Transitional shelters continue to be used as a short-term solution to resolve a long-term problem. The government and non-state actors of Sri Lanka are facing a challenging situation regarding the resettlement of persons in the North and East of the country.
Transitional housing has led to permanent settlement in a temporary structure, where it has been built without the consideration of needs and desires of the occupants, and has overlooked additional alternatives because of the low cost of the structures. Filephoto shows IDPs in a trasitional camp
The decision by some major organizations to pursue a transitional housing phase has brought much controversy and concern within local development circles. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are the foremost institutions championing a transitional shelter approach as a housing solution for displaced persons.
Transitional homes according to the UNHCR are meant to support a family for one to two years, and provide a medium between refugee camps and permanent resettlement. Using the word ‘transitional’ to describe settlement and shelter emphasizes that, in a post-conflict context, it is a process of transition from temporary to permanent. In previous situations, transitional housing has led to permanent settlement in a temporary structure, where it has been built without the consideration of needs and desires of the occupants, and has overlooked additional alternatives because of the low cost of the structures.
Sri Lanka faced similar challenges regarding shelter following the 2004 tsunami. Transitional settlements and shelters were established without consideration of the connection to permanent housing and communities, eventually causing people to abandon their transitional shelter or remain in it permanently. Transitional homes provide a method that avoids the inevitable consequence of finding permanent homes for the population currently residing in emergency camps. Upon their creation, the emergency camps were originally slated to house people for three to six months following the conflict, which ended over one year ago. It is estimated that as many as 21000 families still seek relocation from the refugee camps.
The transitional shelter is meant to be temporary, lasting for one to two years according to the UNHCR and IOM. In other situations however occupants have ended up settling in them permanently, as was witnessed in Bosnia and East Timor following the conflicts there. It is acknowledged that due to logistics, legality of land ownership, and scarcity of resources, the creation of permanent structures may not be realistic.
Pursuing transitional shelter at the current point in time provides displaced persons an opportunity to leave the camps. However, the needs and desires of the people must be considered during this transition. According to a UNHCR representative, the UN and other organizations support low-cost transitional homes because it is ‘sellable’ to donors at the New York and Geneva level. Sri Lanka currently is experiencing donor fatigue causing international organizations to support low-cost alternatives focused on serving their own purposes rather than seeking existing local, sustainable solutions to meet the needs of the displaced population. Seeking long-term solutions is a more viable approach to meet the shelter needs of the people. Transitional shelter quite simply begs the question, ‘what are we transitioning to?’
UNHCR figures use a cost ratio of one to ten for transitional shelter versus permanent homes. Some view this number as a manipulated figure from one perspective. Other low-cost alternatives exist that UNHCR and IOM have dismissed. The transitional homes being built are based purely on cost and are not tailored to the needs of the people. An alternative approach would allow the potential beneficiaries to be involved in the process of home building, which could better suit their needs and increase their feeling of ownership. Other solutions are available to meet the needs of the people. It seems this is a case where a large international organization is attempting to establish a precedent based on their limitations, even though evidence shows that an alternative would provide more benefit to the people. Transitional shelter should not simply be considered a part of non-food item distribution, but rather as something to support the livelihood, health, and security needs of the population.
The successes of involving beneficiaries in the rebuilding process was realized in Sri Lanka and Acah, Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami and provides a replicable model for the current transition from the emergency camps. The strategy recognized the benefits of active participation in reconstructing homes and communities, as it contributed to suiting the family’s needs, while providing a psychological boost to post-disaster recovery.
In these cases future homeowners were both consulted on their desires for what they needed and were offered an opportunity to be involved in the planning and construction of the home. Additionally, the climactic conditions and location were factored into the planning. Current designs considering the natural environment and utilizing local materials are available as alternate models for housing. The Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies in collaboration with a local architect has created drafts that would offer low cost housing alternatives.
The Lanka Financial Services for Underserved Settlements (LFSUS) also has demonstrated success in providing inexpensive housing options for low-income families in Sri Lanka. Each of these options illustrate that alternative solutions to the housing issue exist. After witnessing the situation and shelters that have been scrapped together first hand in the Mannar District, it would seriously benefit the displaced persons, who are the people who truly matter most in this situation, if the UNHCR and IOM would reconsider the other available options.
(Mr. Schoop is a Masters Candidate in the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana USA, who has been working in Sri Lanka).