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Urban refugees
A positive approach empowers urban refugees to use their energy and talents to benefit host communities

Today, the majority of the world's refugees live in urban settings. Urban refugees share all the challenges of the urban poor, and often face additional barriers due to their uncertain legal status and lack of documentation. They constantly face protection risks, among them detention, deportation, and labour and sexual exploitation.

When viewed as a drain on scarce resources, urban refugees may become the target of xenophobia, and face harassment from local authorities and exploitation by employers.

  • JRS position
  • In practice
JRS Working Paper on Urban Refugees

The term 'urban refugees' refers to refugees and asylum-seekers who reside in urban areas outside of designated refugee camps either because they prefer to do so, are denied access to camps, or reside in countries where refugee camps are not present. The term does not imply legitimacy of urban dwelling: in some instances, refugees are residing in urban areas without the permission of host governments, putting them at risk of arrest, harassment and deportation.

The policy of encampment is a domestic law decision, with each host country developing specific legislation pertaining to refugee movements. This is one of the most pressing problems that the urban refugee situation has highlighted: domestic encampment policies are in conflict with international humanitarian law which guarantees freedom of movement and liberty as fundamental human rights. Thus, synthesis of domestic and international law on this issue of freedom of movement is an important, albeit politically sensitive, objective for organizations working with this demographic.

Camp to city: pull and push factors
The existence of an urban refugee demographic is due to a wide variety of pull-push factors. On a global scale, the world is fast urbanising, and urban refugees reflect the global trend towards urban living. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) 2009 policy on refugee protection and solutions in urban areas over 50 per cent of the world's population live in cities – a figure expected to reach 60 per cent by 2030. UNHCR estimates that more than half of the world's 15 million refugees reside in urban areas, while less than one-third live in refugee camps.

Refugee populations often include a significant component of previous urban dwellers who have been forced to flee. As such, refugees are fleeing urban rather than rural contexts, making cities their choice of refuge rather than rural camps. The protracted nature of many conflicts that give rise to refugee situations has forced many refugees to consider exile a permanent situation. Refugees may be seeking to build a new life and develop long-term livelihood strategies, as opposed to waiting for conflict resolution from the cause of their displacement.

As such, a camp environment that restricts movement and employment opportunities not only becomes stifling and unproductive, but increasingly, cannot respond to the needs of mobile populations. Urban areas offer the attractions of larger local economies, potential opportunities to pursue business and study, as well as offering the possibility of improved access to basic services (including health care, education and infrastructure). Increasingly, urban areas also offer the pull of already developed social networks that provide citizen-specific support and assistance.

Encampment policies that limit refugee movement within a country are often ineffective in attempting to enforce camp living. Refugees may prefer to risk residing illegally in urban areas rather than face the challenges that camp life brings. Life in a refugee camp can be intimidating and unsafe. Instances of sexual and gender-based violence, killings, tribal violence and food distribution crises are just some of the issues that have been reported. A lack of adequate facilities, such as health care and education, is an incentive to seeking this infrastructural support elsewhere. Some refugee camps offer no education facilities – or restrict their offering to primary school instruction.

In terms of livelihoods and income-generation, refugee camps offer limited opportunities. Informal trading offers a means of income to some, but those who possess trade or industry qualifications (as well as those who pursue educational opportunities, if provided, within the camp), find themselves without a means of using and developing their skills. Prolonged periods of unproductive, enforced idleness combined with limited movement opportunities can contribute to a range of negative socio-economic problems including violence, crime, substance abuse and depression.

Challenges for urban refugees
The push-pull factors elaborated above help to explain the reason why many refugees (whether legally or illegally) prefer to reside in urban areas. However, refugees moving to urban areas face a multitude of complex and pressing challenges. A fundamental problem facing urban refugees is access to services. Urban refugees face significant difficulties in accessing housing, health and education services, either because they are in urban areas illegally or because they face discrimination from local service providers.

Urban refugees also face the same concerns as local populations, in terms of rapid urbanisation and the resulting infrastructural issues this brings. Rapid urbanisation can lead to the mushrooming of slums and the construction of illegal housing in urban areas – which increases vulnerability to mass evictions and slum clearance.

While refugee camps can be places of fear and intimidation, urban refugees and asylum-seekers also face a set of social vulnerabilities. They risk deportation on two sides – back to their home countries, if they do not have legal refugee status, or back to refugee camps, if local legislation doesn't allow for refugees to reside in urban areas. Xenophobic attitudes from local populations are a big concern, as well as having to contend with persecution from local authorities.

The fear of deportation, harassment and discrimination from locals can lead to urban refugees actively stimulating their invisibility – a vanishing population looking for the lowest profile possible to build the safest life possible, focused on developing anonymity. This, however, makes this population one of the hardest to support and assist.

