Partner: UNHCR

UNHCR and Better Shelter


“This shelter feels more like a house than the tent we lived in the first night. It is much bigger. But I hope that we can move into a real house soon again” Bilar, 11 years old, from Syria.

UNHCR data reveal that 640 000 refugees and migrants have fled to Europe during the first 10 months of 2015. Allegedly 500-2000 refugees arrive from Turkey to Lesvos every day, however larger numbers have been recorded during certain periods. Many have travelled from Turkey, in unsafe and over-crowded inflatable boats, and arrive on the north coast of the island. From here, they either walk or travel by bus to the camps located on the south side of the island. A family that the Better Shelter team spoke to had arrived the night before by boat, which they had shared with approximately 50 other persons.

As a result of the increasing number of persons arriving in Greece, UNHCR ordered 520 Better Shelter units for its opera- tions in the country during late August – early September 2015.

Karatepe is a transit camp situated just outside the town of Mytilini and is within UNHCR’s mandate. At the time of the Better Shelter team’s presence on site, the camp hosted an alleged 1000 to 2000 refu- gees; a majority of them from Syria. Refugees from other countries were referred to Moria camp, oper- ated by the Greek police authorities. The persons in Karatepe camp whom the Better Shelter team spoke to, stayed for a couple of nights while waiting to get hold of a ticket for the ferry to Athens, which at the time was fully booked several days in advance.

Modifying shelters to serve different purposes

Better Shelter supported UNHCR during training and supervision of shelter assembly in Karatepe camp from 15th to 21st September 2015. Together with UNHCR’s camp manager and a local team of construction workers, the training program progressed swiftly with seamless teamwork between all parties. Following the training program, the assembly of shelters continued in September and during the first half of October.

Temporary housing: The shelters that were to function as temporary homes were assembled in an olive tree grove in a designated area of the Karatepe camp. On the other side of the gravel road running through the camp, refugees were living in family tents.

Administration center: A number of Better Shelters functioned as registration centers, in which UNHCR utilized the shel- ters’ modular design. The shelters were placed in a row, of which a few had sections of the wall open on one of the long sides. Desks were placed in these open sections, behind which UNHCR registration staff could meet and register newly arrived refugees and simultaneously manage the administrative work indoors.

Health care clinic: Camp residents could seek medical aid and be examined inside the Médecins du Monde (MdM) primary health care clinic, hosted inside a Better Shelter unit.


By mid October 2015, over 200 shelters had been raised in Karatepe and Moria camps.

The Better Shelter proved to be a suitable structure for the purpose to house families for a couple of nights each and provide them with a few moments of privacy and calm. Certain tents used in other parts of the camp had already begun to collapse.

Many of the persons whom we met with in Mytilini had embarked on a dangerous and stressful journey to escape war, and needed to rest during transit. The steady structure and the fact that there is a door that one can close behind oneself is an important reason why the Better Shelter provides a sense of safety and a higher level of privacy than a tent. Travelling to Greece in an overcrowded boat means one can bring only a very limited amount of baggage. Many families reused the Better Shelter cardboard packaging to sit or sleep on, both inside and outside of the shelters, as there was limited supply of bedding and matrasses in the camp.

The size and the modularity of the shelter allow it to answer to needs among humanitarian organizations that provide medical services; host a reception, an examination area as well as storage of medical equipment.

Better Shelter received several enquiries from other organizations active in the area, interested to utilize shelters for their purposes.


“Being able to support the UNHCR during the training and supervision of shelter assembly in Mytilini is important, and the experience has been impressive. We have witnessed refugee families move into shelters constructed earlier the same day for some well-deserved rest. This mission has once again confirmed the shelter’s appropriateness in emergency relief operations”, John Tzanos, Head of Service at Better Shelter.

“We’d like to see that refugees are given access to permanent homes as soon as possible after arriving in Eu rope. But as the current situation leads to many having to stay in transit camps during several halts of their distressful journey, we are pleased to be able to provide families with a moment of calm and safety inside a Better Shelter”, Johan Karlsson, Head of Business Development at Better Shelter.

Where we work

Project Information

LocationGreece: Mytilini (Lesvos)

ImplementationSep 2015 – Mar 2016

Date of technical supervision15th – 21st September 2015

Number of units220 (1520 in total to Greece)

PurposeTemporary housing / Primary health care clinic (MdM) / Registration center