Coping with forced displacement: lessons from cities

People forced to leave their homes are often displaced for many years, and most end up in urban areas. So how can host cities become more resilient while managing such crises? A meeting last week shared learning from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, reports Diane Archer.

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Insight by 
Diane Archer
Diane Archer ( is a senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group
11 May 2017
Lebanon is hosting one million Syrian refugees, and around half of them are children. Most families live in makeshift shelters; some rent half-built apartments, sharing with two or three families (Photo: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, Creative Commons via Wikipedia)

Lebanon is hosting one million Syrian refugees, and around half of them are children. Most families live in makeshift shelters; some rent half-built apartments, sharing with two or three families (Photo: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development, CC BY 2.0)

Conversations around urban resilience often focus on making cities better able to withstand the impacts of climate change. But there are other shocks and stresses affecting cities, including mass influxes of people fleeing conflict, disaster or other threats. 

An increasingly urban challenge

There are 65.3 million forcibly displaced people around the world, of which refugees make up 21.3 million. In the past, such displaced populations largely lived in camps. But now, 60 per cent of the world's refugees, as well as most 'internally displaced people' (people forced to move but who are still in their own countries), live in urban areas

Forced displacement is also lasting longer – 25 years on average. So short-term emergency responses need to be combined with a long-term view that ensures the displaced populations do not become marginalised.

At the same time, host populations' needs must be met, and often over-stretched resources must not be compromised. This can be difficult. For example, the influx of Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries in the Middle East has created challenges for managing and distributing water

On the other hand, when displacement crises are successfully managed, the influx can bring economic, social and political benefits, particularly when local organisations (including local authorities, NGOs and community-based organisations) play a key role in facilitating this.

At the ICLEI Resilient Cities Congress 2017 held from 4-6 May in Bonn, Germany, IIED organised a panel discussion entitled 'Towards resilience in the face of urban displacement – learning from Africa, Asia and the Middle East'. The discussion was part of work we are carrying out under our Urban Crises Learning Fund. Speakers shared experiences from Ramallah (Palestine), Amman (Jordan), Kampala (Uganda) and Tacloban (the Philippines).

Integration offers long-term benefits

In Ramallah, a city that has seen seven decades of refugee settlement, diaspora returnees and internal migrants, local authorities see the value of having a diverse but cohesive community.

Maha Shihadeh, from Ramallah Municipality, said the city recognised that refugees can't forget their history, and hence cultural activities and engaging with young people have been key approaches to successfully integrating old and new arrivals. This in turn is an investment that helps prevent longer-term problems, such as conflict and violence between groups.

Taking a planned approach 

In Jordan, while the initial response to Syrian refugees was led by people's hearts, it soon became clear that planning was required to coordinate everyone involved in the response.

In Amman, local authorities had to immediately strengthen their capacities to manage waste, transport and energy. Asma Barkati, from Greater Amman Municipality, said municipal services and infrastructures still needed to be made more resilient.

Massive population movements need to be considered in urban planning, and Amman will next week launch the Amman City Resilience Strategy, which seeks to ensure long-term resilience that benefits all the city's residents, whether hosts or displaced.

No quick answers

Since Typhoon Haiyan devastated Tacloban, in the Philippines, in 2013 the municipality's efforts to rebuild the city have included resettling affected households.

Gerald Paragas, an urban and environmental planner involved in the city's recovery highlighted that while certain parts of the city are relatively safe, everywhere has varying degrees of risk, and the city has limited options.  

The video "Lessons from a Storm" - please note that this video contains images of the typhoon's aftermath which some viewers may find disturbing

For relocation to be a sustainable solution, quality should come before quantity, which may mean a longer period of transition before resettlement. Sometimes, local authorities need to have the confidence to say "no" to the plans of external NGOs where they don't fit in with the city's priorities.

Action from refugees

In Kampala, refugee-led organisations such as Robert Hakiza's Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) help other refugees integrate by offering job skills, language training and youth programmes.

Refugees face many similar challenges to the urban poor, but with additional barriers such as language. Uganda has one of the most open-door refugee policies in the world, but targeting support to refugees remains challenging, so refugee-led support can supplement the activities of other NGOs, UN agencies and the government.

Resilience requires collaboration

From all the discussions it was clear that these complex issues and varying contexts require a delicate balancing act to achieve outcomes that are sustainable, that work for everyone, and are resilient to further shocks.

No single institution can address everything alone. Rather, many actors, from local authorities to refugees' own organisations, need to be able to collaborate and coordinate their actions.

Diane Archer ( is a senior researcher in IIED's Human Settlements research group, and leads IIED’s work on cities and climate change.

Further reading: 

Local and international collaboration in urban humanitarian responses: perspectives from the Philippines, Colombia and South Sudan, Tilly Alcayna, Furat Al- Murani (2016), IIED Working Paper 

Responding to the Syrian crisis in Lebanon: collaboration between aid agencies and local governance structures, Marwa Boustani, Estella Carpi, Hayat Gebara, Yara Mourad (2016), IIED Working Paper

Balancing water stress, human crises and innovation under a changing dryland climate, Hadi Jaafar, Diane Archer, Ihab Jomaa, Diane Machayekhi, Elie Mansour, Hassan Machlab, Caroline King- Okumu (2016), IIED Briefing Paper