Several high-profile situations of urban displacement have occurred in the last decade, including Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Nairobi (Kenya), Sana’a (Yemen) and Haiti (see box, right)
At the Birmingham Refugee Destitution Centre, the British Red Cross distributes vouchers to refugees and asylum seekers to buy essential supplies. Distribution of cash and vouchers will likely become more common as the forcibly displaced become more urbanized. Josua Banks/www.photo-banks.com
Rapid- and slow-onset disasters, conflict and violence all drive migration from rural to urban areas and between and within urban areas. In cities, the displaced hope to find security, more economic opportunity, greater access to services, anonymity, proximity to powerbrokers and access to assistance. While the living conditions displaced people encounter in urban areas may be more difficult, even unacceptable by international standards, in most cases urban areas provide greater security and opportunity.
Disasters may also cause widespread destruction of the built environment, creating displaced populations within a city. For example, IDP camps sprung up in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and in 2009 floods caused by Typhoon Ketsana led to short-term displacement in Metro Manila in the Philippines.
Urban displacement covers many phenomena, but several generalizations can be made about the risks facing displaced populations. While displacement to urban areas mainly impacts on the displaced themselves, it is also felt by the populations they settle among, local and national authorities, and international actors.
Vulnerability is frequently a consequence of unplanned urban development. The most vulnerable displaced people face barriers in accessing land and property and are forced to settle on the outskirts of cities or on low-value, poorly serviced land, frequently at risk of natural hazards. Basic services are often inadequate.
Notwithstanding these challenges, movement to the city may help the displaced to mitigate vulnerability. It can even lead to greater opportunities for securing a livelihood, education or health care.
Many of the risks faced by displaced people are shared by the host population. Long-standing residents also suffer the consequences of poor urban governance, and in slums they are confronted with the same threats.
Unfortunately the influx of displaced people may compound problems residents already face – by straining public services or exacerbating scarcity of land or accommodation. The ‘silver lining’ is that the host community can also benefit from the presence of displaced communities, either by renting land or accommodation to them or due to increased economic activity from the enterprises or assets the displaced bring with them.
The negative attitude of authorities towards displaced people may prevent them from harnessing the economic benefits the migrants’ presence can create. In some instances, municipal authorities feel overwhelmed by ‘normal’ rural-urban migration and consider the displaced an additional burden on overstretched resources and infrastructure. Many refugee-hosting countries have strict encampment policies, but displaced populations in urban areas can bring economic benefits.
Urban displacement also has an impact on international humanitarian agencies. While urban refugees have never been completely absent or ignored, camp-based provision has been the mainstream traditional humanitarian response for decades. The lack of support to displaced populations in urban areas creates chronic vulnerabilities or leaves acute needs unaddressed. Humanitarians are increasingly trying to address this gap in coverage by expanding their mindset beyond camps and rural refugees and IDPs to those in urban areas. Many of the approaches and tools developed for camp situations are, however, ill-suited to urban areas.
Some recent shifts and major policy statements from large international institutions have been encouraging.
Policies addressing key issues raised by urban displacement are starting to develop. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) has announced the inclusion of ‘population displacement and return’ in its new strategy. Urban violence, which is often a cause of displacement or secondary movement, has also been tackled by the IFRC and Médecins sans Frontières.
While these developments are welcomed, humanitarian actors are not clear about where leadership on urban displacement should come from. No policy on urban IDPs exists and several UN agencies have declined to take responsibility for the issue.
One of the key differences that humanitarian agencies must adapt to in urban areas is the dispersion of displaced populations among other residents. Camp-based assistance entailed a displaced population, geographically separated and registered, receiving services provided mostly by international actors. In contrast, urban displaced settle among host populations and may not want to be identified.
Perhaps the most crucial partners in urban areas are the authorities themselves. Without their support there can be little progress - and little sustainability - to programmes. Authorities control resources and long-term planning.
Humanitarians will often need to partner with development actors, while human rights organizations can play an important role in urban areas as they may have more leverage. The importance of the private sector in urban economies is often underplayed, yet it can link humanitarian programmes with the local economy.
Community-based disaster risk reduction programmes – such as the IFRC and Bangladesh Red Crescent Society earthquake and cyclone preparedness programmes which address multiple hazards and social and environmental vulnerabilities – may be useful models.
It is a truism of humanitarian response that proper analysis of context is vital. This is also true for urban areas, but the emphasis may be different and the obstacles greater, including dispersed settlement, people’s unwillingness to be identified, and authorities limiting contact with these groups.
Outreach can also be vital. UN agencies and NGOs used outreach workers to identify and reach a dispersed Iraqi refugee population. In Damascus, UNHCR trained women as volunteers to facilitate the identification of female-headed Iraqi refugee households and report on their needs.
The displaced are open to acute stresses due to poor tenure security. At particular risk of eviction are those settled on sites earmarked for development. Authorities may also want to move populations who have settled on unsafe land, but without adequate plans for relocation.
Legal aspects of housing, land and property may involve solving property disputes, helping returnees to claim the land they formerly occupied, or dealing with bureaucracy and legal systems.
Legal aid could also focus on dealing with the protection threats raised by precarious legal status in urban areas. UNHCR is a key actor in preventing refoulement (the forced return of refugees). The issue is slightly different among self-settled displaced populations, as in camps the threat of refoulement is generally resolved through advocacy. In cities this threat is typically experienced on an individual basis.
For adequate living conditions, the displaced need to find a way to integrate into the local economy. Their contribution is evident in many cities: the streets of Amman and Damascus teem with customers for Iraqi restaurants or shops and the business district of Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, is full of Somali enterprises.
But although asylum policies may vary in severity, states that are not signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention have no obligation to give asylum seekers permission to work.
In the last five years, distributing cash as a form of relief has become accepted by donors and aid agencies as a normal form of assistance. Cash transfers can work when people can buy what they need, which is often the case in urban settings.
To meet the humanitarian challenges in urban areas and promote sustainable interventions which minimize future vulnerabilities, humanitarians will need to link up with municipal and national actors – most of which are oriented to development.
Many positive things can be said about the humanitarian agenda on urban displacement: the need to adapt and the challenges that urban displacement presents are widely recognized. Important examples exist of programmes tailored both to respond to the context and tackle the drivers of vulnerability for the displaced, but they are too few and too ad hoc.
National actors should recognize the permanent or long-term nature of migration to urban areas and provide services before slums become entrenched; they should allow displaced populations freedom of movement and access to employment to allow them to maintain links with their country of origin and be self-sufficient.
Donors and agencies should invest in developing appropriate systems, tools and approaches in order to be eqiupped to better respond to the specific challenges of displacement in urban areas. There is need to ensure that programming is underpinned by robust analysis of each context and the sharing of roles by development and humanitarian actors.
An IFRC project / www.ifrc.org