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An Inside Account of UNHCR’s Urban Refugee Policy

The U.N. Refugee Agency was slow to develop a policy on urban refugees and even slower to revise its flawed first edition, writes Chatham House’s Jeff Crisp, who previously worked on the policy for UNHCR.

Written by Jeff Crisp Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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A boy launches a kite in a district of Turkey’s Izmir Province. Valeriy Melnikov/Sputnik

During the past two decades, the issue of urban refugees has occupied an increasingly important place on the global refugee policy agenda. Yet the formulation of UNHCR policy on this issue has been slow and even tortuous.

It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that the U.N. Refugee Agency, its governmental and nongovernmental partners, as well as the academic community, began to give urban refugees some concerted attention.

The number of urban refugees in developing countries was steadily growing. UNHCR had expanded very rapidly, and concerns were mounting that the organization would soon be confronted with a serious financial shortfall.

Urban refugee assistance budgets came under particularly close examination, with the expectation that significant efficiency savings could be made. Those budgets had been steadily rising, and on a per capita basis were thought to be far more expensive than supporting refugees in camps or rural settlements.

In response, UNHCR established an Urban Refugee Working Group, which in March 1997 produced a “comprehensive policy on urban refugees.” The 23-page document filled an important gap, but the new policy proved to be highly controversial.

A Human Rights Watch report said the purpose of the policy “was unabashedly to reduce programs for urban refugees and to prevent refugees from locating to an urban environment.”

Confronted with such antagonistic reactions, UNHCR hurriedly issued a revised version of the policy in December 1997, but that did not satisfy the NGO community. At a 1999 consultation meeting, a senior UNHCR official acknowledged the NGOs’ concerns and, thinking on his feet, made an unscheduled promise that the organization would undertake a thorough review and revision of the policy.

The UNHCR’s Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit (EPAU) subsequently undertook a desk-based global survey and selected a number of geographically diverse locations for a more detailed review.

The resulting 2003 paper engaged directly with many of the NGOs’ criticisms. It argued that UNHCR’s engagement with urban refugee populations must “go some way beyond providing the minimum level of support for the shortest possible time.” It also emphasized the need for UNHCR to advocate on behalf of the civil and socioeconomic rights of urban refugees and to provide substantive support to their cultural, social, recreational and sporting activities.

The 2003 EPAU paper was intended to provide the basis for a new urban refugee policy, but it did not and was never made public. UNHCR was unwilling to endorse and formalize the paper’s guiding principles, and the policymaking process on urban refugees was paralyzed.

The approach it proposed was too radical and rights-based for some UNHCR managers and staff members, who continued to perceive urban refugees as a problem and the programs established for them as an expensive luxury, especially when compared to the supposed “efficiency” of camp-based approaches.

Others expressed concern that the proposed guiding principles would antagonize refugee-hosting countries in developing regions, many of whom regarded the presence of refugees in urban areas as “a potential political danger.”

Yet during the course of the 2000s, UNHCR was increasingly obliged to engage with refugees in countries where refugees were not compelled to live in camps.

During the post-2003 exodus from war-torn Iraq, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis left the country, most of them fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Many had an urban and middle-class background, were well educated and had no intention of living in a refugee camp. Instead, they rented and shared accommodation, dispersed throughout the cities and towns of the countries to which they fled.

Meanwhile, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, having gone through very difficult experiences with the Palestinian refugees on their territory, had no interest in having the Iraqi refugees concentrated in overcrowded locations where their frustration might take a threatening political form. As a result, no camps were established for them.

At the same time, in other parts of the world, a growing proportion of the world’s refugees found themselves trapped in protracted displacement. Confronted with the prospect of being confined to camps for years on end, without access to land, livelihoods or the labor market, and with declining levels of humanitarian assistance, refugees were increasingly “voting with their feet.” Ignoring the restrictions placed on their freedom of movement, they moved to cities and other countries where they could eke out a living in the informal sector.

The stereotype of urban refugees as young, single and able-bodied men – a self-selecting group who had the physical and mental attributes needed to survive in the city – was now being challenged. A growing proportion of urban refugees came from other sections of the family and community. This was particularly the case with Iraqi refugees. It was common for households to move as a whole, sometimes using the family car as their means of transport.

Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal and now U.N. secretary-general, was appointed U.N. high commissioner for refugees in 2005. Guterres believed that the organization’s work had to be underpinned by a much better understanding of what he called “global mega-trends,” including migration and urbanization.

“We can no longer collude with states in confining refugees to camps and denying them the right to exercise freedom of movement,” he told me at the time.

In 2009, Guterres decided that the annual High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges should discuss urban refugees. This placed the rest of the organization in a serious dilemma. Ten years previously, the organization had promised to thoroughly review and revise UNHCR’s urban refugee policy. It had never done so.

Swift action had to be taken. UNHCR’s new policy, issued in September 2009, drew extensively from the unpublished 2003 EPAU paper. It also incorporated many ideas and initiatives that had emerged in the field. In the absence of clear directions from headquarters, UNHCR staff had in many instances developed their own urban refugee strategies. In that respect, practice had run ahead of policy.

An internal Urban Refugee Steering Group – an entity later expanded to include NGOs – was established to oversee implementation of the new policy. An urban refugee learning program was established for UNHCR and partner staff. Operational guidelines were prepared for education, health and livelihood programs in urban areas.

Yet it would be misleading to suggest that implementation has been problem-free.

UNHCR has made no attempt to assess the financial and human resource implications of the new document prior to its introduction. A frequent complaint from the field has been that staff are expected to engage much more thoroughly with urban refugees, but have not been given the capacity to do so.

Progress in establishing cooperative relationships with nontraditional partners, such as mayors, municipal councils, civil society and faith-based organizations, has also been slower and less substantive than anticipated.

Now, UNHCR and its partners are moving toward a more general focus on refugees living outside of camps. Around 85 percent of the 5 million refugees from Syria are living alongside the local population in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, northern Iraq and Turkey – whether in urban, peri-urban or rural areas. While the 2009 policy was formulated on the assumption that the number of urban refugees would expand, it simply did not anticipate these events.

In 2014, UNHCR introduced a new policy on “alternatives to camps” – “extending the principal objectives of the urban refugee policy to all operational contexts.” In that respect, the 2009 document has had a much broader influence than anticipated by those responsible for its formulation.

This is an edited and condensed version of an article that originally appeared in Refuge, Canada’s journal on refugees. Read the full article here.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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