Although more than 600,000 refugees have flooded into Europe this year, more than 58 million displaced people remain, mostly in the developing world. Millions are stuck in refugee camps, housed in row after row of tents, enduring the cold and blistering heat and dust that blows in from every direction. But Ikea, the furniture giant, has just made its first delivery of 10,000 technologically innovative shelters for refugees to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Ikea’s “Better Shelters” arrive in four flat-packed containers and take 4–8 hours to assemble. Made of lightweight steel frames and sleek polymer panels, the shelters offer 188 square feet of living space, nearly double the size of the standard tent provided by the UNHCR. They have mosquito nets, lights, ventilation, and solar panels to provide electricity. The Better Shelter is a good value, too. Although it costs $1,150, roughly three times what a tent costs, it promises to last six times longer than tents, which often rip or rot in less than six months. UNHCR claims that the Ikea shelter “provides more dignity for its occupants.”
The Ikea shelter is part of a movement to use Western technology to improve life in refugee camps. In Turkey, refugees use debit cards provided by the World Food Program to shop in stores rather than waiting for food packages. In Jordan, refugees get texts from UNHCR when aid money is deposited and then use an iris scanner to withdraw cash at an ATM. Facebook just announced it will bring the Internet to camps around the world. There is a spirit of technological optimism in the humanitarian community that sees refugees’ problems as logistical issues amenable to high-tech solutions. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg argued that the Internet is a “force for peace” and an “enabler of human rights.”