The Refugee Crisis
as a Design Problem

We are facing a humanitarian crisis. There are 60 million displaced persons in the world (source), and every ten minutes a stateless child is born (source). Millions of people that have no access to water, food, housing, work, education, and are caught in legal limbo. This refugee crisis has inspired many designers to do projects about refugees, the most recent of which is the What design can do (WDCD) Refugee Challenge. Designers that address such complex issues as the refugee crisis have to be aware of their responsibilities, since approaching the refugee crisis as a design problem without the proper context can be problematic, even harmful. I want to examine the role of designers in the refugee crisis using the WDCD Refugee Challenge as an example.

“The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”- Teju Cole

Launched on February 19, the Netherlands-based WDCD Refugee Challenge invites designers, creative thinkers and problem solvers to come up with ‘bold ideas’ to help refugees. Proposals should be submitted before May 1, 2016, with a one minute movie to pitch the idea. The five finalists will be announced at the WDCD conference in Amsterdam on July 1, 2016, and all five receive a 10,000 euro reward to realise their ideas (source).

The WDCD Refugee Challenge should be praised for taking the initiative to create a platform for designers that address the refugee crisis. The involvement of the UNHCR as a partner shows the WDCD’s ambition that its outcomes could structurally improve the situation of refugees. However, the way the WDCD Refugee Challenge is communicated leaves a lot to be desired. This is important because it already sets the scene for the kind of solutions that will be submitted. I want to lay bare some of the blind spots in the design question that WDCD Refugee Challenge has proposed, and examine how designers could assume their responsibilities in addressing such a crisis.


Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant compared the WDCD Refugee Challenge to Dragons’ Den, a reality television show from the BBC where contestants pitch their ideas to investors. During the WDCD Refugee Challenge five finalist will be chosen, all of whom will receive a 10,000 euro reward. They will go into an ‘accelerator’ in which they create a working prototype and a business plan. After a project pitch one of the five designs will be announced as the winner by the end of 2016.

The WDCD Refugee Challenge says the refugee crisis is: ‘A global challenge too big for governments and NGO’s alone’. Design as the ultimate problem-solving discipline coincides with the narrative of the neoliberal European policies. In recent decades, governments have cut spending on welfare, education, and foreign aid, advocating that free market—including design— can provide a better alternative. The ruling VVD party is implementing neoliberal policies in the Netherlands, and has recently proposed to close the Dutch borders for refugees completely.

First of all, it is absurd to suggest that design can come up with solutions for a crisis that is political and socio-economic at heart. European countries have been intervening in Middle East politics way before the Englishman Sykes and the Frenchmen Picot carved out most of the regions’ borders in 1916. More recently, the Dutch military was part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the war in Afghanistan between 2006-2010. At this moment, Dutch F-16’s are bombing Syria and Iraq (source).

Another contributing factor to the refugee crisis is the situation of poverty and joblessness in the Global South. Income inequality has only grown with IMF policies, trade barriers, and EU subsidies, which have blocked the Global South from equal access to the world economy. As long as these economic barriers are in place, we will see more and more people from the Global South seeking a better life in Europe. By ignoring the history of the refugee crisis and the political reality of diplomacy and military interventions in the Middle East in the briefing, the WDCD Refugee Challenge keeps the root of the problem out of sight. Designers can not successfully intervene in the refugee crisis if the political and military interventions are not taken into account.

This should be part of the briefing and the debate surrounding the WDCD Refugee Challenge so that designers understand their agency or lack thereof.

Second, by emphasising the problem-solving capabilities of design, the WDCD Refugee Challenge supports the narrative that the free market is much better at solving the world’s crisis than governments are. Design may be able to come up with clever products or enlightening ideas, but only governments and NGOs can provide refugees with the resources, infrastructure, and laws that are needed in the long run. The WDCD Refugee Challenges’ good intentions could backfire if designs are used as an incentive for governments to cut their spending on supporting refugees altogether. Therefore the WDCD Refugee Challenge should inform designers about the responsibilities of governments and NGOs, and find out how and if designers can effectively intervene.

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