The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 23, 2016

How can we better serve urban refugees?

September 23, 2016

The world is in the midst of a historic refugee crisis. In 2015, over 65 million people were forcibly displaced—19.5 million of them international refugees living outside their home countries.

While the United States hopes to welcome up to 110,000 refugees next year, the scale of the crisis demands a larger and more creative response. Formal humanitarian approaches have focused on refugee camps and direct humanitarian aid, but cities and urban areas play a central role in hosting and protecting displaced persons.

Today, only one-third of the world's refugees live in camps. Of the approximately 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, nearly 90 percent live in urban environments. Given the nature of the current crisis, what can humanitarian organizations do differently to address refugee concerns in urban areas? And what unique opportunities might arise by focusing on cities in addition to camps?

In our recently completed work for the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, we studied gaps in the humanitarian community’s ability to respond to refugees in urban environments. We focused on the global south, where refugees live alongside highly vulnerable local populations, many of which include domestic migrants.

We found that instead of focusing on specific refugee needs, humanitarian groups have instead focused on broad legal protections. Going forward, we suggest that rather than demanding direct assistance to refugees via legal recognition and protection, humanitarians should shift from person to place and create or take advantage of incentives for increased access to urban resources, like adequate housing and health care for all vulnerable populations. By focusing on place-based concerns, such as access to housing, access to health care, and livelihoods, humanitarian actors can avoid three key pitfalls that are particular to urban environments:

  • First, every city has communities with limited access to housing, health care, and jobs, and often these inequalities long predate the presence of refugees. Special treatment for refugees can foster a sense of unfairness among citizens whose needs are not met and can be a source of friction or conflict between refugees and citizens.
  • Second, particularly in resource-constrained environments, local decisionmakers rarely have incentives to prioritize the needs of noncitizens or nonvoters. When local officials are locally elected, there’s little to be gained in allocating resources to nonvoting populations and much to be lost, especially in places where political decisions are driven by access to powerful individuals, rather than by more formal systems.
  • Third, pushing for programs that grant refugees access to services based on legal rather than residential status can expose refugees who live in cities illegally to harmful reprisals by highlighting their presence and raising their profiles.

Paying attention to pitfalls like these can highlight opportunities for addressing refugee concerns. For example, by identifying that a local bureaucrat was evaluated on the number of people he registered for health insurance, a nonprofit in one city secured access to health services for refugees by helping them fill out paperwork and delivering the completed paperwork to the bureaucrat. He met his monthly quotas, and the refugees became eligible for health care.

Elsewhere, we see advocates working with local and national governments to build inclusive cities. Including refugees among vulnerable groups in annual performance evaluations can provide incentives to city officials to welcome refugees, particularly if funding is made available from higher levels of government or international institutions based on need. External actors can help create these incentives as well. For example, providing general financial support to local hospitals or clinics on the condition that refugees are eligible for services can provide an incentive to serve refugees and defuse tensions by improving services for all members of the community.

Such strategies may not always work—and demand high levels of local political literacy—but a kind of “stealth humanitarianism” oriented at municipal authorities can help address one of cities’ largest challenges: rapidly diversifying and highly mobile populations. Building bridges with property developers, trade associations, and others who may also become refugee advocates can create or maintain pressure for protection and help guard against xenophobia and exclusion.

None of these strategies can or should replace direct humanitarian aid or legal reforms. Rather, we envision humanitarian support that takes into account the larger urban political economy to creatively build solidarity for refugee protection. Only by engaging with urban governments can we create inclusive, vibrant cities that can surmount the challenge of the current crisis.

Refugees stand in a camp in the village of Primrose after fleeing anti-immigrant violence in Johannesburg in April 2015. The government stepped up its response to unrest in Johannesburg on April 19, 2015. Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images


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