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  • Writer's pictureFirst Access

Refugee Camps Are Turning Into Permanent Cities–Can They Be Smart Cities?

Camps were meant to be temporary settlements, but they’re becoming permanent–so we need to find a way to digitize them and bring them up to speed with cities in the developing world.

When a refugee family arrives at the Kakuma camp in Kenya—established in 1992 and now populated by more than 164,000 people—they’re given a slip of paper that serves as identification. If they have children, they’re given a paper voucher to trade for their attendance at the camp school. Meals, pre-rationed by aid organizations, are obtained via punches in another paper card. Cash, withdrawn from a limited selection of banks near the camp, fills in other gaps. Kakuma operates, needless to say, as paper-based economy, shakily supported by a disconnected payments system of vouchers and cash.

That’s in large part due to the fact that when the camp was established, to house people fleeing the war in Sudan and the collapse of the Ethiopian government, it was never meant to endure as long as it has. Nor were people meant to stay there as long as they do. Refugee camps are established as temporary settlements, but amid the global failure to develop a comprehensive, effective solution and consensus around how to house and welcome people displaced by crisis and strife in their home countries, they have become permanent. Those refugeesthat make it to a camp like Kakuma remain there for an average of 18 to 20 years. “It’s a lifetime,” says Maureen Sigliano, the vice president of global loyalty development for Western Union. “If you’re a little kid fleeing Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan with your parents, by the time you’re granted asylum, you’re in your mid-twenties. And your view of life is going to be completely different.”



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