Challenges for service providers
Indeed, assistance for urban refugees is one of the hurdles faced both by refugees themselves and by those who provide services for them. Many law enforcement officers and immigration police are either poorly trained in refugee rights, or poorly monitored for legal compliance. This can result in the deportation of refugees who have been recognised or who have valid protection concerns. The challenge here is to assist refugees to understand their legal rights (including expiry and renewal procedures of permits).

Urban refugees rarely have service-provider programmes designed to assist their specific needs, and there are few governments who recognise and foster their productive potential as contributors to local economies, using their skills to set up businesses, stimulate local trade or build community capacity. Recently, the UNHCR has recognised the need to ‘expand protection space' for refugees residing in urban areas through developing a policy that recognises the need for self-reliance and the harmonisation of domestic law with international humanitarian law. However, this process is slow and faces much political resistance in some poorer host countries who feel that the presence of refugees is both an unnecessary burden and an unfair strain on their limited resources.

JRS response to urban refugees
Through advocacy to UNHCR and local authorities, direct assistance with food, housing and medical expenses, education, livelihood projects, counselling and referral services, JRS addresses the broad spectrum of needs of urban refugees. Pastoral care is also provided. Outreach, counselling and social support are key elements of JRS programmes. JRS works with NGO partners to assist and improve the lives of urban refugees. 

  1. Encourage host governments to provide fully for and protect the rights and freedoms of urban refugees as elucidated in the 1951 Refugee Convention and their respective national refugee legislation, including recognising the productive potential of refugees in both urban and camp settings.
  2. Advocate to host governments for the harmonisation of domestic and international law to provide adequately a rights-based approach to refugees and their mobility needs and tackle out-dated and misconceived xenophobic attitudes from local populations.
  3. Encourage service providers to
    • Recognise the importance of acknowledging the urban refugee population through policy revision or development
    • Network and synthesise different organisational responses to needs of urban refugees, to provide a comprehensive response that doesn't duplicate services
  4. Work together with local authorities to assist in working through service delivery gaps and authority vacuums. By addressing structural issues, vulnerable populations become less of a target for disgruntled locals.
  5. Develop income-generation programmes that can assist in the development of reliable livelihoods, and can also contribute to and build local community capacity. This could be done through skills-transfer projects, a small business venture that can offer local employment, or teacher training that provides teachers to local schools.
  6. Encourage all service providers and host governments to consider the protracted nature of many refugee situations, and thereby give due attention and policy focus to durable solutions
Urban refugees – JRS responses

In the JRS regions of Southern and Eastern Africa, Asia Pacific, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, JRS service and advocacy combine to address some of the urgent problems facing urban refugees. JRS urges governments and civil society groups worldwide to welcome refugees and other forcibly displaced people in urban areas. We believe that adopting a positive and supportive approach to the presence of refugees in urban areas not only promotes their well being but empowers them to use their skills to benefit their host communities.

On a broader level, JRS provides input to the drafting processes shaping international policies, such as the UNCHR Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas (September 2009), and works to see that the principles articulated in such documents and in international human rights law are applied to the treatment of all refugees, including those who live in non-camp settings.

Since 2007, JRS has researched the situation of forced migrants in Europe who live in destitution, and who reside for the most part in urban areas. Due to their uncertain legal status, destitute forced migrants have little or no access to healthcare, reliable accommodation or formal employment. JRS advocates with European Union (EU) policymakers, through one-on-one meetings and at large events, calling for laws and policies that would alleviate the destitution of forced migrants across Europe.

In 2010, the JRS South Africa urban refugees project helped a chronically ill client from Burundi to receive life-saving dialysis treatment, after state hospitals in Pretoria refused to treat her. Through JRS partnership with a legal aid organisation, Jaqui’s (pseudonym) case has been brought to court and her right to access medical assistance is being defended.

In Nairobi, JRS is part of the urban refugee protection network, which serves as a channel to raise awareness about the plight of urban refugees, based on their experiences, challenges and protection needs in Kenya. JRS works closely with partner agencies in referring urban refugees for medical and legal assistance.

In the urban project in Kampala, JRS gives a voice to asylum seekers and refugees by working with UNHCR and the Refugee Law Project to advocate for their legal protection, and through referrals to other NGOs such as the African Centre for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV).

By teaching urban refugees English, JRS enables them to communicate their needs. Through skills-training (for example, hairdressing, computer literacy, catering, driving and soap-making), JRS encourages self-sufficiency.

JRS Cambodia works with a growing number of urban refugees and asylum seekers. The office provides small loans so that refugees and asylum seekers can start businesses. Most of those on the loan scheme have been able to establish street-food ventures, often working together with members of their communities. The scheme has helped some to access income-generating opportunities, particularly as paid employment is extremely difficult to find.