Housing the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: Learning from the Experiences of Self-Help Emergency Shelters Cases

Baichi Chaki1* and Avi Friedman1

1*Holds an M.Arch degree (Post-Professional) from McGill University, School of Architecture in Montreal, Canada.

1Professor and Director of the Affordable Homes Research Group at McGill University, School of Architecture in Montreal, Canada.

*Corresponding author: Baichi Chaki, Holds an M.Arch degree (Post-Professional) from McGill University, School of Architecture in Montreal, Canada, E-mail: baichi.chaki@mail.mcgill.ca

Citation: Baichi C. Housing the Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh: Learning from the Experiences of Self-Help Emergency Shelters Cases. J Arch Des Cons Tech. (2021);2(1):1-10.

Received Date: : December 05, 2020; Accepted Date: January 06, 2021; Published Date: January 07, 2021


Following several decades of discrimination and violence in Rakhine, Myanmar, 909,000 Rohingyas were forced to flee to different countries; mostly to Bangladesh, which currently houses the largest number of refugees in the world. To accommodate these refugees, aided self-help housing strategies have been implemented with materials and guidance from the government and humanitarian organizations. Consequently, the displaced people used the shelter kit to build houses on their own in which they are likely to live for several years until a permanent solution can be found. Thus, the shelter organizations in Bangladesh had utilized self-help housing strategies to build 43,000 households for Rohingyas in about four months. This paper discusses the potentials of self-help housing as a cost-effective and durable solution for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Key design and planning aspects to rebuild local culture, respect the environment and stimulate the economy of damaged communities, as well as making the shelters long-lasting and better performing are identified. The findings, following a comprehensive literature review and first-hand accounts, suggests that using quality prefabricated structures can ease the self-help process, reduce construction time while producing long-lasting accommodations.

1. Introduction

Every year millions of people are forced to leave their homes due to conflicts between nations, internal clashes and natural calamities. According to the forced displacement report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2018, 25 people were forced to flee in every minute [1]. However, in 2018, among 25.9 million forcibly displaced people, only 2.9 million returned to their previous home. In 2016, the Rohingyas faced severe attacks which led them to flee to nearby countries. It was reported in world media that, their villages were burnt, people were killed, and women were raped indiscriminately by Myanmar Military [2]. The Rohingya refugees had come across the border of Bangladesh from Myanmar in 2016 to save their lives and the number kept growing till September 2019 [3]. As safe returns for the refugees are not predictable shortly, it is required to improve the shelter condition of the camps considering their long-term stay.

A self-help building process by low-income people following an emergency crisis appears to be very common in developing countries. It was used in various emergency conditions as an immediate, fast and inexpensive solution throughout the world. However, there are very little researches on self-help housing solutions for refugees that address the process, cost, construction time and longevity of the shelters. This paper is focused on self-help strategies for accommodating Rohingya refugees in shelters that can be built rapidly and be durable for semi-permanent use. To address the research aims, this paper discusses the background of self-help strategies, analyzes the successful cases that used self-help strategies to provide shelters during the emergency needs for housing refugees and suggests a framework for making design decisions for self-help housing.

2. Existing Living Conditions of the Refugee Camps in Cox’s Bazar

The number of Rohingya refugee families living in Bangladesh has increased to 211,044 as of 15 September 2019 [4]. Most of the refugees live in UkhiaUpazila, which comprises 81% of their total households and 80% of individuals. The second largest group exists in Teknaf, which comprises 19% of households [5]. Among the total number of refugees, only 34,665 individuals and 6,318 families are registered refugees, which constitutes only 4% of the total number. Kutupalong RC comprises 14,277 registered refugees from 2,617 families and 19,895 registered refugees from 3,704 families from Nayapara RC. Figure 1 shows the refugee population density in different registered and unregistered camps [6].

Figure 1: Rohingya refugee population density in Cox’s Bazar, Source: [6]

Figure 2: Drone image showing the area covering the Rohingya Camp in Cox’s Bazar, Source: [7]

The hilly site of Cox’s Bazar (Figure 2) is very prone to flooding and landslides during the monsoon season. When the refugees arrived in 2017, the site planning teams from leading agencies started drawing masterplan. But they faced extremely unregulated camps where the refugees led decision-making on where to live, where to pave new footpaths and bridges, and how to build a shelter for their families. The vulnerable site was worsened as there was a need to quickly settle the refugees. This resulted in impoverishing the hills, removing natural drainage and infiltration capacities, and increasing the likelihood of severe flooding. With the annual monsoon season, this becomes especially important. The complexity of the context emphasizes the value of site planning for the refugees’ long-term protection. It highlights the need to enhance the position of site planners and lift their voices within the planning process. Their early decisions would improve the communication system within the site and the lives of people impacted by forced displacement [5].

