Per Heggenes, CEO of the IKEA Foundation, highlights the role of a new shelter in helping refugees have a safe place to call home
World Refugee Day, marked annually on the 20 June, is dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. Activities taking place this Thursday will range across more than 100 counties and involve government officials, aid workers, celebrities, and members of the public, including people who themselves have been forcibly displaced.
This year, World Refugee Day falls as the international community seeks to address the Syrian crisis, which has so far claimed more than 93,000 lives and seen more than 1.6 million people flee into neighboring countries. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates that over 50 per cent of these refugees are children. That's more than 750,000 scared, traumatized and vulnerable children.
Syria has been high up on the agenda of this week's G8 Summit - the subject of arming Syrian rebels being the main topic of discussion. Yet, many people believe it's important that the welfare and living standards of the conflict's refugees gains equal billing with the issues surrounding the arming of rebels.
Whilst the G8 is seeking to reach a consensus on how to address the political issues, a number of other organisations are dealing with the realities of the humanitarian crisis on the ground. The UN has launched its biggest ever fundraising campaign to help Syrian refugees and the Disaster Emergency Committee is coordinating a response from the UK.
In this context it might seem strange that IKEA, famous for affordable home furnishing, has a role to play. Yet, for the past two years, the IKEA Foundation has been driving a unique collaboration with a team of Swedish designers and UNHCR to design a better refugee shelter for the millions of children and families forced to flee their homes every year.
The shelters have been designed to give a longer-lasting alternative to tents that are currently used to house refugees. The tents, which you will be familiar with from television reports from refugee camps around the world, often have a life span of only six months. Tents are not always the ideal solution for housing refugee families who can live in camps for an average of 12 years. The new shelters offer both durability and dignity. With our partners we have been clear that our vision is around giving refugee families a more comfortable and secure place to call home during a time of enormous personal upheaval.
The shelters are modular, offer better security and ventilation and each unit has a renewable energy source. That means the shelters address some of the current issues that families might face, where the places they live in camps are too cold in winter and too hot in summer. They also provide a simple solar light and energy source, making families feel safer and helping make every day life simpler.
The prototype shelters are now being trialed by refugee families who will give their insight into what it's like to live in them and what, if anything, can be done to improve them further. With prototypes being tested under harsh conditions in camps in Ethiopia, and also being trailed with Syrian families in camps around that region, it's our hope that these families will have a better place to call home well before we mark World Refugee Day 2014.