The Scandinavian-based furniture empire is using its simple design to help displaced refugees find safety and security.
Current conflicts across the Middle East and Africa have left the world with more than 60 million refugees. Many of the families that left their homes in search of safer lives now find themselves in refugee camps, where resources are spread thin and privacy is difficult to find. Enter the IKEA Foundation. In recent years, the Swedish furniture giant's philanthropic arm has donated millions of dollars and thousands of IKEA products to families seeking refuge all over the world.
In some ways, the IKEA Foundation is perfectly suited to help the world’s refugees. Already well-known for its affordable and simple home furnishings, the company has taken the ingenuity normally reserved for its product design to create structures that can help those in need. One of their recent innovative efforts is a production partnership with design-focused social enterprise project Better Shelter, which has helped provide displaced families with safer and more comfortable temporary shelters.
Creating a Better Shelter for refugees
At most refugee camps, families live in tents without insulation or electricity. But the IKEA Foundation and Better Shelter created an alternative option that has already gone on to improve the lives of thousands of people.
Their product, which they call a Better Shelter, has four walls, windows and a door that locks from both the inside and out. Better Shelters feel more like homes than tents do, which can be incredibly significant in refugee camps, where the average length of stay is 12 years. By creating a structure that allows for autonomy and privacy, Better Shelters can offer families a sense of dignity as they try to leave behind the painful memories of the events that caused them to leave their homes.
Meeting these kinds of needs of refugee families was the main priority when developing the Better Shelter model. In order to test the product, Somali refugees lived in a pilot camp in Ethiopia. According to the IKEA Foundation, their input ultimately helped lead to Better Shelter’s current design.
“Putting refugee families and their needs at the heart of this project is a great example of how democratic design can be used for humanitarian value,” said Jonathan Spampinato, the IKEA Foundation’s Head of Strategic Planning and Communications. “We are incredibly proud that the Better Shelter is now available, so refugee families and children can have a safer place to call home.”
Giving these families a sense of comfort and allowing them to remain on the grid is also a top priority. Electricity is scarce in most refugee camps, so activities often cease after dark. Children can’t do homework, families can’t cook dinner and parents can’t read to their kids. Better Shelter took this issue into consideration, adding a solar panel that can be mounted to its roof. These panels can give families up to four hours of extra light after the sun sets. The shelters also come with a built in USB port so that residents can charge their mobile devices in order to keep in contact with loved ones.
Safety is another major consideration in the development of the shelters. Because many refugees are displaced in places that leave them vulnerable to the elements, Better Shelters were developed to protect families from wind, rain, and sandstorms. The shelters are also built with insulation that helps regulate indoor temperatures. Over 500 Better Shelters are currently in use at a refugee camp in Mytilini, Greece, where temperatures often dip below freezing in the winter.
“For housing, we use many types of temporary shelters, but mainly those are tents,” said Oliver Delarue, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees. “Quite frankly, the tents have not evolved much over the years. They still revolve around canvas, ropes and pulls. They’re hot during the summer and cold in winter.”
According to the IKEA Foundation, Better Shelters were designed not only with comfort and safety in mind, but also with special attention to shipping volume, weight and cost in order to make them more affordable. At just over $1,000, Better Shelters are about twice as expensive as traditional tents, but they can last six times longer.
Keeping true to IKEA’s formula, Better Shelters are flat-packed neatly into two boxes, and all the tools necessary for assembly are included. It takes four people between four and eight hours to assemble the product, which is made from lightweight, portable stainless steel.
“It’s designed this way, like an IKEA bookshelf, to be easy to transport and to be easy to set up in the field,” said Johan Karlsson, Better Shelter’s Head of Business Development. This ease of assembly allows these structures to be built quickly and efficiently in even the most remote of places, giving camps the ability to serve an even larger number of those in need.
Help in other forms
But the IKEA Foundation’s commitment doesn’t stop at its partnership with Better Shelter. Not only has it shipped over 12,000 Better Shelters for use in refugee camps all over the world, but the foundation has also donated hundreds of thousands of IKEA products to refugee families.
“When conflicts turn people’s lives upside down, we believe in supporting children and families who have lost everything by donating IKEA products that will give them a sense of security and home,” said Spampinato.
In 2014, the IKEA Foundation donated 150,000 mattresses, linens and blankets to refugees in need at a camp in Arbat, Iraq. In total, the IKEA Foundation has donated over $100 million to the UN’s refugee projects, making them the UN Refugee Agency’s largest corporate partner.
One of the IKEA Foundation’s most successful programs is called Brighter Lives for Refugees, an in-store campaign held over the last three years. In its most recent iteration, which ran from November 29th to December 19th, the IKEA Foundation donated €1 to the UN Refugee Agency for every LED lamp sold. Since its inception, Brighter Lives for Refugees has helped pay the school fees for over 37,000 refugee children, trained over 740 teachers, and built 22 human waste processing plants in Bangladesh.
“Sadly, the escalating refugee crisis caused by protracted conflict situations around the world does not seem likely to calm down any time soon,” said Peter Heggens, CEO of the IKEA Foundation. In the meantime, the IKEA Foundation is committed to continuing to improve the lives of refugee families for years to come.
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