Figure 3: Shelters for Rohingyas in Kutupalong camp, Source: [8]

Due to the heavy influx of people that came in 2017-18, the structure of the houses was not durable (Figure 3) and the quality of the environment inside the houses was very poor. The density of less than 10m2 per person created conditions comparable to the worst urban slums in Dhaka, and because of inadequate access to life-saving facilities in many areas, alerts from the health sector were becoming increasingly vociferous [5]. As of November 2019, some of the most commonly reported safety concerns by male and female key informants were unstable structure, shelter deterioration and no adequate lighting in the houses (Table 1).

Table 1: Shelter concerns by the percentage of assessed locations and gender of KI, Source: [9]


Male KI

Female KI

1st Shelter Safety Concern

2nd Shelter Safety Concern

3rd Shelter Safety Concern

1st Shelter Safety Concern

2nd Shelter Safety Concern

3rd Shelter Safety Concern

Unstable Structure







Shelter Deterioration







Adequate Lighting







3. Self-Help Refugee Housing as a Mid-Term Solution

Despite ranging from informal community housing projects to social enterprises, self-help housing strategies can be used as a holistic approach for housing and employment provision for the refugees by incorporating their labour and skills without having any professional training [10]. After providing immediate shelter for the refugees, they are transferred to transitional houses with an expectation of staying there for the long term. These houses provide amenities and facilities as a mid-term housing solution until the refugees return to their origin country or resettle. Housing by self-help is popular for providing mid-term housing solutions in the host country. Self-help schemes have been used for refugee housing since the 1920s. In 1922-23, Greece began receiving thousands of refugees following its defeat by Turkey in Asia Minor. A Refugee Settlement Commission, formed by the Greek Government under the guidance of the League of Nations, implemented several policies to address the housing crisis [11]. One of the policies included offering individual family sites and basic public infrastructure, as well as land and mortgage loans to self-help cooperatives, which was aided self-help strategies [12,13]. Such a pragmatic approach was directed at refugees; at a time when tens of thousands of Greek families were constructing their own homes. Although national and local governments gave more of a hesitant approval, the approach of self-help proved to be a successful strategy for refugee housing on an immediate basis [13].

Another organization, the Tamil Community Housing Association was founded in response to the mass refugee movement that was followed immediately after the refugee crisis in Sri Lanka during the early 1980s [10]. Eventually, the association focused on the settled families for developing their houses permanently and expanding their goal to make the refugee community as an asset. Although the Tamil Community Housing Group has shifted their focus from refugee settlement, still they are providing housing in the empty land using self-help housing strategies [10]. The UNHCR works for refugees since the year 1950s. During the crisis, they provide adequate shelters to the refugees [14]. They incorporate self-help strategies and involve the refugees in the building process by providing the building materials, tools and guidelines. Generally, they distribute the emergency shelter kits from three of their centres in Dubai, Copenhagen and Durban [15]. In the primary phase, they provide shelter kits with tents, plastic sheeting and matting so that the refugees can build very quickly, easily and thereby they do not need to spend a night under the sky. In longer-term circumstances, they fund the renovation of community shelters or the production of new homes and provide refugees with the resources they need to build their own homes under self-help schemes [15]. Besides, they also monitor the distribution and construction of the houses and manage water supply from surface water, rainwater, groundwater, natural reservoirs or municipal or private systems if allowed [16]. Additionally, for human excreta disposal, they arrange different systems according to their need. A well laid-out camp protects the environment and helps to prevent fires and disease outbreaks. Although they arrange to the house for emergency needs, many of the outbreaks of the disease appeared when the refugees start living in the host countries for several years. Therefore, there is a serious need to design and build the camp not only for an immediate response but also as a preventive measure for the future to ensure in case of their long-term stay their home can be a safe place. As self-help has been proved as an effective scheme for sheltering refugees, a well-designed house self-built by the people can hinder the other problems of emergency housing too.

