(IN)Formal Refuge

Re-thinking the Refugee Camp

(IN)FORMAL REFUGE: Re-thinking The Refugee Camp is a design and research project investigating the transient setting of refugee camps.

The test site of the scheme is the largest camp in Europe - Moria, located on Lesbos Island, Greece. 

The proposed solution is an incremental planning method reassembling the traditional Arab courtyard. The design aims to generate a safe refuge from the moment of arrival to one of departure.

The test site of the project is the largest refugee camp in Europe - Moria, located on Lesbos Island, Greece.

Due to the prolonged asylum process refugees are confronting when entering Europe, most people spend in the camps on average a year. Therefore, a tent is no longer a solution and a camp is no longer a ‘temporary’/’provisional’space.

Naturally, people take ownership over the occupied spaces. They upgraded tents into shelters, built food and barber shops, play spaces, toilets, spaces of worship, even a high street. Over time, the camp organically grew into a small settlement..

On 9th September 2020 Moria refugee camp bunt down.

The fire triggered a humanitarian crisis on the island of Lebsos - 17 000 people were displaced on the streets. Despite the humanitarian aid provided, there were days in a row when people had no access to food, water, or sanitation. By that point, COVID-19 was already found within the camp community.

Following a few weeks of the crisis, residents of Moria were moved into a new camp that promised to be temporary. The new space now called - ‘Moria 02’ - provides conditions under the minimum living standards.

Moria refugee camp was a former military base converted into a reception center in 2015. Following the EU-Turkey Deal, the informal part of the camp starts appearing.

In a timeframe of five years, Moria transitioned from a planned camp accommodating 3 000 people to an informal settlement of over 20 000 people.
The formal camp was planned around physical thresholds and standardised spaces leading to an absence of communal identity, disempowerment of the residents and a controlled movement of people.
On the other hand, the Jungle presented make-shift spaces organised around cultural preferences and not physical thresholds which encouraged freedom of movement and collective identity. However, the informal provided limited access to sanitation and was well-known for a serious lack of safety.

At a sector scale, we can observe better the organization of the informal camp. Zone 11 located in the Jungle was planned and built by the residents around central spaces: reassembling the traditional Arab Courtyard. ︎
The typical shelter found in the camp was based on different configurations of the Euro-pallet module. The spaces were built from the most available materials such as timber, tarps, plastics, and cardboard. 

The ‘temporary homes’ people were occupying for almost an year were not only extremely tight and thermally uncomfortable but also dangerously inflammable. ︎

The standard camp planning system presents five major scales. The jump from a family of 3-5 people to a cluster of 80 people was not working in the informal setting - people were observed to organise themselves in clusters of maximum 4 families planned around communal areas.
Therefore, the proposed solution looks at implementing a new scale into the standard planning system - The Courtyard hosting between 2-4 families - bridging the gap between the standard family and cluster scale. 
The explored courtyard layouts follow the key spatial principles of the traditional Arab Courtyard which people were seen to implement in the Jungle.

Next, the implemented infrastructure grid is based on two modules: the emergency UNHCR tent and the Euro-pallet module - both easily available in the camp context.

The Courtyard scheme is designed to work from an Emergency to a Post-emergency phase through adaptation and not re-building.

Firstly, groundwork is prepared to accommodate the communal facilities such as water and sanitation points. Next, the grid is organised to support a shelter in both an emergency - responding to the immediate arrival of people - as well as a temporary waiting phase - transitioning into the asylum process which can take several months.

Due to the political context of the refugee camp, building regulations preventing any type of ‘permanent building’ are in place. Therefore, the scheme must function outside of the typical construction process.
How does it work?

In phase one immediate shelter is provided using the existing infrastructure and the standard UNHCR tents. This is meant to last for the first critical days.

Phase two is the transitioning state from tents into temporary shelters which are customised and organised by the residents - as observed in the informal camp.

The last stage is the reinforcement phase - the obtained temporary shelters are now adapted to support seasonal weather. Earth walls and clay are used to reinforce the provisional shelters for thermal comfort.

Three types of soils resourced locally from Lesbos Island are tested for the earth walls: red, brown pine and black soil are used as aggregates.
The typical straws or hay are replaced by seaweed - available in large quantities on the island’s shores.
The material testing highlights the red soil as being the most successful – the produced clay is flexible enough to be used for the reinforcement of existing structures but also solid enough to build earth blocks.

As encountered in the Arab setting, the Courtyard is the anchor of the resident community, ensures access to dignifying facilities and accommodates various activities throughout the day: 

safe gathering point for women, communal cooking and  workshops, supervised play area for children, educational gathering (teaching of the Koran) etc.

Different courtyard configurations are explored and planned at a cluster scale around the facility points (the latrines and wells).
The first cluster layout permits the highest flexibility of configuration, topography adaptation and resident density.

The proposed cluster layout is developed in section focusing on the relationship between courtyards and shared facilities such as the septic tanks and water collection points facilitating the functioning of the communal latrines.

The proposed latrine will function as both an Arab Toilet as well as washing space. The tank is built as an aqua privy basin - it does not require piped water supply; the water used for washing from the collector will contribute to the drainage of the discharge.

The existing Zone 11 of Moria Jungle is planned around the courtyard  scheme into a masterplan layout following:

01. programmatic strips - the courtyard as an anchor point is alternated with facility strips

02. points of grid or confetti - communal facilities to the courtyard is the well - allowing access to water - next are four latrines providing two toilets and wash points each and last are four water collection points facilitating the latrines.

03. main circulation routes connecting the clusters with the high-street

04. larger areas - dedicated to the formal facilities within the refugee camp at a sector scale such as distribution areas for food, clothing and sanitation items as well as medical and educational space.

The proposed design challenges the standard camp planning system and explores a method which can generate a safe and dignifying refuge for the displaced community from the moment of arrival to one of transition and ultimately departure.


The scheme is developed from the scale of a Courtyard (2-4 families) to a Cluster (8-16 families) and lastly a Sector (30-60 families).

The masterplan presents the potential to be expanded further responding to a future increase of arrivals.


Office of Displaced Designers | Lesbos Island, Greece
Umea University | Umea, Sweden
The London School of Architecture | London, UK