The Refugee Crisis as a Design Problem

Article, 2016

We are facing a humanitarian crisis. There are 60 million displaced persons in the world,1 and every ten minutes a stateless child is born.2 Millions of people that have no access to water, food, housing, work, education, and are caught in legal limbo. This refugee crisis has inspired many designers to do projects about refugees, the most recent of which is the What design can do (WDCD) Refugee Challenge. Designers that address such complex issues as the refugee crisis have to be aware of their responsibilities, since approaching the refugee crisis as a design problem without the proper context can be problematic, even harmful. I want to examine the role of designers in the refugee crisis using the WDCD Refugee Challenge as an example.

‘The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.’- Teju Cole3

What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge website screenshot.

Launched on February 19, the Netherlands-based WDCD Refugee Challenge invites designers, creative thinkers and problem solvers to come up with ‘bold ideas’ to help refugees. Proposals should be submitted before May 1, 2016, with a one minute movie to pitch the idea. The five finalists will be announced at the WDCD conference in Amsterdam on July 1, 2016, and all five receive a 10,000 euro reward to realise their ideas.4

The WDCD Refugee Challenge should be praised for taking the initiative to create a platform for designers that address the refugee crisis. The involvement of the UNHCR as a partner shows the WDCD’s ambition that its outcomes could structurally improve the situation of refugees. However, the way the WDCD Refugee Challenge is communicated leaves a lot to be desired. This is important because it already sets the scene for the kind of solutions that will be submitted. I want to lay bare some of the blind spots in the design question that WDCD Refugee Challenge has proposed, and examine how designers could assume their responsibilities in addressing such a crisis.

What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge design brief page 13, 2016.

The Designer as a Game-changer

Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant compared the WDCD Refugee Challenge to Dragons’ Den, a reality television show from the BBC where contestants pitch their ideas to investors.5 During the WDCD Refugee Challenge five finalist will be chosen, all of whom will receive a 10,000 euro reward. They will go into an ‘accelerator’ in which they create a working prototype and a business plan. After a project pitch one of the five designs will be announced as the winner by the end of 2016.

The WDCD Refugee Challenge says the refugee crisis is: ‘A global challenge too big for governments and NGO’s alone’. Design as the ultimate problem-solving discipline coincides with the narrative of the neoliberal European policies. In recent decades, governments have cut spending on welfare, education, and foreign aid, advocating that free market—including design— can provide a better alternative. The ruling VVD party is implementing neoliberal policies in the Netherlands, and has recently proposed to close the Dutch borders for refugees completely.6

First of all, it is absurd to suggest that design can come up with solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economic at heart. European countries have been intervening in Middle East politics way before the Englishman Sykes and the Frenchmen Picot carved out most of the regions’ borders in 1916. More recently, the Dutch military was part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the war in Afghanistan between 2006-2010. At this moment, Dutch F-16’s are bombing Syria and Iraq.7

Another contributing factor to the refugee crisis is the situation of poverty and joblessness in the Global South. Income inequality has only grown with IMF policies, trade barriers, and EU subsidies, which have blocked the Global South from equal access to the world economy. As long as these economic barriers are in place, we will see more and more people from the Global South seeking a better life in Europe.

By ignoring the history of the refugee crisis and the political reality of diplomacy and military interventions in the Middle East in the briefing, the WDCD Refugee Challenge keeps the root of the problem out of sight. Designers can not successfully intervene in the refugee crisis if the political and military interventions are not taken into account. This should be part of the briefing and the debate surrounding the WDCD Refugee Challenge so that designers understand their agency or lack thereof.

Second, by emphasising the problem-solving capabilities of design, the WDCD Refugee Challenge supports the narrative that the free market is much better at solving the world’s crisis than governments are. Design may be able to come up with clever products or enlightening ideas, but only governments and NGOs can provide refugees with the resources, infrastructure, and laws that are needed in the long run. The WDCD Refugee Challenges’ good intentions could backfire if designs are used as an incentive for governments to cut their spending on supporting refugees altogether. Therefore the WDCD Refugee Challenge should inform designers about the responsibilities of governments and NGOs, and find out how and if designers can effectively intervene.

EUROSUR Spanish national coordination centre. Image: European Parliament News.