4. Strategies

A thorough case-study analysis was conducted to find out the approaches and strategies for the design of an effective self-help refugee shelter. The cases analyzed were located in different countries around the world that faced severe refugee crises due to conflict, war and natural disasters. After studying the refugee shelter projects, the following strategies are suggested for quality self-help Rohingya refugee housing.

4.1 Selecting Structure Type and Materials

After a crisis, it is very significant to build the structure within a very short period on an immediate basis, at the same time making it usable for the long term. Considering these criteria, a prefabricated shelter structure can be a very good option for refugee shelters. Furthermore, it makes the self-help construction process easier. For the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh, when the shelter kits are needed to be transported by UNHCR or other humanitarian organizations, prefabricated shelter kits could be a viable option because of its easy transportability and convenient assembly process within less time.

In many cases for sheltering the refugees, prefabricated shelter prototypes have been used. After a tropical cyclone Evan in the Case of Fiji, around 254 households-built houses by self-help. The shelters constructed by the floating people were prefabricated shelter type that can withstand the wind load of category four cyclone (175 km/hour winds). The structure is made of Pinewood posts on the rammed-earth base with a treated pine pole foundation that was raised 300 mm from the ground (Figure 4). This project is probably among one of the few prefabricated shelter types throughout the world with such a high degree of structural integrity [17].

For accommodating refugees in Iraq case in the year 2014, self-help housing strategies proved to be a successful method (Figure 5, 6). Around 1,252 internally displaced families assembled prefabricated shelter units for themselves [19]. For the structural framework, hollow steel tube columns; for the roof frame, rectangular hollow tubes, steel plates and steel angles were used. After providing the prefabricated units, the beneficiaries and the members of the host community were actively engaged in the initiative as construction labourers. This also led to strengthening their livelihoods and increasing greater community recognition and awareness. Although the initial cost of setting up the prefabricated shelters on sites was higher than that of supplying other emergency shelter options, this strategy reduced the construction time and eased the assembly process for self-help. Table 2 demonstrates the list of materials for prefabricated refugee shelters Iraq. Moreover, these structures also ensure permanence where the refugees could stay for a longer period, which in turn reduce the cost as well [19].

Figure 4: Plan of prefabricated self-help shelter (Unit mm) for the floating people after the cyclone Evan in Fiji, Source of Information: [18], (Drawn by author)

Figure 5: Plan of shelter for IDPs in Iraq case, Source: [19]

Figure 6: Shelter for the IDPs after completion in Iraq case, Source: [19]

Table 2: List of materials in the prefabricated shelter kit for the refugees in Iraq, Source: [19]

Main Framework

Base Frame (10cmX10cmX3mm), Hollow steel tube columns, Roof frame, Rectangular hollow tubes, Steel plate, Steel angle


Plywood sheet, fibre glass sheet for toilet floor

External Cladding

PU insulated sandwich panel upper layer

Internal Cladding

PU insulated sandwich panel upper layer


PU insulated sandwich panel upper layer, Canopy top: Galvanized steel sheet

Kitchen and Bathroom

Water outlet, Shower base and mixer, Hand wash basin and mixer, Mirror and Stainless-steel kitchen sink,

Door (3 pcs) and Window (3 pcs)

Frame, Wing, Handle and lock for doors

Electrical installation

Distribution board, cables, wires, lighting and water heaters

4.2 Modularity and Flexibility of Shelter Sizes

For the long-term stay for the Rohingyas in Bangladesh, the adaptability of the shelters is a very important issue. Hence, modular shelter design can be used as it allows future adaptability and minimizes material waste. Modular building design denotes, using a modular grid pattern while space planning and incorporating all the functions in the plan following the grid. Also, for the prefabricated shelter construction, it is highly recommended to follow modularity in the shelter design. Figure 7 shows how a modular grid pattern can be utilized to design the interior spaces of the shelters.

Figure 7: Modular shelter design for refugees, Source: Drawn by author

For sheltering internally displaced people in Myanmar Case, self-help strategies have been implemented by the Rakhine State Government (RSG). The shelter was designed in the form of collective shelters, each of which housed eight families (8-unit buildings) with associated IDP camp infrastructure. The size of the 8-unit building was: 45 ft x 30 ft (13.7m x 9.1m), having an area of 124.7 m2. The size of each room was 11.25 ft x 15 ft (3.4m x 4.6m) consisting of an area of 15.6m2. The shelters were designed in a modular pattern considering future expansion (Figure 8). Also, the modular units allow prefabrication of the structures that minimizes construction waste and helps to promote self-help construction [17].

