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Refugee camp


Photo Courtesy: JSolar Lighting in Azraq Camp, UNHCR Innovation

“People think that refugees have nothing, that they know nothing, or that they came just to take something,” said Syrian teenage swimmer Yusra Mardini at the United Nations in New York in January 2017 (1). However, such popular assumption can be easily contested when compared to recent data about the economy on complex environments.

Despite the lack of international cooperation and delivery of weak solutions by States (nations) many communities of refugees are finding other creative ways to survive.


Besides, a range of new initiatives to promote humanitarian innovation within and across organisations, and new collaborations for developing and testing novelties are emerging. From products to services, from local to global solutions, the community of millions of refugees has been positively affected.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2015 the large majority (86%) of refugees was reported as living in developing areas, where countries in Africa, Middle East, and Asia are open to receive the newcomers (2). Moreover, the humanitarian challenge seems to be endless. When one conflict is over, another begins, thus it is imperative to create new ways of acting.(3)

In this respect, the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) and its Humanitarian Innovation Project from Oxford University, point to realistic alternatives, by analysing what refugee population has already been doing in different spaces, such as camps, developing cities, and the environments between both. They present ‘refugeehood’ as a new concept, introducing a set of constraints and opportunities in their economic lives; despite the challenges, they are consumers, producers, buyers, sellers, employers, employees, and entrepreneurs. This ‘refugeehood’, then, opens space to innovation.(4)

Uganda, in Africa, comes out as an example of openness, by treating refugees as productive residents: they are able to work, move where they want, and choose where to live.

In Kampala, the capital, 78% of refugees need no aid 5, and are becoming increasingly entrepreneurial, even in sectors with no prior experience, such as micro-finance. A research of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund (HIF) identified 25 refugee-run micro-finance programmes in Kampala, acting as sites of bottom-up innovation, such as micro-savings and lending groups in their own communities. (6)

In the Middle East, the Zaatari camp, in Jordan, is another example of the ‘Refugeehood’: it hosts 1,400 running businesses, and its main road, called by UNHCR as ‘Market Street 1’, is known by everyone else as ‘Champs-Élysées’. The businesses include, among others, clothing emporiums, bicycle shops, and bakeries. (7)

In the field of humanitarian organisations, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) currently proposes giving money directly to refugees instead of delivering tents or food. In Lebanon, they compared refugees who received money with those who did not, and the results were positive: the prices did not rise and for each dollar given, the local economy generated a USD 2.13 increase in GDP (8). Furthermore, according to a study of University of California with the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), cash aid gives refugees greater freedom in their purchases and greater variety in their diets, while creating benefits for host-country businesses and farms.(9)

In a recent article, Tom Scott-Smith argued that humanitarian innovators aim to promote reforms in the sector and protection of ‘silenced voices’, giving to entrepreneurship the same importance, eager to free the ‘productive citizens in refugees camps from the dependency of aid’. The new movement is driven by an idea of liberation, freedom from suffering, authority, bureaucracies, and top-down management.(10)

For instance, UNHCR launched its innovation arm ‘UNHCR Innovation’ in 2012 to share creativity across the organisation based on an obligatory change of mindset.

Their job is to amplify innovations already happening in the field, connect innovators to resources, and explore the knowledge and expertise existing outside the organisation.(11) Four years later, IRC also established its own innovation agency ‘Airbel’, to design and test life-changing, scalable solutions for people affected by crisis. Then, projects can be scale up by governments, private sector and other NGOs.(12)

In big hubs, such as Berlin and London, startups are embracing innovation for refugees, as Migration Hub, ReDI School of Design, Berlin Peace Innovation Lab, Techrefugees, and Geecycle.

In addition, products with diverse functions are popping up, such as PeePoobag, a personal single use toilet, and LifeStraw, a filter capable of killing microorganisms in water. The Concrete Canvas Tent provides a dorm structure from a sack of cement, filled with water and inflated with air, and the Plumply’nut, a peanut-based with the same value of milk, fights malnutrition in refugee camps.

Despite all constraints — during unstable political and economic periods, public funds can dry up, and agencies and organisations might need risky capital that embraces experimentation and uncertainty (13) — and enormous space for improvement, the potential of innovation in helping humanitarian challenges is clear. Even during challenging times, the variety of startups and innovations across organisations and industries reflect positive opportunities for the future.

On one hand, the donor-state is still necessary and international cooperation essential, on the other hand, there are many other possibilities beyond this old assistance model, which creates dependency by not allowing refugees to free themselves from what others decide that they need.(14) It is time to start exploring and experimenting alternatives, and letting innovation be created for, with and by them.


  1. UNHCR (2017). Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini plunges into life after Rio Games. [online] Available at: (Accessed 5 Feb. 2017).
  2. Guterres, A. (2015) Refugees have the right to be protected. Available at: (Accessed: 17 Jan. 2017).
  3. Leber, J. (2016). Creating A Refugee-Ready, Refugee-Friendly World. [online] Co.Exist. Available at: (Accessed 15 Jan. 2017).
  4. Betts, A., Bloom, L., Kaplan, J. and Omata, N. (2016). Why a Market-Based Approach Is Key to Unlocking Refugees’ Potential. [online] Refugees Deeply. Available at: (Accessed 26 Jan. 2017).
  5. Betts, A., Bloom, L., Kaplan, J. and Omata, N. (2014). Refugee Economies — Rethinking Popular Assumptions. [online] Oxford. Available at: (Accessed 21 Jan. 2017).
  6. Hakiza, R. and Easton-Calabria, E. (2016). (Loan) cycles of innovation: researching refugee-run micro-finance. Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, [online] (66). Available at: (Accessed: 5 Jan. 2017).
  7. Davies, R. (2017). Business tips from a refugee camp. [online] 1843. Available at: (Accessed 5 Jan. 2017).
  8. Miliband, D. (2016). The Best Ways to Deal with the Refugee Crisis. [online] The New York Review of Books. Available at: (Accessed: 2 Feb. 2017).
  9. Taylor, J. (2016). Research: Refugees Can Bolster a Region’s Economy. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: (Accessed 6 Jan. 2017).
  10. Scott-Smith, T. (2016). Humanitarian neophilia: the ‘innovation turn’ and its implications. [online]. Available at: (Accessed: 10 Jan. 2017).
  11. UNHCR Innovation (2015) UN High Commissioner for Refugees: Innovation is necessary. Available at: (Accessed: 1 Feb. 2017)
  12. International Rescue Committee (IRC). (2016). The IRC launches Airbel Center, a center for innovation in the humanitarian sector. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jan. 2017].
  13. Shaer, M. (2016). Inside The IRC: How A Visionary Aid Organization Is Using Technology To Help Refugees. [online] Fast Company. Available at: (Accessed: 8 Jan. 2017).
  14. Betts, A. (2016) Our refugee system is failing. Here’s how we can fix it. Available at: (Accessed: 16 Jan. 2017)

Liliana is a MA Innovation Management student at Central Saint Martins currently working on her dissertation exploring Humanitarian Innovation Systems. Please feel free to find out more about Liliana here!