Promoting understanding of humanitarian nutrition and shelter

Engagement work by Associate Professor Tom Scott-Smith has helped enrich understanding of the complexities of emergency refugee accommodation and humanitarian nutrition.

Human beings have certain basic physiological needs. Everyone needs shelter and food to survive. Shelter gives security, protection from the weather, and provides people with a dignified life. Balanced nutrition is essential for good health. Meeting these needs becomes especially fraught in cases of conflict and natural disaster.

Over the past few years Tom Scott-Smith, Associate Professor of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies Centre, has been working on two parallel streams of research dedicated to shelter and food – emergency refugee accommodation and humanitarian nutrition – with a particular focus on how humanitarians respond to basic human needs. His work focuses on the social and cultural importance of these physical needs, and the political complexities involved in meeting them. Through a series of imaginative outreach activities aimed at scholars, practitioners and the general public, he has also helped highlight and explain these issues to a wide audience.

From 2016 to 2019, Scott-Smith ran a research project, 'Architectures of Displacement', in collaboration with partners at the University of Cambridge. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the project convened experts in forced displacement, archaeology, anthropology, and architecture to explore how the design of temporary accommodation for refugees can shape the experiences – both positively and negatively – of those living within their walls. The project studied emergency refugee shelters in six different countries in Europe and the Middle East.

In the context of this project, Scott-Smith held a series of policy briefings, workshops and other knowledge exchange activities focusing on the role of architecture and design in provision of accommodation to refugees. One of the highlights included an international workshop entitled "Structures of Protection? Rethinking Refugee Shelter”, which hosted 30 academics from over ten countries and led to an edited collection of essays on different forms of refugee shelter aimed at widening public understanding about the lives of forced migrants.

‘Architectures of Displacement’ engaged with humanitarians and policymakers through the UK Shelter Forum, a bi-annual event for shelter specialists and architects, and at events hosted by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Festival Hall. As part of this engagement work, the project created an inventory of emergency refugee shelters with architectural drawings and detailed plans. Images from this inventory were circulated to aid workers and featured in the 2020 Imperial War Museum exhibition, ‘Refugees: Forced to Flee’, which combined research and real-life experiences with photographs, oral histories, documents and objects to question why conflict forces people to leave and examine humanitarian responses.

The findings of the project have been showcased in an award-winning documentary 'Shelter without Shelter' investigating how forced migrants from Syria were sheltered across Europe and the Middle East after 2015. Containing perspectives from the humanitarians who created these shelters as well as the critics who campaigned against them, the documentary reveals the complex dilemmas involved in attempts to house refugees in emergency conditions. The film won the top award of Best Research Film at the AHRC Research in Film Awards 2020. The project also inspired ‘Lande: The Calais ‘Jungle’ and Beyond, a major temporary exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum which ran in 2019 and was co-curated by Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology in the School of Archaeology. The exhibition included photographs and artworks made by displaced people and undocumented children from the ‘Jungle’, a refugee and migrant camp outside of Calais, France, that existed from 2015 to its demolition in 2016, as well as images made by activists and artists.

The second stream of Scott-Smith’s research has focused on humanitarian nutrition and its history from the 19th century to the present day, with a view to examining the humanitarian approach to hunger. Through archival research, oral history, and the analysis of humanitarian handbooks, this research examined how Victorian technologies, such as the soup kitchen, were transformed into contemporary mechanisms for emergency feeding. The full results of this work featured in a book, On an Empty Stomach: Two hundred years of hunger relief, which won the Association for the Study of Food and Society Monograph Award for 2021. The research also led to a working paper ‘Contested evolution of nutrition for humanitarian and development ends’ which emerged from discussions that took place at an international workshop co-organised with the Food Studies Centre at SOAS, University of London, and featured an inter-disciplinary panel of 17 scholars and nutritional experts.

Thanks to his work, Scott-Smith was selected as one of ten researchers from across the UK as 2020 ‘New Generation Thinkers’ by BBC Radio 3 and the  AHRC. This scheme is one of the major ways in which the AHRC engages the public with the research they fund by giving the next generation of researchers a platform to share their ideas with wider audiences and offering them space to challenge their thinking. In the context of this scheme, Scott-Smith produced an essay for BBC radio exploring the social history of soup, which has been one of the main elements of emergency relief for centuries. Examining the creation of four soup recipes since the 19th Century, Scott-Smith suggests that the food offered by aid workers tends to be determined by current humanitarian ideas rather than beneficiary needs.


Tom Scott-Smith
Associate Professor of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration

Still from the film Shetler Without Shelter