In lieu of introduction: A crisis in numbers*
According to the UNHCR (2017), since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011, more than 300.000 people have lost their lives, 4 million Syrians have left the country and around 7 million people seek a safe refuge. On the whole, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes whereas, today, in the sixth year of war, 13,5 million are in need of humanitarian assistance within the country. Since March 2011 almost 1,6 million migrants arrived on the southern borders of Europe by boat, while 13.179 people died in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
The case of Greece
In September 2015, the Justice and Home Affairs Council decided to relocate 160.000 people in clear need of international protection from Greece and Italy to alleviate the burden of the extended refugee flows on these two countries. However, the so-called “Relocation Scheme” has proved clearly insufficient and 70.000 people in Greece are still waiting in ill-equipped shelters to be processed, settled or deported. Since the Balkan route from the Greek borders to northern Europe (Fig. 2) was closed in March 2016, migrants and refugees are now forced to live in overcrowded refugee camps both on the Aegean Islands as well as on the mainland, in proximity to big cities, such as Athens and Thessaloniki.
In general, most refugee populations under direct aid via governments or humanitarian organisations live in camps of thousands, in small scout-style tents or –in the best cases- in metal containers. Camps are typically constructed in large open areas in spontaneously sought locations. The simple tent structures, arranged in such a way to form a ‘tent city’ are mostly made of canvas military issue tents and are often criticised for being heavy, uninsulated and unsafe. In the case of Syrian refugees in Greece, even though the Greek government has provided this kind of temporary housing to the tens of thousands trapped in the country by the EU-Turkey agreement, many of these camps do not meet accepted humanitarian standards.
The proposal: Floating reception centres
It is true that absorbing the influx of refugees has been an enormous challenge for the EU, with strong implications for the stability of the entire region. One of the things I realised after witnessing the chaos in several refugee camps in Greece is that doing what you are good at and minimising risks is a natural process. By this I mean that when the UNHCR decided to build emergency tents, a great deal had been invested in this project and –I assume-nobody wanted to lose the “sunk” costs - in the case of these emergency tents, engineers addressed value conflict by satisficing with moral obligations, which implies that they set as a priority to satisfy the refugee right to housing or shelter and to cover basic, non-negotiable needs. As van de Poel (2014) states, “The goal of this step is to rule out morally unacceptable options,” which in the case of UNHCR camps in Greece would have been leaving people waiting on the shores of Turkey and Greece without shelter, food, sanitation and water.
On the other side, Venice Architecture Biennale 2016 director Alejandro Aravena said that tents are a quick response to the need for emergency shelter, but “it’s money that melts.” In addition, he highlighted the need to invest in less temporary disaster-relief shelter as a longer-term solution to housing shortage, especially in cases of huge refugee flows. Echoing his argument, this thesis starts from analysing trends and data of refugee flows in Greece and examines the spatial problem that has arisen from 2014 onwards, regarding the inadequate infrastructure and the lack of accommodation facilities, registration, identification centres and medical care facilities both on islands and in continental Greece. The insufficiency of land facilities and the belief that any humanitarian intervention through architecture cannot be captured by policy decisions led to the idea of an alternative model of receiving refugee flows in the Mediterranean Sea by creating floating reception centres.
The idea originates from the on-going use of large Greek passenger and cruise ships for the transportation of refugees from the Eastern Aegean Islands to Athens. It envisions a new reception strategy and a legitimate transfer of refugees to cities in the EU, where identification, registration, accommodation and medical assistance will be provided on-board. The ship chosen as case study is Blue Star 1, a Greek passenger ship which has already been used several times since 2015 for transporting refugees from the islands of Mytilene and Kos to Athens. Its transformation into floating reception centre mainly necessitates the utilisation of every usable surface, the effective lighting and ventilation of each deck and the creation of as many circulation areas as possible. Maximum length of stay on board is estimated at 10 days.
From theory to operation
Before you think that the implementation of such a system is utopian, know that my optimism arises from the magnitude of the problem, not the ease of the solutions. Knowing that the average lifespan of a refugee camp is now close to seven years, I am positive that a flexible system of floating centres - given that Greece possesses a great number of cruise ships, almost empty during winter - may turn out extremely practical. A similar idea was implemented last year after the heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures nationwide during the first weeks of January; the Greek government sent a few warships to provide shelter to the Syrian refugees, since the extreme weather conditions left tens of thousands of refugees exposed to appalling living conditions aggravated by severe cold weather.
This year, members of the government discussed the idea of transforming several cruise ships into floating reception centres that will remain attached to the ports but will provide better living conditions for the refugees. Of course, a transition from emergency tents to ships could only work if the limits and roles between governments and stakeholders involved are clearly defined. And there is no doubt that this idea doesn’t hold all the answers to the essential needs of refugees. Nonetheless, it offers new solutions to ongoing spatial problems, and the reception and accommodation problem, especially in countries like Greece or Italy. While it is no panacea in crises of this scale, for the refugee communities in Europe it could be a game changer.
*This article was first published in 2017. All figures and data correspond to that moment in time.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Mairs, J. (2015) Refugee tents are a waste of money, says Alejandro Aravena, Dezeen.
van de Poel, I. (2014). Conflicting Values in Design for Values Design for values. In J. van den Hoven, P. E. Vermaas & I. van de Poel (Eds.), Handbook of Ethics, Values, and Technological Design (pp. 1-23): Springer Netherlands.