Help cities help people – bringing everyone together in the refugee response full transcript
Host [00:00] You are listening to Make Change Happen, the podcast from IIED. According to UNHCR, the global number of people forcibly displaced by conflict, human rights abuses and other forms of persecution has reached 110 million.
In this episode, host Lucy Earle and her guests discuss challenges and lessons from the ongoing research project, 'Protracted displacement in an urban world'.
Lucy Earle [00:26] Hello and welcome to the latest episode of IIED's Make Change Happen podcast. This is episode 23. My name is Lucy Earle and I'm the director of the Human Settlements group at IIED. This podcast is about refugees and internally displaced people, or IDPs, living in protracted displacement. So when we talk about refugees, we're talking about people who've been displaced as a result of violence or conflict and had to cross an international border. With IDPs, they've similarly been forced to flee their homes, but they have remained within the boundaries of their country of origin.
And for the past three-and-a-half years we've been running a large research project called 'Protracted displacement in an urban world' with refugees and IDPs in Kenya, Jordan, Afghanistan and Ethiopia.
And when we talk about protracted displacement, that means people who've been living outside, away from their homes, displaced, unable to return for more than five years.
Lucy Earle [01:23] So the project is comparing the wellbeing and livelihoods of refugees and IDPs between camps and urban settings. The research is based on the assumption that cities offer much greater prospects for a dignified, fulfilling life than camps do, and many refugees and IDPs agree with us on this.
So actually the majority of refugees and IDPs are living in towns and cities around the world, it's at least 60%. There's just a minority living in refugee camps, around 20%, and the rest are in rural areas.
But not everyone has caught up with these trends and this reality of the urbanisation of displacement, and cities are not really always getting the attention they need when they're hosting large numbers of displaced people.
We think it's really important that municipal authorities play a role in response to refugee crises or displacement crises.
And to that end, we've built a participatory component into our project in each of the cities where we're doing our research – those are the capital cities, Nairobi in Kenya, Amman in Jordan, and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and a secondary city, Jalalabad, in Afghanistan.
And in these cities we've been bringing together city officials, service providers, refugee representatives, and other people from civil society organisations on a regular basis. And the idea originally was that they would discuss the research findings and how to address policies and programmes to respond to those findings. And they have done this to, to varying degrees, but the forums have also evolved into spaces for more general discussion about internal displacement, for networking, and exchanges between individuals who wouldn't normally meet each other.
So, we're going to hear a bit more about this from our guests, all of whom have been working together on this project for the past three-and-a-half years.
And so I'm going to ask each of them to introduce themselves in turn. So, turning first to Sam.
Samer Saliba [03:12] Hi Lucy, happy to be here. So I'm Samer Saliba, I'm the director of city practice at the Mayors Migration Council. And the Mayors Migration Council is a coalition of mayors around the world advocating, as you said, for other mayors who are hosting migrants and displaced people in their cities to have a role in responding to that displacement – both on the ground, but also internationally in the decision-making that happens around global displacement and making sure that cities have a say in that decision-making.
Jack Makau [03:43] Thank you, Lucy, and thank you for having us. My name is Jack Makau, I'm an associate director with Slum Dwellers International, which is an organisation that works with slum dwellers to improve their lives and their housing and infrastructure. And our big role here was we spent a lot of time working with city governments and therefore bringing those connections into the project.
Thank you, Lucy.
Nassim Majidi [04:15] Hello, Lucy, and thanks for having me. My name is Nassim Majidi, I'm the executive director and co-founder of Samuel Hall. We're a research organisation based in Afghanistan, originally, where we started, but also in Nairobi. And so our whole raison d'être is to bring the voices of communities to change-makers for more inclusive societies, and including inclusive cities.
Lucy Earle [04:41] Thanks, thanks all of you for being here.
So I wanted to start off with a question to Sam. So you've been working with municipal authorities hosting refugees from all over the world for a number of years now, and in fact you were one of the first people to really start advocating for a greater role for municipal authorities in refugee response. Can you start by explaining to our audience why this engagement is important, and what types of practices you're seeking to influence or to change?
Samer Saliba [05:07] Sure, thanks, Lucy. If I could just set the scene a little bit, I want to start with a little story that actually involves you, Lucy, and it takes place in 2015 when Lucy was seconded to the International Rescue Committee and hired me away from my US-based urban planning role to advise the International Rescue Committee on how to work in urban areas and how to work with city governments on issues of urban displacement.
And my first act as a humanitarian was to attend a simulation training on urban humanitarian response that stated that the multiplication of natural disasters in an ever-increasing urban population have forced organisations to rethink the way they prepare and respond to the needs of affected displaced communities in urban settings. The key difference between a rural and camp-based settings and urban settings is the existence of one or more local administrations.
And one of our first tasks as trainees was to assume the role of international humanitarian agencies responding to a displacement crisis in a fictitious capital city of a developing country. And we were given a list of urban stakeholders – traditional leaders, local community groups, militias – and asked to rank them in order of priority for engagement.
And my instinct – after years based as a US city planner working in response to Hurricane Sandy here in New York, different natural disasters that have caused displacement in coastal areas in the US, my instinct – was to prioritise the mayor, right? Like, surely the mayor should be at the forefront of the response to the crisis in his or her city. Well, I was wrong, apparently, according to the instructors.
I was immediately rebuffed and the organisers and trainees both told me that the mayor may be limited in capacity to lead a response, or maybe further incapacitated due to the crisis, or a common consensus was that the mayor might be corrupt in these low-income countries where this crisis was happening, right?
This is July 2015, back when even fictitious mayors were marginalised by the real-life presumptions of the international community – despite the fact, as you rightly articulated, Lucy, that the majority of displaced people are living in urban settings.
