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The Plight of Refugees in East Africa, in the Middle of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Following the Rwanda Government and World Health Organisation guidelines on COVID-19, the works conducted with P+A Arquitectes, Earth Enable and funded by Collegi d'Arquitectes de Catalunya to construct safe, comfortable earth floors in the Mugombwa refugee camp have been put on hold. The new floors, once finished will provide much needed cleaner and healthier for the refugee community, especially relevant to prevent disease in these testing times.

In light of the ongoing disruptions all over the world due to the coronavirus, it is important that we try and understand how this affects refugees. For refugees living in refugee camps and informal settlements in East Africa and all over the world, social distancing and hand washing with soap are privileges they often cannot afford. Most of the simple ways to ward the Coronavirus off, as many other illnesses (cholera, and dysentery), are accessible only to the affluent. All of us who can practise social distancing and be under lockdown must appreciate, that our effort serves all those that cannot do so. This moment should also help us rethink the way we assist refugees, is the design of camps that enclose refugees in crammed environments without proper health and housing opportunities a good option?

This should be another reason to improve the way we support those most vulnerable.

Permanent Impermanence

A surface water drain in Kiziba refugee camp, Katonga, Western Province, Rwanda (established 1996)

The humanitarian and the mainstream media have presented refugee camps as the only and best means to provide refugee assistance globally. Beginning with The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) involvement in the continent in the late 1950s, camps proliferated in the African continent especially in the 1990s. Refugee camps in Eastern Africa are rarely dismantled. The majority of this planned 'temporary' solutions result in permanent settlements. In spite of this we continue to see encampment solutions proliferate in response to on-going, and new, refugee crises.

Spatial assistance for refugees through physical containment as we do it now doesn’t work; the COVID-19 pandemic is only the latest demonstration of this. Containing refugees in cramped, isolated camps that are far from food, healthcare, transport, and education networks, and lack proper houses that can be cleaned, ventilated, and lack running water and proper toilets just doesn’t work. This is a similar situation to most informal and vulnerable poor urban settlements in the region, with the addition that refugees are not free to move elsewhere, elect effective leaders, or organise socially or politically.

Self Built Homes

During the establishment of refugee camps in Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya, the UNHCR and the different host Governments provide initial housing infrastructure that range from poles and tarps to actual tented structures within the boundaries of the camps. Weeks or months later, refugees begin to improve these structures building mud constructions with tarp or iron sheet roofs transforming them into ‘semi-permanent’ homes with attached kitchens and extra rooms, fences, kitchen gardens, and other features.

The shape and materials of these self-built homes – the number of rooms, style of openings, furniture, flooring, ceiling, and the exterior spaces – depend on many variables, including: time, host government policies, space and resource availabile, cultural backgrounds and traditions, and number of family members (their ages and capacities).

The illustrations above show spatial variability of the homes in different camps in all three countries. 1) Eastern Congolese home in Kiziba refugee camp, established in 1996 in Rwanda. 2)South Sudanese home in Kyangwali refugee settlement in Southwest Uganda, established around 1964. 3) Somali house in Kakuma refugee camp, established in 1992 in Northern Kenya.

These shelters tend to be overcrowded and especially in the really dense camps in Rwanda, “social distancing” is a privilege refugees housed in camps cannot afford. Most of the ways to ward off the#COVID-19 and other contagious diseases are inaccessible to encamped refugees. All of those who are able to practice social distancing and can be inside our own houses s under lockdown must appreciate our situations and must do all in our hands to stop the spread to more vulnerable communities. This time should help us rethink the spatial strategies we are promoting to assist refugees.

Check out our research website Mapping Refugee Spaces for more information on the refugee situation in East Africa, with a particular focus on learning environments, Early Childhood Development (ECD), and participatory action research.


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