Seeking safety in the city

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are forced from their homes by violence or natural disasters. But the face of displacement is changing: While the popular view of displacement is one of sprawling rural camps, displaced people are now just as likely to be living in urban areas, often hidden from view.

The Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), based at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), has explored this phenomenon in a series of studies called “Sanctuary in the City?”, which examines displacement conditions and policies in eight urban centres around the world.

HPG’s Simone Haysom told IRIN, “Urban displacement is the future of what displacement is going to look like. Many of the displaced come from cities and are not going to put up with camp conditions. Already more than half are in urban areas, and that percentage is only going to grow, except where governments enforce strict encampment policies. And humanitarians are not equipped with the right tools and resources to deal with urban displacement.”

Camps versus cities

Keeping displaced populations in refugee camps or internally displaced persons (IDP) camps simplifies administration for relief agencies. “Humanitarian operations in urban areas can be more costly and time-consuming,” according to the UN Refugee Agency’s 2012 State of the World’s Refugees report.

“In contrast to refugee camps, humanitarian actors in towns and cities often know little about the food security and nutritional status of urban refugees and IDPs,” the report states.

But as the world grows increasingly urbanized, displaced populations are increasingly gravitating to cities. “Unlike a closed camp, cities present obvious opportunities to stay anonymous, make money, and build a better future,” says UNHCR’s website.

Still, encampment policies are attractive to governments struggling to keep up with the service demands in urban areas, where the added presence of displaced populations could overextend resources and cause resentment among local residents.

Katy Long of the London School of Economics, who works on issues arising from protracted displacements, said, “Eighty percent of displaced people are hosted in developing countries, and they compete for resources. The politics of nationalism play into it too, and the encampment process and the aid which goes with it provide opportunities to pass the costs on [to aid agencies]. Camps may not address the root problems and may leave refugees and IDPs extremely vulnerable, but they make sense in terms of political economy.”

In denial

HPG’s research found that government officials often assert, against all evidence, that displacement is temporary problem.

This was the case in Syria, where the government seemed to be in denial about farmers and herders who had been driven into Damascus by drought and land loss. The HPG study (conducted in 2011, before current conflict reached the capital) found that the government consistently stressed the temporary nature of this displacement, and tried to limit assistance to the squalid displacement camps on the edge of Damascus “to avoid creating a culture of dependency.”

"But rather than pulling out displacement and putting it in a separate box, a lot of solutions work best if they are community-based, not least because then we are not privileging one group over another and building resentment against the displaced"

The study’s authors wrote, “Even if the government and the international community appear to portray the displacement… as temporary… the scale of losses in northeast Syria is huge, and return does not seem to be possible without… a long-term strategy aimed at restoring the viability of rural livelihood systems in these areas.”

Similarly, authorities in Afghanistan are reluctant to accept that new arrivals flocking into the capital, Kabul, are there to stay. The HPG Kabul study observed that, “The de facto policy of the government at all levels is that displacement is a temporary phenomenon, and that in time people will return to their rural areas of origin.”

Such assumptions can limit assistance. According to the study, “One senior… official… explained why he had refused an international agency… permission to build temporary toilets and wells in one settlement, on the grounds that ‘IDPs are here for a short time and they don’t need a bathroom and a well in this situation... When we provide them with these services they will never move back to their areas.’”

Long told IRIN that in reality more than two-thirds of the world’s IDPs have been displaced for more than five years, but authorities are often unwilling to face this fact, partly because it reflects badly on them.

“In Afghanistan, for instance, if they admit that they still have a displacement problem, they are admitting that the peace is still fragile and imperfect. But rather than only looking for permanent solutions, we have to learn to live with people being displaced at this moment and focus on making their displacement better, because policies often make displacement a far worse experience than it needs to be,” Long said.

Opportunities for settlement

The HPG researchers in Kabul found that an overwhelming majority of the displaced said they intended to settle permanently in the city. Evidence from elsewhere suggests that, if allowed to do so, they could eventually integrate and make new lives for themselves.

Even 60 years after their arrival, the Palestinians in Damascus are still officially considered refugees, but many have moved out of areas designated as refugee camps and into better housing. The “camps” are now home to a mixed population including migrant workers, IDPs and poor Syrians.

Integration may be easier now because many developing-world conurbations are cities of newcomers. One HPG study showed that virtually everyone living in Yei, a town in South Sudan, had come from somewhere else. New arrivals are also prevalent in more established urban areas like Nairobi, Kenya; one study estimates only 20 percent of those under 35 were born in the city.

In Yei, Nairobi and Kabul, HPG found that the displaced were in circumstances similar to other newcomers: they were relegated to informal settlements with few or no facilities, struggling to find decent housing and earn a living. Long, of the London School of Economics, says experts now wonder whether these situations should be tackled as a general development challenge, rather than differentiating between IDPs and other urban poor.

“There are some places where we need to focus,” she told IRIN, “such as the legal status of refugees, who often don’t have the correct paperwork to be in the city. But rather than pulling out displacement and putting it in a separate box, a lot of solutions work best if they are community-based, not least because then we are not privileging one group over another and building resentment against the displaced.”