City mayors hold key to helping people fleeing conflict and disaster

Aid agencies must fundamentally rethink approach to those displaced for the long-term to urban areas.
Press release, 14 September 2021

People who have fled to urban areas to escape conflict and disaster and who are thought to make up more than half of all internally displaced people (IDPs), should be treated as city residents rather than a humanitarian caseload, according to new research from the IIED.

The report, 'The case for treating long-term urban IDPs as city residents', draws on the experiences of city mayors from six countries – Burkina Faso, Colombia, Honduras, Iraq, Somalia and Ukraine. They show that IDPs who flee to urban areas often stay for many years, and are most likely to end up living in informal housing in low-income parts of the city. 

Hodan Ali, the director of the Durable Solutions Unit in Mogadishu, Somalia told researchers: “You've got thousands of IDPs [who] have been there for 15, 20 years. Those people are Mogadishu citizens, literally residents. So, we need to figure out a way to make sure that their needs are addressed as residents, and not as a humanitarian case load.”

The report found international NGOs and multilateral agencies often side-step municipal authorities to work directly with IDPs and the communities hosting them to provide short-term, project-based assistance. This leaves local authorities without the technical and financial help to continue providing essential services to all residents, sometimes in situations where populations have multiplied many times over. 

As the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement is expected to conclude this month, donors, aid agencies and researchers need to seize the momentum to ditch their outdated practices and try new approaches. 

Lucy Earle, principal researcher at IIED, said: “Countries in the global South are urbanising rapidly and that’s affecting all aspects of life, including for people who have been forced to flee to towns and cities. 

“Although emergency assistance will very often be needed when people are first forced to flee, a different approach is required for those who end up displaced for a longer time. Instead of focusing on individual people or households, aid agencies would do better to look at providing services that benefit the whole community or projects that boost the local economy so that cities and the IDPs they host can thrive.”

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), of the 82.4 million people who were forcibly displaced at the end of 2020, 48 million are IDPs, meaning they stayed within the borders of their country. It is widely assumed that the majority of IDPs seek shelter in cities or urban areas and often stay for five years or more. 

Not all local authorities are sympathetic to the needs of IDPs in their towns or cities and there are cases where they are complicit in stoking ethnic tensions and discrimination. But research has shown how important it is for donors and aid agencies to engage with local politics and seek ways to secure the political will to improve life for IDPs in situ.


For more information or to request an interview, contact Sarah Grainger ( on +44 7503 643332.

Notes to editors

  • 'The case for treating long-term urban IDPs as city residents', was written by Lucy Earle and Christopher Ward for IIED with support from UN Habitat and the Joint IDP Profiling Service (JIPS)
  • Data on the number of IDPs and refugees is available from the UNHCR

For more information or to request an interview, contact Simon Cullen: 
+44 7503 643332 or