Figure 8: Modular pattern in space planning of shelters for displaced people in Myanmar., Source of Information: [20], (Drawn by Author)

In the interior space design, the modular grid can also be followed. A use of modularity can be found in the case of self-help shelters for refugees in Iraq in 2004. Each shelter for the refugees had three rooms- a bedroom, a living room with an attached kitchen and a toilet. The area of each shelter was 22.5m2 and shelter density was 3.75 m2 per person, where the average household size is 6 persons. But the room sizes were designed considering around 1.5m X 1.5m grid (International Organization for Migration (IOM), 2017).

In many cases of the self-help construction process, the shelter committees keep provision for further expansion, if the beneficiaries feel it necessary. Such an example can be given by the project of refugee shelters in Gaza Case. The shelter was designed in different sizes to match the various family groups. The shelters included a living or bedroom area, a bathroom, a kitchen and an open veranda that could be used by adding walls to extend the covered space. The shelter was specifically planned to be upgraded, expanded, and re-purposed after an estimated five-year life period. The L-shape architecture with the veranda (Figure 9) made it possible for households to create perimeter walls using timber posts and sheeting material, extend the living room and give people more privacy and freedom of movement. There was also scope for modification, such as electrical installation, the addition of room dividers, ceiling covering, landscaping around the shelter, and other decorative and functional enhancements [19].

Figure 9: Plan of shelter for the refugees in Gaza, Source: [19]

4.3 Choice of Material for Exterior and Interior

The major criteria for selecting materials for the structure and exterior envelope are durability, construction time, availability and cost of the material. Also, for self-help construction, the material should have the compatibility to be handled by the refugees themselves to avoid unwanted injuries. In many cases, after the conflict, the shelter kits are transported to the conflict area by the UNHCR or other agencies. Therefore, the materials that are easily transportable in the container should be used. Considering these criteria, wood or timber gives the ability to transport without any hassle at the same time ensuring durability and protection for a longer period. Additionally, the prefabrication of the exterior materials according to design ensures safety concerns and reduce construction time.

After a conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2014 in Palestine, 484 households who lost their homes due to war received shelters that were semi-permanent types. While selecting materials for their shelters, durability and construction time was considered as a major criterion. The shelters provided to them were made of wood structure and facade built on foundations and plywood floors. For the interior cladding the Gypsum board, and for the roof Corrugated Galvanized Iron (CGI) were used (Table 3). The average material cost per household was $4,600US and total project cost per household was $6,600US (average). The shelters were prefabricated in the workshops by the staff of the contractors and then transported to the site (Figure 10). The prefabrication of the materials minimized wastage and construction time. The beneficiaries showed their satisfaction with their dwellings after the final construction [19].

Figure 10: Shelters made by the communities in Gaza, Source: [19]

Table 3: Materials used for self-help shelters for the refugees in Gaza, Palestine, Source: [19]

Main Framework

White Wood


Plywood 17mm thickness

External Cladding

Wood (Tongue and groove)

Internal Cladding

Normal Gypsum Board


Corrugated Galvanized Iron (CGI)

Kitchen and Bathroom


Door and Window



Nails and screws


Sink, toilet bowl

In Peru Case, after a massive earthquake in 2007, self-help strategies have been implemented to build shelters for 1,900 families. An international shelter agency employed a contractor as part of a broader post-earthquake initiative to provide supplies, machines, and professional tradesmen for the prefabrication of the shelters. The design of the shelter was a single-storied, rectangular wood-framed structure. It had a shed roof and the wall cover was made of straight, tongue and groove wood panel (Figure 11). Every panel was about 1 cm thick, and about 10 cm long. The shelter had one door and a wide window (at the front) on one long wall. The roof was a shed style built of about 1 m long and about 1⁄2 cm thick lightweight, corrugated cement plates. The roof panels were long enough to cover the whole distance of the roof. For flooring pre-existing slabs of concrete were used. The idea behind the prefabricated shelter was all the materials in the shelter could be reused later. The transportation needs were minimized by the supply of essential raw materials (rough lumber, tongue-and-groove wall sheeting and corrugated iron, cement sheets and nails.) to the construction site. Warehousing was also limited, as non-value-added raw materials took less room than prefabricated materials. The cost of the components was minimized by employing people directly on-site to make them. Everything was prefabricated as required on-site according to measurement. The beneficiary families hammered together the prefabricated wall units, the doors and windows [21].

