M.Arch Thesis – Architecture for Long Term Refugee Relief: A Policy and Design Manual [Middle East Edition]

In protracted refugee settlements, namely those inhabited by displaced populace for over five years, architecture falls short, acutely short, of its premise to provide shelter, comfort, and delight. Plagued with warfare, insurgences, and perpetual political turmoil, the Middle East region today is home to some of the largest protracted and soon-to-be protracted refugee groups in the world. A multitude of host government restrictions and resource scarcity renders conventional design and construction strategies inefficient and inapt in meeting the high demand for new long-term refugee settlements in the region.

Building upon the challenges, failures, dynamics, and opportunities discerned from existing Palestinian refugee camps in the region, my thesis partner and I deliver in this work a written framework as well as a pilot design to equip the UN and other relief organization with better planning approaches, construction options, and design strategies for when they embark on establishing new settlements in the region. Adopting the mantras “camp is a double-edged sword” and “disaster is a chance for development”, emphasis is placed on nurturing the life virus (of humans, animals, plants, etc…) to infuse hope in what is normally deemed a limbo situation. To elaborate, when a disaster happens, displaced populace, rapid global relief contributions, and increased online communication and advocacy often result. Shifting from a pessimistic to optimistic stance, we view the momentum of these dynamics, when synthesized with development agendas and uninhabited land in host communities, as a strategic development opportunity for all parties involved. As such, we propose a mutually beneficial system where the camp becomes an incremental orchestrator of physical, digital, and economic systems to provide in the short term thriving living hubs for displaced populace, and in the long term, seeds of economic and social development for the host communities. This is attained by incorporating low-tech construction, self-help housing, permaculture, desert hydrology, remote health care provision, e-education, and others. Some of these programs already exist within the UN repertoire, but are disparate or underutilized. You can read excerpts from the 220-page document here:


After an introduction to forced migration and the refugee situation globally and in the Middle East, we organized this thesis into three parts, covering documentation, existing interventions, and recommendations. To establish a tangible and relevant framework, documentation and research findings have been incorporated as correlated but discrete parts (Parts 1 and 2). Beyond mere background research, they are significant in their own right due to the lack of similar work in literature. The thesis is arranged as follows:

  • Part 1 (Documentation): In this part, we present a spatio-temporal documentation and analysis of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, uncovering the common as well as unique dynamics of protracted refugee settings and the attributes of their urban fabric and built environment. Moreover, we tell the story of a Palestinian family living in the camp through the incremental expansion of their house over six decades. We also develop a set of 115 indicators to evaluate the quality of the built environment as a stepping stone for determining critical intervention areas in the final (recommendation) part.
  • Part 2 (Interventions): In part 2, we unravel the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared, the first pre-planned Palestinian long-term camp in Lebanon. By assessing the process and quality of the outcome, we discern practical lessons from this unprecedented framework in refugee settlements in the region. Based on that, the indicators presented in part 1 are refined by introducing a set of primary, secondary, and tertiary design and policy criteria that must be hierarchically addressed in order to plan better camps that incubate the potential to grow and thrive.
  • Part 3 (Recommendations): from global relief pledges to the canopy shielding a family’s courtyard from the scorching sun, we devise an ecosystem as a step by step guide for developing seeds of immediate refugee relief that also enables prolonged positive change in the host community. An additional part, Part 4/Pilot Design, is incorporated at the end where we present how the recommendations and criteria from Part 3 could have been applied three years ago to accommodate the Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan in the wake of civil war.

The scope of interventions we propose is primarily focused on planning, infrastructure, housing, architecture, education, mico-economic activities, agriculture, and some relevant policy inaugurations. We recognize that issues of security, safety, order, governance, and politics are extremely critical in order to realize tangible improvements in refugee camps. At this point in time though, are beyond the scope of this work. If the reader is interested in learning more about these issues, a set of relevant and well-respected discussions can be found in Palestinian Refugees: Identity, Space and Place in the Levant by Are Knudsen and Sari Hanafi.

It remains to note that except for photos and images obtained from contacts and online sources, all diagrams, illustrations, and maps are our own original work. These diagrams encapsulate the essence of the accompanied text as well as our contribution to knowledge. To elaborate, we generated original maps and data by tracing Google satellite imagery, and measuring and analyzing the metadata in AutoCAD. Through images, interviews, camp websites, and active online forums, we devised our own criteria for evaluating the camp built environment. The criteria, presented at the end of Part 1, could also act as a check list for architects and designers interested in good design. By examining the reconstruction of Nahr al Bared, we introduced hierarchy to the proposed criteria in order to emphasize the issues that must be urgently addressed in the camp as well as how to address them through design guides and policies. Using sand bag construction as an example, we designed a set of sand bag homes and quoted their cost, to provide a housing options menu for immediate use by refugees.