All over the world, people have been forced to flee their homes and among them are nearly 30 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. In fact, over the past decade, the global population of forcibly displaced people has grown to a record high, from 43.3 million in 2009 to 70.8 million in 2018. In real terms, this equates to one person becoming displaced every two seconds. There are also millions of stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. 

Statistics by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) show that once a person becomes a refugee, they are likely to remain a refugee for years – as many as 20 years in some instances. Many seek out refugee camps – temporary tent shelters that provide immediate protection and safety. The camps allow aid workers from organisations such as UNHCR to deliver food, water and medical attention during an emergency, yet many of these camps end up becoming long term accommodation as the issue at home is left unresolved. 

For example, since December 2013, conflict in South Sudan has claimed thousands of lives and driven 3.3 million people from their homes. While an estimated 1.9 million people remain displaced inside the country, 2.2 million have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries in a bid to reach safety. 

Sprawling refugee camps around the world are testament to the permanent nature of the crisis. In fact, as they become a longer-term solution, many come to resemble cities, but with woefully inadequate infrastructure. Given the scale of the global crisis, many are calling for a new, sustainable approach to caring for displaced people – ensuring that refugee camps operate as functioning communities, that support and enable their populations to thrive. To design a new model for refugee camps, a transformative approach is needed, one that balances the needs of the displaced people, with an understanding of what they need to get back to some level of normality. 

In north-western Kenya, a new approach to the design of refugee camps is already under way. The Kakuma refugee camp has a current population of more than 184,000. And having been established in 1992, it has long since passed the realms of temporary accommodation. Indeed, according to the population size, it could be classed as Kenya’s seventh largest city. As the camp’s population grew, its infrastructure and amenities began to fail and as such, in 2015 a new settlement called Kalobeyei was established nearby to improve the conditions of refugees. The UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government of Kenya developed Kalobeyei to look beyond the temporary and overcrowded situation that defined other camps utilising new technology and the skills of those within the camps to improve amenities and enable commerce. 

Kalobeyei was designed to be “a settlement that would promote the self-reliance of refugees and host communities by providing them with better livelihood opportunities and enhanced service delivery”. Mastercard and Western Union were invited to participate in order to make digital infrastructure a reality. In doing so, Kalobeyei was developed as a “Smart Community”, one that became a model for refugee settlements by studying the needs of refugees. From education to health to financial services and examining interconnected aspects of daily life, the partnership designed a number of technology solutions to make life easier for those living in the camp. For example, new payment, transaction and data tools were implemented to improve the efficiency of the camp and allow its residents to set up businesses and trade in order to generate income. As a result, the camp’s 500 merchants now use mobile money to manage their businesses. 

The partnership also improved the delivery of essential items such as soap and food, as the products are now tracked through a paper-based system and using the Mastercard Aid Network (a digital voucher platform). Here, refugees and host community members use a chip card loaded with points to redeem the items they want from a merchant. Also designed to work offline, the system keeps a record of every transaction, driving data collection that helps agencies easily monitor aid programmes.

As the developed world embraces the technology, it is vital that no community is left behind and instead, this technology is implemented in communities that need it the most. To facilitate the growth of “Smart Communities”, however, a cross-sector group of organisations must be established to encourage entities from the private sector, civil society, government agencies, and financiers to be committed to advancing technology for the common good. By creating a global, cross-sector partnership model, the resulting ‘smart camps’ could change the lives of millions. 

Becoming a refugee is a harrowing experience, but the effect of such a life change can be eased if the individual is supported in their new location. Host countries are under enormous strain to support such large influxes of people and therefore, a new approach to designing refugee camps, one that considers how the community will operate and become self-sufficient, is vital. Especially with the impending threat of the climate crisis threatening to displace even more people. Smart camps empower refugees through economic growth opportunities, provide greater value for host communities and countries and enable United Nations agencies and NGOs to manage the refugee response with increased efficiencies, stretching their funding for greater impact, but there is a lot of work to be done to transform the hundreds of camps all over the world.

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