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How the State of Human Rights Can Be Read Through Buildings Surrounding You

Human rights should have universal validity and recognition. A closer look at the connections between our built environment and human rights unfortunately does not always reveal a generally applicable standard of human rights. This becomes particularly clear when we look at the conditions of refugee camps (within Europe).

Detention Policy

The Italian island of Lampedusa has long been a hot spot for the arrival, registration and accommodation of refugees who leave North Africa at high risk to enter European ground. With a permanent population of around 5,000 people and the same amount of holiday makers during summertime, Lampedusa was additionally taking in nearly twice as many refugees every year at the height of the refugee movement in 2015 (Tondo, 2022). Instead of being distributed among the other EU member states or on the Italian mainland, the people were detained on the island for months and years, in inhumane conditions, without being able to claim their rights as refugees or to move freely. The then rapidly overcrowded refugee camps and overwhelmed reception centers could not offer people access to their basic rights and became a symbol of the European Union’s failed refugee policy.

Architecture as a Human Right

When you think of the simplest image of a building you can think of, you might think of your home, where you live with family, friends, your dog or simply alone. This home provides protection from bad weather, protection from any outside world you want to escape, but also space for your personal development, retreat, and a place where you can rest without having to fear that someone might disturb you. A home contributes to the provision of rights which are stated in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) more accurately as “the right to life, liberty and security of person”. Vice versa it indicates that your home is a fundamental right to you, subject to privacy and security (Article 12). There are many other criteria that make up a home from a human rights perspective, including being able to enter and leave your home freely at any time, making sure no one uninvited can enter or even decide on the home yourself to begin with.

In contrast, the refugee camp on Lampedusa is severely lacking in many of these characteristics. The people in the camp have no other option to find accommodation elsewhere and they have no chance to move freely to visit other areas of the community. They are excluded from public life and kept together in a confined space where they can find no retreat or privacy. This means, how the place where you live is designed and what opportunities you have as a person to participate in society is an example of how facilities and infrastructure reflect human rights.

Control of Movement

Very essential and rather tangible for all refugees coming to Europe is their “right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state [and their] right to leave any country, including [their] own, and to return to [their] country” (Article 13). The basis here is the entire built infrastructure that surrounds and connects us – streets and paths, railway stations, airports, bridges, border fences and crossings – and how these are defined. They ensure your mobility within a country and your right to move to another one. Only, the possibility to use this infrastructure varies according to your passport and origin. It can even have an entirely different effect, namely the prevention of freedom of movement. The “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”, stated in Article 14, should also be mentioned here. Today it seems more and more as if this were a right to exclusively well-educated and wealthy elites fleeing political persecution in autocracies. Unfortunately, on Lampedusa, the realization of the right to asylum is expressed by overcrowded and poorly equipped reception centers.

School Suspension

There are many other fundamental rights that concern refugees and their built environment made of infrastructure and facilities. Have you ever considered your “right to education” (Article 26), your “right to marry and to found a family” (Article 16), your “right to social security” (Article 22) or your “right to work” (Article 23)? To make use of your right to education, a school or at least a classroom is necessary, in order to marry, a corresponding office is required, and depending on the religious affiliation, other institutions are required. To found a family and to ensure social security, specific health facilities are needed, so do offices or factories provide work. None of these “built” facilities are available in a refugee camp on the Mediterranean or at least only in very limited accessibility, and i.e., that these conditions violate human rights.


What does it say about the condition of human rights, when e.g. education can only be provided through very poorly equipped facilities? It shows how important it is to implement written agreements in a structural and infrastructural way and that we need awareness of the disadvantages that certain people experience when their rights are denied. It certainly shows also the refusal of many countries to provide support, fight real causes or to admit mistakes. A popular politician in Germany once said, on the height of the refugee movement in 2015, “Wir schaffen das” – and this is the attitude we still need today.

Further reading

Tondo, Lorenzo. “Italy’s far right turns Lampedusa’s refugee crisis to its advantage.” The Guardian, 7 Aug 2022.

United Nations General Assembly. “Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).” General Assembly resolution 217 A, 1948.

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