Cities are no panacea – But they must be part of the solution


by Aisling, UR’s Lead Researcher

The unremitting refugee crisis has been persistent in the headlines for several years now and the UNHCR confirms the reason: the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with 65.3 million people forcibly displaced. Given the lack of a political solutions in Syria, and ongoing violence in countries such as BurundiCentral African RepublicSouth Sudan and Yemen to name a few, the continued increase  of those seeking refugee status looks unlikely to change in the near future.

Parallel to this reality is another trend: the urbanisation of global displacement. Although the image of a sprawling mass of tents is traditionally associated with refugee crises, camps are no longer the primary place of refuge for those seeking safety – instead, refugees are choosing cities. The debate on whether camps or cities are the best option for refugees has raged for some time within academia, but more recently has spread to the wider sphere of public discourse, with the increasing visibility of refugees in urban areas. Cities are certainly not without their problems, but with the continued urbanisation of the world, they must be part of the solution for accommodating displaced groups. Therefore, it is important to address the question Emily Troutman raises in her article: “if settling refugees outside of camps is really what’s best for them, why aren’t they doing better?”

Troutman points out that “food assistance reaches 100% of refugees in camps,” and “90% of children can continue their education.” Her suggestion appears to be that forgoing these benefits of the camps does not make sense given the uncertainly that awaits in the city. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the single most important factor about refugees going to live in cities: that they are choosing to live there. The Syrian refugees fleeing war are well informed that they will receive food aid and education in the UNHCR camps, and if they choose to forgo this assistance, it may be assumed it is because they believe that choice to be in their best interest.

Rather than questioning the judgement of the refugees on what is best for them, it seems more useful to consider what changes the humanitarian and development sectors can make to adapt to this urban population – more funding and innovative solutions are needed to address the current lack of international support as Troutman rightly attests to in discussing the difficulties of providing for urban refugees in the case of Turkey. The discussion on whether refugees can discern better than humanitarian organisations where the best options for their particular circumstances lie – in camps or cities – is a moot point as they are already deciding, by moving to cities. While I concur with the UNHCR and Troutman that uncovering the needs of refugees in urban settings is difficult, I do not agree that refugees are “invisible, untraceable” at Troutman maintains, although I do agree with her that many are in desperately need of help.

There are already many humanitarian and development organisations working in urban areas with refugee populations, however the current limitations of humanitarian projects are evident in the short term results and vision, lack of cooperation with government programmes, and ongoing difficulties with providing support for the often equally disadvantaged general population, to name a few issues. Troutman highlights some of these problems in her discussion of budget shortfalls and the lack of needs assessment data available in the case of the Syrian response by UNHCR and the Turkish government. Technology and social media have made it easier to access organizations on the ground, but more funding and international support is required to develop sophisticated tools in providing adequate service provision.

The problem of refugees living in cities is not that they do not have the potential to “do better,” but that the humanitarian sector has proven inadequate to date in providing support for the urban refugee population, with a few notable exceptions such as the UNRWA. Some efforts to address this disparity in support already exist with organisations such as the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team, working to map urban refugees, and with UNHCR working on innovative strategies such as Ascend to access refugees via text message, and to access information regarding their rights and services. The website, RefugeeInfo, set up by Mercy Corps in partnership with the International Rescue Committee provides refugees coming to Europe information on routes, local services and the registration and asylum process. Programs like the Urban Refugee Learning Programme are also making progress, including URBAN REFUGEES, where we are creating an incubator programme for developing the resilience and independence of community-based, refugee-led organisations in urban areas. The Overseas Development Institute has also done excellent research on displaced populations in urban areas through its Sanctuary in the City? series of publications and cites the UNRWA’s long history of providing good quality services to urbanised Palestinian refugees for years as an example of how urban programmes can be successful.

Education for refugee children is crucial, and organisations have rightly been critical of the way the humanitarian community has failed to adequately provide it. However, at the World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, the Education Cannot Wait Fund was unveiled by global and national organisations. With a funding target of $3.85 billion over five years, it aims to fill the gap between the needs for education during short term emergencies and longer- term development. The case for better access to education in cities is not so complex – it requires more advocacy efforts with host governments, and concrete support on the part of the international community to allow enough schools to be built, enough teachers to be trained and paid to get these children sitting at their desks, learning.

In the case of employment solutions must again include urban areas.  Professor Alexander Betts of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University and Sir Paul Collier, a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government explain how Syrian refugees in Jordan can actually help develop a more industrial economy with the implementation of polices that have been thoroughly research and appraised, and leverage the refugee community’s large pool of skilled labour. Host countries are understandably reluctant to let refugees compete with indigenous populations for work, but it does not have to be a competitive race to the bottom between groups: research has shown that the return on funds devoted to refugees is substantial, investing €1 on welcoming refugees yields almost €2 in economic benefits within 5 years. Surely then, the main work of the humanitarian and development communities is to ensure the fostering of an environment where the positive use of refugees skills and experience is supported –  and that refugees are not confined to prison-like camps but in cities, where they often choose to be.


Aisling O’Loghlen is a Ph.D Researcher in Urban Studies and an Urban Planner with research interests in human settlements design, land management, local environmental planning and management, governance, housing policy and projects, slum upgrading, post disaster institutional capacity development, and resource mobilization and development planning in urban slums. She has a particular interest in the coping mechanisms of vulnerable populations within the slum context, such as displaced populations, either internally or refugee groups. The title of her thesis is ‘The nexus of displacement and urbanisation: assessing the vulnerability levels of the urban refugee and slum populations of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania”. 

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