Architectures of displacement: Humanitarian strategies for sheltering refugees, in-depth expert interviews 2016-2019

Scott-Smith, Tom (2020). Architectures of displacement: Humanitarian strategies for sheltering refugees, in-depth expert interviews 2016-2019. [Data Collection]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service. 10.5255/UKDA-SN-854001

The experience of forced displacement is profoundly shaped by where people find shelter. The most urgent concern for migrants is how to find safe and stable spaces in which to live, rest and sleep, both during their journey and when they arrive at their destination. Tents and camps dominate media images of forced displacement, but forced migrants find shelter in many other ways. They may make use of abandoned buildings, stay on the floors of friends and relatives, find rest in self-built shelters, or sleep under trees in the natural environment. Some may find themselves placed in reception centres and immigration detention facilities against their will. Others may be housed in specially created spaces, such as 'villages' made from shipping containers or IKEA-designed prefabricated shelters. Still others may find accommodation through private rentals, supported by cash transfers from aid agencies or forms of welfare from governmental bodies. These types of emergency shelter form a vital infrastructure that result from human improvisation and contingency as much as design or planning. At present this infrastructure is very poorly understood. Architectures of Displacement begins with the observation that material forms of shelter offer unique insights into migration and refugees. By developing a new interdisciplinary approach to the physical dimension of the refugee experience, this research will provide unique perspectives upon the processes of human adaptation to new circumstances through displacement. The project will explore the impact of different shelter on the fate of refugees, as well as the political and legal consequences of forced migration and its entanglement with the exigencies of shelter. Given the scale of global displacement and the number of people living in 'non-traditional' spaces in large urban areas, there is a particularly urgent need to understand the variety of forms that shelter takes and the experiences and consequences of living in its various forms. The project draws together three disciplines with distinct but complementary approaches to the study of material forms: Anthropology, Architecture and Archaeology. It will develop a new approach to recording and understanding the variety of temporary architectural forms and material ephemera that are so central to the experience of forced migration. It will document and categorise, for the first time, the diversity and consequences of emergency shelter. And by focusing on the connections between material environments and human experiences, the data gathered by the project will assist policymakers in making informed choices about how to manage the arrival of refugees. The cross-disciplinary approach of this project builds on three main bodies of research and practice. 1) Architecture brings a focus on the significance of the built environment for human life. It provides a way to consider how forms of shelter are constructed and used, a method for categorising different forms of shelter, and a technique for examining how spaces function. 2) Archaeology brings an awareness of time, duration, and loss to the study. It enables the project to explore the connections between abandonment and shelter, the material circumstances of the re-purposing of existing structures, the ephemeral interventions and adaptations made in the natural environment in order to shelter in it, and the traces left by refugees through sheltering practices. 3) Anthropology offers a technique for studying how people react to displacement. It enables the project to study everyday life in different forms of accommodation, exploring how beneficiary populations understand, alter, re-imagine, and accept or resist the shelters they are provided with; examining the processes, motivations and practicalities through which they find places to shelter for themselves; and exploring the ways in which sheltering practices lead to adaptations in social life.

Data description (abstract)

The Architectures of Displacement research project at the University of Oxford examined a range of different humanitarian strategies for sheltering refugees in six countries across Europe and the Middle East between 2016 and 2019. The project involved a number of in-depth qualitative interviews with experts on shelter, humanitarianism, and the provision of accommodation for refugees. These interviews examine, in detail, the context of each country, the dominant sheltering method employed in that context, the strengths and weaknesses of the model, and the lessons for future practice. The findings explore in particular the role of designers, architects and humanitarian agencies for improving shelter for refugees.

Data creators:
Creator Name Affiliation ORCID (as URL)
Scott-Smith Tom University of Oxford
Sponsors: Economic and Social Research Council
Grant reference: ES/P005004/1
Topic classification: Social welfare policy and systems
Keywords: refugees, middle east, europe, architecture
Project title: Architectures of Displacement: The Experiences and Consequences of Emergency Shelter
Grant holders: Tom Scott-Smith
Project dates:
1 November 201631 July 2019
Date published: 20 Jan 2020 15:35
Last modified: 10 Jun 2020 16:36

Available Files



Read me


data downloads and page views since this item was published

View more statistics


Edit item (login required)

Edit Item Edit Item