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the encampment of refugees  is increasing in the african continent and worldwide

The humanitarian aid system and the mainstream media have presented refugee camps as the only and best means to provide refugee assistance globally. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began work on the continent in the early 1960s and camps proliferated especially in the 1990s.


Refugee camps in Eastern Africa are rarely dismantled, with the majority of the planned 'temporary' solutions resulting in permanent settlements. These 'long-term' refugee camps pose political, social, and spatial dilemmas for those who manage them, for those who host them and for those living within them. It is currently estimated that approximately 40% of refugees displaced by conflict worldwide have been living in exile for more than 20 years.


In spite of this reality, the humanitarian aid system continues to invest in encampment solutions in response to ongoing, and new, refugee crises. The rationale for establishing these camps shifts overtime. In the last decades, camps where established  shielded behind the assumption of temporary status, even if the story on the ground is very different.

Evolution (1960-2014) of armed and social conflicts in the African continent, represented are: deaths and movements of population. Sources: WB database 2016, UNHCR population database 2016, ACLED.


The refugee camp  is failing as a 

refugee assistance solution in eastern Africa

In general, the humanitarian aid system favours a hierarchic and authoritarian approach to the establishment and maintenance of refugee camps in East Africa guided by geopolitics, and the desires of donor and host countries, largely obviating previous lessons and the will of the heterogeneous groups of refugees and their direct local hosts. 


One of the many drawbacks inherent in this kind of approach, and one which is of special relevance to this research, is that camp planning, establishment, and maintenance largely undervalue the expertise of both the host and the refugee groups.


As a consequence, international aid initiatives tend to lack awareness of the cultural habits and preferences of those living within and around the camps, especially the children who make up more than half of the population of the long-term refugee camps in Eastern Africa.

Eastern Africa is currently home to approximately 66 active long-term refugee camps co-administered by UNHCR and the countries that host them. Even though the vast majority of people seeking refuge choose not to settle in a UNHCR administered camp, the majority of limited aid funding for East African refugees falls under their purview. These camps hold approximately 2.1 million people, of whom approximately 400.000 thousand are children under six years old. 

increasing ECD

refugees' Early Childhood Development lacks resources, but is recently gaining increased 


To coordinate the work of different agencies in the field, the humanitarian aid system created the 'cluster system' in 2005. Clusters are defined as, “groups of humanitarian organizations, including but not limited to the United Nations, in each of the main sectors of humanitarian action.” Education was not included as a cluster until 2007 and Early Childhood Development (ECD) was not specifically highlighted until 2009.  

The humanitarian aid system is overly dictated by donor agendas, and therefore struggles to procure adequate funding, especially for protracted crises, and for non-“life-saving” assistance such as education.

The recent addition of ECD to humanitarian aid practice in addition to scarce resources makes for a lack of data and information about child development and learning environments in the long-term camps in Eastern Africa. This lack of information undermines the ability of the humanitarian aid system to implement new initiatives, monitor and evaluate progress, and transfer the lessons learned.

The humanitarian system focuses its scarce resources for educational programs in the long-term refugee camps in Eastern Africa mostly on formal education facilities. 


For children between three to six years old, these formal Early Childhood Development (ECD) centers are still scarce. Host countries’ national regulations on ECD moderate these programs. Frequently these national regulations are based on international conventions and treaties that fit a 'universal child' rather than focusing on local understandings of child-rearing and development. 

In this research the whole built environment is conceived as a learning source for young children. The elements of the built environment of the camps studied are classified into three types of learning environments: Formal (NGO managed ECD centres), non-formal (community organised nursery centres and directed play activities), and informal (homes, streets, and common spaces).


Interpreting learning as happening in a multiplicity of environments and throughout the day, allows for the study of the whole built environment as learning source rather than only the school setting. 

lack arch

 urban design and architecture are overlooked as tools to improve livelihoods

Recent research highlights the importance young children’s holistic development (from new born to five years old) has in determining overall life experience. Specifically, before the age of three, positive physical, psychological and brain development will impacts capacity to learn later on in life and to develop to fullest potential.


This website and the work it contains focuses on the ways that the built environment and the daily activities of children influences their holistic development.  This work attempts to understand the elements of the built environment that most affect young children's development. These elements often go unnoticed under the auspices of temporary settlement and urgency, even in camps that exist for 5, 20 or even 60 years.  The data related to the spatial qualities of the camps, and the data related to young children's development is unknown and is not archived or aggregated anywhere. Spatial data is particularly scarce for those long-term settlements forgotten by the media following the conclusion of a crisis. These communities often remain invisible to donors and the civil societies surrounding them.


What is lacking is a concrete understanding of how spaces in the camps are currently affecting the more than 2.1 million displaced young children who inhabit them.


The purpose of this study is to make available data for use by the inhabitants of the camps themselves, the civil society involved in them or affected by them, and the humanitarian workers and authorities involved in the camp’s management.

Academic and empirical research from around the world supports the notion that space plays a key role in the quality and pace of young children’s learning and development. Unfortunately, very little research about the built environment’s role on ECD has been conducted in Sub-Saharan Africa, or conflict-affected communities living in camps.

To date, quantity and quality of education facilities in Eastern African refugee camps is not well understood and the majority of the camps and settlements lack a simple up to date urban plan.

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