Tom Scott-Smith, Associate Professor of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration, Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

Emergency shelter and the return of the refugee camp: reflections on a new European infrastructure

The experience of forced displacement is profoundly shaped by where people find shelter. The most urgent concern for migrants is how to find safe and stable spaces in which to live, rest and sleep, both during their journey and when they arrive at their destination. Tents and camps dominate media images of forced displacement, but forced migrants find shelter in many other ways. They may make use of abandoned buildings, stay on the floors of friends and relatives, find rest in self-built shelters, or sleep under trees in the natural environment. Some may find themselves placed in reception centres and immigration detention facilities against their will; others may be housed in specially created spaces, such as ‘villages’ made from shipping containers or IKEA-designed prefabricated shelters. The recent ‘refugee crisis’ has led to a proliferation of emergency shelter in these multiple forms, as well as their collection together in camp-like environments. This seminar asks how this phenomenon might be studied and conceived, suggesting two theoretical tools for making sense of the world of emergency shelter: ‘low modernism’, which applies to the design of many new shelters, and ‘sticky infrastructures’, which describes how these forms are connected.

Tom Scott-Smith is Associate Professor of Refugee Studies and Forced Migration at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford, and Fellow of St. Cross College. He specializes in the ethnographic and historical study of humanitarian relief and its impact on the lives of refugees. He is currently finishing a monograph on the history of humanitarian nutrition, entitled On an Empty Stomach: the Humanitarian Approach to Hunger, and is beginning a new project on emergency shelter. Before coming to academia, Tom worked as a development practitioner in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

All seminars in the series.