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Exploring the lived experience of temporary accommodation for refugees in the Middle East and Europe

© Tom Scott-Smith
Remnants of the Calais Jungle, December 2016

Architectures of Displacement explored the lived experience of temporary accommodation for refugees in the Middle East and Europe. Led by Dr. Tom Scott-Smith at the Refugee Studies Centre, it bought together experts in forced displacement, archaeology, anthropology, and architecture to study refugee shelter across six countries. The project was a partnership with the Pitt Rivers Museum and has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK.


The project had four main aims. First, to produce an inventory that records and categorizes the diverse range of emergency accommodation in situations of forced migration. Second, to produce detailed portraits of emergency shelter through ethnographic writing, photographic essays and film. Third, to assess the social, cultural, political and legal implications of different emergency shelters. And fourth, to inform the design of successful policies on shelter and displacement through discussion with humanitarian and governmental agencies.


To achieve these aims, the project conducted multi-sited fieldwork throughout 2017 and early 2018 in order to capture the full range of emergency accommodation generated by the Syrian refugee crisis. Research took place in six countries: Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, Italy, Germany and France, with sites in these countries capturing the most creative and diverse range of accommodation types.

The project started from the view that the experience of forced displacement is profoundly shaped by where people find shelter, and that the analysis of material forms can offer unique insights in the study of migration and refugees. By developing an interdisciplinary approach to the physical dimension of the refugee experience, Architectures of Displacement aimed to provide new perspectives upon the processes of human adaptation to new circumstances through displacement.

Interdisciplinary engagement

The project drew together three disciplines with distinct but complementary approaches to the study of material forms: Anthropology, Architecture and Archaeology. Architecture offers ways of thinking and understanding the construction, materiality, effects, and affects of forms of shelter. Archaeology brings an awareness of time, duration, and loss to the study, enabling the project to explore the connections between abandonment and shelter, the repurposing of existing structures, and the ephemeral interventions in the natural environment. Anthropology offers a technique for studying how people react to displacement. It enabled the project to study everyday life in different forms of accommodation, exploring how beneficiary populations understand, alter, reimagine, and accept or resist the shelters they are provided with.


One of the most vital concerns for migrants when they first leave their homes is where to find a safe and stable space in which to rest, eat, socialize, and sleep. Tents and camps dominate media images of forced displacement, but forced migrants find shelter in many other ways, making use of abandoned buildings, staying on the floors of friends and relatives, finding rest in self-built shelters, sleeping in the natural environment, and being housed in specially created spaces, such as 'villages' made-up of stacked shipping containers, prefabricated shelters supported by the IKEA foundation, or government-run detention centres. Architectures of Displacement has facilitated a more nuanced and detailed understanding of refugee sheltering in all these forms, helping to understand the impact of shelter policies and their lives on refugees.

The team

Tom Scott-Smith Tom Scott-Smith


Mark Breeze Mark E Breeze (University of Cambridge)


Dan Hicks Dan Hicks (School of Archaeology & Pitt Rivers Museum)


Rachael Kiddey Rachael Kiddey (School of Archaeology & Pitt Rivers Museum)

Project aims

Architectures of Displacement had four cumulative aims:

  • Typology: To record and categorise the forms of emergency accommodation used in situations of forced migration
  • Portraits: To produce detailed case studies or 'portraits' of refugee shelter
  • Implications: To assess and analyse the social, cultural, political and legal implications of refugee shelters
  • Policy: To inform the design of successful policies on shelter and displacement by humanitarian agencies


  • Typology: An inventory of shelters
  • Portraits: A public exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum titled Lande: The Calais 'Jungle' and Beyond, a documentary film, and a range of written publications examining the lived experience of different shelters
  • Implications: A series of scholarly journal articles addressing the social, political and legal implications of different refugee shelters
  • Policy: Workshops, talks and policy briefings in association with humanitarian partners
  • Film: The results of this work are showcased in a feature-length documentary film, Shelter Without Shelter (
  • Book: Structures of Protection? Rethinking Refugee Shelter, edited by Tom Scott-Smith and Mark Breeze, was published in 2020

Fieldwork countries

  • Jordan
  • Lebanon
  • Greece
  • Italy
  • Germany
  • France

Selected publications