New article by Tom Scott-Smith critiques Ikea’s ‘universal’ refugee shelter

15 November, 2019

A new article by Associate Professor Tom Scott-Smith examines Ikea’s flat-packed refugee shelter, arguing that rather than offering a universal solution, the shelter reveals the limits of universalism in the humanitarian context, and illuminates the way in which relief work creates ‘hierarchies of humanity’.

The shelter, a flat-packed, mass-produced structure that can be shipped and constructed wherever it is required, was launched in 2013 with the ambition of offering a universal solution to refugee emergency accommodation.

However, Professor Scott-Smith argues that rather than offering a one-size-fits-all solution, the Ikea shelter was perceived as either insufficient or excessive, depending on the location in which it was deployed.

‘The distribution of a standardized humanitarian product to vastly different landscapes ended up revealing how adequacy changed with context’, he writes.

He illustrates his argument with reference to two incidents: in Switzerland, the shelters were subjected to rigorous fire testing, which they failed; the event was picked up by international media and orders were cancelled. The shelters were thus perceived to be inadequate in the Swiss context.

In contrast, In Lebanon, angry local residents interrupted the construction of shelters, because their solidity and the relative ‘luxury’ of some of their features suggested a permanence that was politically unacceptable in the area; in this context, the shelters were perceived as offering too much.

Professor Scott-Smith goes on to argue that the shelters are one manifestation of the ‘politics of life’, the way in which humanitarianism values human lives differently. He suggests the Swiss example illustrates this, demonstrating that "...these shelters were designed for a different category of person: a refugee who should be 'glad for the shelters they are provided'."

Tom Scott-Smith (2019) ‘Beyond the boxes: refugee shelter and the humanitarian politics of life’, American Ethnologist, DOI: 10.1111/amet.12833.