Concept diagram – Transforming the refugee camp model into an economic zone, or Refugee Economic Zone

Refugee Economic Zone: Proposal to Transform the Perimeter of Zaatari Refugee Camp into a Special Economic Belt for Sharing Economies and Resources

In late 2015, two Oxford professors published an article proposing to integrate Syrian refugee workers in special economic zones (SEZs). They proposed the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area (KHBTDA) as a pilot program for refugees living in the nearby Zaatari refugee camp. Their proposal gained political traction and was launched at the London Conference on Syria in 2016, resulting in a deal between Jordan and the EU that grants trade concessions in exchange for work opportunities for refugees.

Their proposal faces practical obstacles: rising unemployment rates amongst nationals, the difficulty of attracting foreign investors to a site near a war zone, low pay, and the rising success of black and informal markets amongst refugees. As such, Jordanian SEZ's remain largely inactive and refugee camps remain an untapped economic potential for the host country.

Many of KHBTDA’s projected industry sectors and products, particularly fruits & vegetables, meats & dairy products, soaps, and perfumeries, are arguably already being produced and sold within Zaatari, albeit at the scale of a small marketplace. Zaatari’s refugees work as farmers, butchers, etc., serving as an extension of their former identities in Syria and fostering a sense of belonging to their new context. This raises an important question: Rather than integrating Zaatari’s refugees into KHBTDA or continuing to build at the scale of a marketplace, why not transform Zaatari into an economic zone in itself? In doing so, we amplify the already-existing operations in the marketplace into large-scale operations that allow Syrian refugees to continue exercising their occupations while becoming important contributors to the EU-Jordan deal.

Our proposed area of intervention is the unoccupied land around the camp’s inner perimeter that will be turned into a special economic belt of production and trade facilities that will enable the sharing and exchanging of resources and economies. To address the issue of building permanent structures on site, we propose to build production facilities using UNHCR’s T-Shelter caravan, a flexible prototype that addresses the issue of cost and permanence, while also providing refugees with opportunities to generate income by assembling the facilities and subsequently by producing & exporting.

To address security issues, we used the existing camp entrance security as a model of a controlled frontage: we propose to treat the frontage of the T-Shelter caravans as a controlled façade that allows for sharing and exchanging certain products and product sizes, while preventing consumers from entering the facilities. We studied the various ways the T-Shelter’s façade can be altered within the structural framework to introduce openings of various sizes, locations, and rotation mechanisms for the controlled exchange of products. The refugees will be single-handedly involved in deciding how to build and alter their production facilities to fit their program specificities. They will also determine the façade treatment for their facilities by deciding the size, location, and rotation of openings to receive and exchange various product sizes. We retrofitted 7 programs into the T-Shelter prototype, outlining the material and facade treatments, minimum spatial requirements, and other program specificities, including: greywater and storm water hydroponic greenhouse caravans, fresh produce market caravans, slaughterhouse/septic tank caravans, fabric production caravans, Aleppo soap factory caravans, and Fab Lab caravans.

The proposal was supported by the Howard Crosby Butler Travel Fellowship at Princeton University. It received Honorable Mention in the 2017 International Development in Action (IDeA) Competition amongst 700 participants. The proposal was recently exhibited at the 2017 Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism. 




Diagram – Existing UNHCR T-Shelter and Scalability


Diagram – UNHCR T-Shelter Façade Flexibility


All Programs retrofitted to T-Shelter Caravans


Greenhouse T-Shelter – Detailed section


Collage of proposed intervention on the camp’s perimeter

  • 3 Comments   –  Login to comment

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  • markferrell

    markferrell ·  Jan 23, 19 8:21 pm

    Really cool idea.  What are your ideas for getting the money to back the project?

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