Issues as simple as housing have plagued refugee agencies like UNHCR for years. The tents used around the world in refugee camps are cramped, provide little protection from extreme temperatures and only last about six months.
Repeated attempts to reinvent refugee housing failed for one simple reason: cost. What tents lack in comfort they make up for with how easily they can be shipped. Any new housing solution would need to ship easily and cheaply.
The problem of cost plagued Johan Karlsson, a Swedish designer working on the problem. Then one day, while shopping at his local Ikea store, the solution came to him: if the units were flat packed, much like Ikea furniture is, transport costs would be significantly reduced.
After reaching out to the Ikea Foundation for help, Karlsson’s idea became reality. For the Ikea Foundation, which focuses mainly on improving the lives of children, improving refugee housing appeared to be a natural fit.
Now, after a two-year pilot project in Ethiopia and Iraq, UNHCR announced it will purchase 10,000 more “Better Shelter” units in 2015 for refugee camps in Iraq. The new housing units fit up to five people and come with solar panels, built-in lighting and USB ports to power electronics, marking a significant step up from the canvas tents of old.