Figure 11: Prefabricated shelter built on the roof of a destroyed house in Peru, Source: [21]

4.4 Construction Guideline and Training

As self-help construction is done by a group of general people who are not construction workers or did not have any experience of on-site construction, the beneficiaries are needed to provide training on how to assemble their shelters safely and quickly. In many cases, the shelter organizations arrange training of the trainers (ToTs), where the instructors teach a group of beneficiaries, who in turn teach the other beneficiaries how to construct and assemble the structure. Besides training and workshops, the beneficiaries are also needed to provide guidebooks or infographics showing the construction processes and assembly of the prefabricated materials in the shelter kit. The diagrams make the process easier and better understandable for the refugees. Figure 12 shows a detailed diagram to ease the self-help construction process in Fiji case.

Figure 12: A construction diagram for self-help shelter for the displaced people in Fiji case, Source: [18]

In the refugee shelter project after the earthquake Evan in Fiji in 2012, the beneficiary family members became part of the construction team from beginning to end. Before the construction process started, beneficiaries were trained in construction techniques which improved their knowledge on safe building practices. They were also provided with a construction diagram describing the step-by-step processes of construction methods and the details of joints.

In the context of instability and prolonged displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to the Kasai conflict, around 200 shelters were built by the displaced people by self-help. To oversee the operation, shelter committees or “solidarity groups” were organized, each supervising 18–20 households (Figure 13). Every committee was consisted of five members (generally three women and two men) and was responsible for coordinating the purchase, distribution and storage of local building materials, managing construction and assisting vulnerable households where necessary. At the outset of the initiative, the organization held four shelter construction workshops to provide the solidarity groups and the local community (a total of 100 people including municipal councils and village leaders) with the expertise required to build shelters safely and assist new refugees in future construction. Besides, health, environment, and gender awareness workshops were also held in the targeted groups [18].

Figure 13: Solidarity Groups were formed and trained for construction in DR Congo case, Source: [18]

5. Discussion and Conclusion

The aided self-help strategies directly acknowledge the financial perspective of the humanitarian organizations and the host countries that are facing refugee problems. The shelter organization recognizes the benefits and advantages they are getting through this and trying to explore self-help strategies for future shelter prototypes. Essential design consideration for shelters in the Rohingya camp is that the self-help process should be quick and safe, and the shelter built by ‘sweat equity’ should give protection from the outdoor environment for several years. A self-built home can be built with a minimum cost, therefore, allowing the expense to be used in other sectors for the refugees; such as Non-Food Item (NFI), better quality building materials and camp community development work. Hence, nowadays, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Global Shelter Cluster (GSC), International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been implementing self-help shelter construction by the refugees.

All the case studies analyzed in this work provide design guidelines for quality self-help shelters that could be used to house the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. After elucidating several cases, it is recommended to design the shelters for prefabrication as it minimizes the construction waste and reduces construction time. The prefabricated walls are also easy to assemble rather than the traditional build from the scratch process. Based on the cost analysis in different projects, it is also evident that using local and traditional materials minimized the cost of materials and construction. For the context of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, bamboo could be a good solution as they are abundant in the hilly site. Moreover, if the shelter kits are transported by any international non-profit organization like UNHCR from abroad, prefabricated wood floors, timber-framed doors and windows are sustainable materials for the immediate constructions ensuring the permanence of the structure. The emergency shelters in the Rohingya camp should also incorporate flexible design strategies to maximize the potential for future adaptations as the needs of the refugees can change while living for many years. In this regard, the modularity in design can create the possibility of further expansion and change. Therefore, the modular master planning of Rohingya refugee camps can ensure sustainability, adaptability and thereby enhance the quality of life within the camp. A prototype could be built before the mass-production. Additionally, the organizations may consider developing some metrics to measure success after constructing the prototype shelters for the refugees. Moreover, training and providing construction guidelines to the Rohingyas are also necessary to be arranged. After the self-build work, the beneficiaries can involve in other paid construction works which in turn can inject money into the local economy. If the shelter is designed considering the self-help construction, it can erase many of the problems that may arise during the construction process and enhance the benefits of self-help.

Finally, despite having many advantages, it has some limitations as well. Some disadvantages of this scheme are increased construction time due to the inefficiency of the workers, reduced quality of the shelter produced by self-help, injuries and unsafe work. However, the designers and the decision-makers considering the advantages and disadvantages choose self-help schemes for housing the refugees.


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