Designing From The Bunker

The first WDCD Refugee Challenge is to design a shelter. By shelter the brief means the temporary housing facilities where refugees stay until their request for asylum is accepted or rejected. Designing temporary housing as a challenge stands in stark contrast to the permanent reality of refugees staying in asylum centres, refugee camps, and shelters. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya is twenty years old, and many refugee camps in Palestine have been there since 1948. Generations of people living in temporary conditions is not temporary, but a structural lack of proper infrastructure, housing, and education or job opportunities. In the Netherlands, Yoonis Osman Nuur from the refugee collective We Are Here explains how he has been in temporary shelter in the Netherlands for ten years, and others in the group for twelve or thirteen years. All this time unable to work or go to school.9

No matter how well-designed a shelter is, refugees would rather live in a house and use the same infrastructure and opportunities as everyone else. The brief reduces the design question to the formal qualities of the shelter, its interior, its architecture, etc. Why call it a shelter and not a house? Why don’t we think of ways to offer refugees the same houses, the same jobs, the same schools as everyone else? Designing temporary shelters is exactly how right-wing politicians want to discourage refugees from coming to Europe. To quote VVD party member Halbe Zijlstra, ‘We should make the conditions for refugees as austere as possible, to discourage others from traveling to the Netherlands. He imagines container-like housing with minimal available services.10

A Syrian refugee has her eyes scanned to pay for groceries at King Abdullah Park refugee camp in northern Jordan. Photo: World Food Program/Mohammad Batah

Mark Duffield, from the Global Insecurities Centre at the University of Bristol, has written about the underlying conditions of the architecture that Halbe Zijlstra, and WDCD refer to. In Environmental Terror: Uncertainty, Resilience and the Bunker11 he follows Agamben’s Homo Sacer, ‘if neoliberalism has a spatial form, it is reflected in the complimentarily between the “bunker” and the “camp”’. What he calls the growing bunkerisation of the Global North is the larger physical and digital divide between the Global South and the Global North. We can find the bunker in its physical form of the construction of gated communities, fortified UN compounds, and the deadly border walls between the EU in Mellila (Morocco) and Evros (Greece). But also in the barriers that are increasingly digital and invisible: biometric passports, VISAs, fingerprinting databases, network access, paywalls, trade barriers, and immigration policies.

In the Global South, the architectural archetype is the tent, the temporary housing structures like tent camps, asylum centres, slums, and extra-judicial confinement. While the inhabitants of the Global North can travel freely, with unlimited access to resources, networks and travel destinations, people of the Global South are trapped in legal limbo, surrounded by gates, fences, without visas or passports, unable to cross frontiers. The proliferation of network technologies has allowed a permanent ‘remote control’ scenario to arise, and the bunker is increasingly becoming a control centre. With military drones, conflicts are fought from a distance. At the same time the UNHCR is using biometric identification to register refugees, and UN Food programme has refugees paying for food using iris scan technology in refugee camps.12 This analogy of the bunker and the tent is not just an abstraction of the world’s inequality, it is also to show that this divide is very much designed.

Designers should be aware their work does not end up being used to legitimise a state of permanent temporary living, deliberately created to prevent refugees from coming to Europe. They could instead imagine political or practical solutions that allow refugees the same rights as everyone else, so they have access to the same houses, education, services, and rights as we do. Otherwise designers are affirming the horrible reality of a growing global underclass of the stateless permanently living in shelters, not houses.

Dutch Military Police at work for FRONTEX in Spain. Image: Ministerie van Defensie.

Designing Violence

The WDCD refugee challenge frames the refugee crisis as a design challenge. But the refugee crisis is already very much designed. Designers have played an active role in designing the digital and physical borders to make sure refugees are prevented from entering Europe. Since 2004, the EU has invested heavily in fortifying its borders. The European border patrol Frontex has already spent 670 million since 2004, as the researchers from the Migrant files have shown.13 Since then new border fences have been built and equipped with smart surveillance technology. The latest border control systems of the EU are becoming digital and invisible. The OPARUS program that is being developed uses military drones, satellites, and smart surveillance technology to create a virtual net around Europe. Dutch tech companies are designing biometric software and digital ‘sniff’ technology that can locate refugees even before they reach border crossings.

The militarised borders of Europe are designed to remove violence out of sight of the European citizen. Many Frontex operations are done at sea, invisible from the European mainland. The thousands of people that drown trying to cross the Mediterranean are not only the blame of human traffickers, as Forensic Architecture has convincingly shown in their project ‘Left-to-Die Boat’.14 NATO ships that were in close to a sinking boat full of refugees, did nothing and let the passengers drown. If Europe designs highly militarised borders, it cannot deny the responsibilities of casualties and fatalities that occur.

