More than 50 percent of all refugees today reside in urban areas.
They flock to cities like Nairobi, Cairo and Johannesburg seeking better opportunities and the chance to provide for themselves and their children—opportunities that are not available to them in the refugee camps.
And yet, the very opportunities they go to the cities to access are often elusive. Instead, they more often than not find themselves in the squalor of urban slums riddled with crime, where there are few services and fewer jobs.
Change in programming, however, has not kept pace with the change in policy. Governments still restrict refugees’ right to work, some still enforce an encampment policy, and service providers working with refugees in urban areas often implement programs more appropriate to camp-based models.
As a means of spurring change in practice and identifying additional research needs, the International Rescue Committee and the Women’s Refugee Commission organized a day-long workshop entitled “Urban Refugees Research Roundtable Discussion.” The roundtable brought together 20 key researchers and practitioners, including UNHCR, the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, and the African Center for Migration and Society at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg.
An overarching theme that emerged was the need for new models and approaches for work with refugees in urban areas, including identifying and creating access for refugees into existing development and local programs that are already serving host community members. Advocacy efforts also require new strategies, such as going very local—targeting the ward leader, the police chief, the mayor and the high school principal rather than the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education. In addition, as old models that provide cash support and special programs for refugees are neither realistic nor sustainable for the ever-growing urban refugee populations, more emphasis needs to be placed on working with and through refugee self-help organizations, such as refugee churches and mosques, informal rotating savings and loan groups and mutual assistance associations.
Much remains to be learned about the new approaches required. What is clear, however, is that the existing camp-based models are neither appropriate nor desirable.
Read more about the Women's Refugee Commission’s work on urban refugees here.