railway station. We wanted to see the situation with our own eyes to understand its “basics”. We visited the station and realized that the people could be any of us: our brother, sister, parents, friends. We helped on-site, providing food, donations, sleeping bags, tents and also started to write articles, share our thoughts and call the Architectural Society of Budapest for help. Since September 2015, we have been writing articles and organizing events and exhibitions to describe the situation and its architectural aspects.
BK: We started Architecture for Refugees as an open source online platform to collect and share information and knowledge about the architectural aspects of the crisis on a global scale and we encourage architects, engineers and designers to join us in that effort. The mapping in Calais is thanks to the great work of Katja Ulbert (co-founder of the MapFugees) and her colleagues who realized that mapping refugee settlements would help a lot in analyzing and understanding the situation in a refugee settlement. This analysis can help to define further developments and can help to ensure that new projects are effective.
3. What was the goal of your field report on Calais Camp “The Jungle” and your collaboration with MapFugees?
NC: We wanted to visit the camp and the mapping project was a great opportunity to analyze and get an overall picture of the camp and to meet with local organizations, teams, volunteers, migrants and refugees. The goal was not only to analyze the situation but also to map the existing facilities, infrastructure, resources and knowledge which could contribute to development of new strategies and projects by Architecture for Refugees and other groups and NGOs to improve camp conditions and facilities. The participatory mapping and interviews with the camp residents helped us to evaluate the living conditions within the camp and to understand the complexity of this chaotic settlement.
We collaborated with the camp residents to map the built and social fabric. We observed areas, streets, urban spaces, conducted interviews and also collected and analyzed existing online and offline materials, building on previous works like the maps by ACTED, the text and drawings by Le PEROU and its Reinventing Calais site, and the amazing booklets by Cyrille Hanappe and his architecture students from the Belleville School of Architecture.
NC: Refugee camps are never permanent but at the same time they are never temporary. Refugees suffer hard living conditions within the camps due to the lack of necessary services, opportunities and the basic standard of shelters and facilities in most camps. These conditions compound the suffering of being displaced and of the experience of war and conflict that refugees have fled. Envisaging refugee camps as a form of urbanization is a must even if this is for a temporary period. Refugees have the same rights as all human beings and having been uprooted from their homes; they should not have to forsake their basic rights to a decent standard of living or the rights we all enjoy as ordinary citizens.
Many hosting governments do have the funds to make this vision a reality and to build better settlements. Furthermore, the closer these settlements are built to existing urban areas, the higher chance the refugees have for the socio-cultural and economic integration and interaction with the local community. Refugees in segregated camps have almost no chance of starting a new life, whereas refugees close to or within urban areas have the possibility to get to know the local community and culture, contribute to local systems and find and create new opportunities and enterprises.
5. How is The Jungle different from other camps you have visited?
NC: The camp provides accommodation for 22 different nationalities, and despite the linguistic and cultural differences, residents have proven to be highly resilient due to their will-power, hard-work and cooperation. They rebuilt the camp after seeing it demolished on three separate occasions. The camp is small in size but has very active social mechanisms and networks built on both the differences and similarities of the residents. Within the camp, around 7 different shelter typologies can be identified, making it unique in that sense.
NC: In The Jungle, there are many different nationalities, communities, languages and the cultural life is vivid and vibrant. There are many things for the mind but almost nothing for the body; the physical conditions are terrible. Residents have personalized their environment and created socio-cultural spaces like schools, churches and mosques, community kitchens and makeshift restaurants. The vivid community life and this certain sense of “freedom” are the two most important characteristics that were mentioned by almost every resident of the camp.
In general, the condition of the camp has continued to improve over time as the refugees, volunteers and NGOs have developed its built environment and socio-cultural structure. Demolition always makes the situation worse than it was before because many things have to be restarted from scratch. Resources are very tight in terms of materials, knowledge and human resources, making the process even harder. The formal container camp is an island within the organically grown street network and has no connection or relationship to it. There is no long-term planning which would offer long-term solutions to upgrade the existing camp structure. Individual projects are continuously popping-up to bring specific and targeted interventions but there are no overall plans which deal with the camp as a whole.
NC: The schools were the most interesting and vivid places within the camp; you can really feel the positivity and will to learn and develop. The volunteer teachers and their students are all very optimistic and they create a kind of intellectual community which has a very positive impact on the whole camp. These places are not only for learning but also for gathering, meeting with others, talking, playing games and music, doing art …etc. These places and spaces are real recreational areas. They are the breathing spaces of the camp.
8. How can architects contribute to improving refugee camps?
NC: I think the process starts with mapping and analyzing existing settlements and identifying the needs of the camp residents. Architects can:
- Support camp residents, volunteers and NGOs by repairing/improving existing facilities and upgrading shelter units to be able to face the extreme natural conditions such as floods.
- Apply pressure on the local community and government to change police restrictions that prevent building materials to enter the camp, making building efforts hard.
- Create fire barriers between shelter units, which are commonly built too close to each other.
- Upgrade wash facilities (kitchens, showers, toilets, water taps, etc.) that are very basic and insufficient for tens of thousands of residents. The lack of formal infrastructure system has a tremendously negative impact on the environment and health of residents.
BK: The Open Street Map already contains the findings and the mapped area. We’ve also written an article for the current MoMA exhibition that contains material about The Jungle. We hope that our findings will help to generate further knowledge about the refugee crisis and its architectural aspects so that it can be used as a reference for future developments.
10. What is your reaction to The Jungle’s impending shut-down?
NC: We recently published an Open Letter From Architecture for Refugees: Save The Jungle Refugee Camp! in which we urge French Authorities to work on improving livelihoods, facilities and infrastructure in the camp, hand in hand with the many dynamic, active and engaged stakeholders of the camp that includes residents, volunteers, local architects and others. Every refugee camp is a case study that can teach valuable lessons. Every camp has it’s own identity and builders. The Jungle camp is a unique one that architects and others can learn a lot from. So while a refugee camp may get dismantled, what we can do is make sure that its story remains.
Nasr will be respresenting the work of Architecture for Refugees at the upcoming eme3 Festival in Barcelona in November.