Inside Europe, a network of prison-like structures is set up. Much of this infrastructure is deliberately invisible. Asylum centres are usually built in remote places, out of sight from most Europeans. Deportation of refugees in the U.K. is done through a network of detention centres, closed courts, and airlines. Taking photographs of these spaces is illegal. Artist James Bridle interviewed people to create images of these invisible spaces in his work ‘Seamless Transitions’ from 2015, in other to visualise this hidden violence.15

Europe is already spending so much effort to design systems and campaigns to keep refugees out in the first place, so why is this not part of the WDCD Refugee challenge? For instance, designers can help to lay bare these invisible systems of violence on Europe’s borders and find out how refugees can circumvent them.

The Principal Spaces of Detention. Image: Migreurop (2011)

Designing Exclusion

On the website of the WDCD Refugee Challenge an image of refugees is shown standing in line, covered with blankets, aided by UNHCR workers. The tagline says, ‘Here’s your chance to make a difference’. The headline is not directed at refugees, but at designers, so they will join the design challenge. By using this kind of imagery, the WDCD Refugee Challenge puts designers in opposition to the refugee. The refugee is presented as helpless, with problems for which the designer offers her/his help. The notion that a refugee is perhaps also a designer is not fathomable here.

This image stands in stark reality to the photographs a student of mine showed me, who works on a project with refugees, that a Syrian refugee had made with his cell phone during his trip. Group photos of young men posing cheerfully at landmarks in different places in Europe, no blankets, no sad faces. Those images would never be used on the WDCD website, because they do not fit the intended narrative. Refugees are depicted as victims to raise feelings of empathy with the designer, who is considered to be outside the group of refugees. ‘Participating in this contest will make you feel good!’ says WDCD elsewhere on their website.

The brief states that refugees themselves are encouraged to participate, which would only make sense. After all who can better research, assess, and come up with solutions, than the very people whom it concerns? But in its communication the refugees are placed in opposition to the designer, and how refugees themselves are involved in the process is rather vague: ‘The WDCD Refugee Challenge will foster collaboration with refugees.’

The same emphasis on difference is used by anti-immigration parties to show that refugees are different in culture, religion and background, in opposition to ‘Europeans’ and ‘European values’ (whatever is meant by that). Is a refugee who lives in Europe for ten years still a refugee? In framing the refugee crisis as a design challenge it is especially important to be specific who it is meant for. Creating images and texts to represent either refugees or designers should be done carefully, in order not to reaffirm the stereotypes which have led to so much of the polarised debate which they mention in the brief.

Screenshot from the website of the What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge.


First of all, the WDCD Refugee Challenge deserves credit that it raises awareness among professional designers and the public that this humanitarian crisis should be addressed. When it concerns the lives of so many in a humanitarian crisis of this scale, we should be careful in how we frame a crisis and represent the lives of others. The WDCD Refugee Challenge fails to acknowledge its own political position as an actor in the refugee crisis, and does not address the responsibilities of designers themselves. If designers want to play an active role in global crises they have to understand the history of design and how design is complicit to many of the problems we face today. The design discipline will not be taken seriously if we do not address the political structures in which design is practiced and actively shape the world.

I would wholeheartedly invite designers (and everyone else for that matter) to imagine ways to improve the life of refugees. But the refugee crisis has to be understood in its totality, and cannot be seen as an isolated design issue. A shelter is not just a shelter, a campaign is not just a campaign, they relate to larger political ideologies and sentiments. If we do not take the impact that design has on the world seriously, design for good can do more harm than good.

The way the WDCD Refugee Challenge is now framed and communicated, its results are likely to be limited to incidental interventions, because the true nature of the crisis is not addressed. My advice to the WDCD Refugee Challenge is to become less focused on problem-solving and more focused on understanding what the problems are, in order to reflect if and how the refugee crisis should be addressed as a design problem.

These are precarious issues with uncertain outcomes. Maybe design can offer solutions, maybe not. The real challenge would be to create a platform where such complexities and contradictions are not ignored, but embraced, and become part of a larger discussion about what design really can do.

Diagram about social design by Victor Papanek. Image from: Victor Papanek, <i>Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change</i> (London: Thames and Hudson, 2011)

A shortened version of this article was published on Dezeen, on 21 April 2016. Thanks to Nick Axel for being a critical reader and advisor, and Marcus Fairs and Anna Winston from Dezeen for publishing and shortening the article.


3. Tweet by Teju Cole on March 12, 2012.
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11. Duffield, Mark. Environmental Terror: Uncertainty, Resilience and the Bunker. University of Bristol, 2011.