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Today’s refugee camps are tomorrow’s cities

People walk in the Rwanga refugee camp in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The average stay in 'temporary' camps like this is nearly two decades. (Owen_Holdaway /

At what point does a squalid, semi-permanent refugee camp become a sprawling, impoverished city?

Kilian Kleinschmidt, one of the world’s leading authorities on refugees, tells DeZeen Magazine’s Talia Radford that governments must stop thinking of such camps as temporary. “The average stay today in a camp is seventeen years,” he says. “That’s a generation. Let’s look at these places as cities.”

Rather than relegate refugees to camps, Kleinschmidt proposes resettlement in places that have ample job vacancies and need workers, such as Germany. Refugees also could help revive depopulated parts of Spain, Italy and other countries that have lost working age residents to major cities. (Citiscope recently profiled the efforts of a town in southern Italy to repopulate itself with refugees.

He also advocates empowering refugees who do remain in camps with technologies such as 3-D printing, which could help them to replace goods they’ve left behind.

Kleinschmidt had a long career with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees where he witnessed hardship in these camps firsthand. Until recently, he was stationed in Jordan at a refugee camp for displaced Syrians, the largest temporary community of its kind. He now runs his own humanitarian-focused consulting firm, Switxboard.


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