And so over the next eight years it really became my task to address this assumption that mayors are not well-placed, right? And really highlight the need to work with mayors as equal partners, at the very least, in response to displacement crises. Because...the mayors that we work with are well placed to, if not partner with, lead on local responses to urban displacement.
They are more familiar with the local context, they are inherently natural multitaskers capable of working on housing issues, economic issues, working with different populations in different parts of the city. And it is their... they are mandated to serve all residents of a city regardless of where they come from.
And this is different than national governments where issues of citizenship, of border control, of things like that come into play. Cities don't necessarily have to contend with those issues, they can just say, ‘these people are my constituents because they reside in my city, and because they reside in my city it is my job, it is my mandate, to provide for them as best as possible’.
My career has thankfully taken me from the “European migration crisis”, which was more political crisis than anything else, working with cities like Athens and Paris, now to the Mayors Migration Council, not working with or alongside mayors but for the mayors on our leadership board, really following their lead.
And now of course with the protected displacement, where I'm very happy to work with my colleagues on the line on advancing conversations with Amman, with Nairobi, with Jalalabad, with Addis Ababa, to really stop talking about how cities should be at the forefront, but putting cities at the forefront – especially in these tremendously important displacement contexts such as Nairobi, where the estimates vary but tens of thousands of refugees have lived in the city for a long period of time in a country in Kenya that has an encampment policy.
And it's thanks in large part to 'Protracted displacement in an urban world' and Jack's work, which I'm sure he'll talk a lot more about, that we're able to really give agency or elevate the agency of the Nairobi City County government, who are more than willing to take a leadership role in providing for refugees that have had a long standing in the city of Nairobi, and figuring out how to include them in long-term planning, but also how to include them in shorter-term projects such as projects like the Mayors Migration Council's Global Cities Fund for Migrants and Refugees, where we're funding Nairobi to create green jobs for Kenyans, refugees, migrants, and other people who are in need within the city.
Lucy Earle [10:17] Thanks, Sam. It's great to get that introduction to understand why it matters to talk to mayors.
I do want to turn to Jack since you were mentioning Nairobi. And I want to ask, well, point out that Jack has been working in the city of Nairobi for... working closely with municipal authorities for decades, I think. But the work on displacement on refugees in Nairobi is newer.
Jack, can you tell me what you see changing over the past few years in terms of your work and in terms of the attitude perhaps among municipal officials towards refugees?
Jack Makau [10:51] Yeah, sure. When we started with this project and engaging with the city, because refugees’ affairs are done by national government, there was no one, no department, in the city that that worked with refugees.
So we started out with the people that we had worked [with] in slum improvement for a long time, which were planners and housing officers. And great credit to them, they came along and they were keen, but their ideas were very different. They wanted to map where the refugees are, as you do when you plan cities and overlay infrastructure maps and so on.
But it's grown. And over time then we found that Samer and the Mayors Migration had made great investments in Nairobi City and we were able to link up with those departments that were working on refugee matters or had an understanding. And then we've built a relationship on that.
What we see has happened is that, as Samer had said, cities generally want to serve all the residents sitting there, but many people within the city itself had no idea on what to do with refugees when confronted with access to health, education, social programmes, and so on. And in the span of these three years we see a deliberate effort by different departments to integrate and to actually pull in refugees in the city into their programme.
So I think great progress right now. The city has, hopefully picking up from all our efforts, set up a department for inclusion and participation that deals with marginalised groups. And we think that's where the refugees and displaced populations will sit. So, great progress.
Lucy Earle [12:57] That's fantastic.
But alongside working with the county, which is what we anticipated – I mean, the municipal authorities, Nairobi City County – you've also managed to really make progress at the national level with the body responsible for refugees there and the national government of Kenya, the Department for Refugee Services, I think it is.
And that's a little bit unexpected. I mean, the project was focusing on the city-level, but actually you managed to get – as I understand it – gradually build this great relationship with the national level. Can you tell us a bit about how that evolved as well?
Jack Makau [13:29] Yes, and I'll start again with where it started. In one of our initial meetings we invited, it was a blind invite, we invited the department and they came. And a few minutes into the meeting they went out and we were a bit concerned, so we went out and asked, ‘Is it OK?’, and they said, ‘No, absolutely you cannot do this. You are holding a meeting to encourage refugees to leave camps and come into the city, and we don't want that to happen. So you have to shut down your meeting’.
And we had a lengthy chat, the meeting went ahead, it wasn't stopped. We said we were talking about people who had been in the city for very, very long periods of time. And then the relationship started to grow. We got involved in what they were doing and they had an interest in what we were doing.
And just looking back I think what changed was there was awareness that there were lots of refugees in Nairobi, and the department tried to provide some services to them, but I think it was generally seen as a failure of the encampment policy. And therefore it wasn't really spoken about as an issue to be dealt with. I think it... there was a preference that it does not become an issue.
So, in time, we think we created a comfort by saying, ‘This is not a failure of policies and it's not unique to Nairobi. This happens in Jordan, in Addis, and I suppose in many countries that have large numbers of refugees who should be in camps and find themselves in cities’. So it's created a comfort. And I think the comfort creates a space where we can start to see some change, definitely a change of attitude.
Lucy Earle [15:32] That's really exciting, the work that you've done in Nairobi and we're really happy we're going to be able to carry on with that with a sort of new phase of our project.
I wanted to turn now to Nassim. And we've been hearing about city authorities, county government, national departments, I wanted to get your perspective on whether... why it's important to bring these actors together, what's the best way to do it, what can we achieve when we get these dialogues across different levels of government and different types of stakeholders?
Nassim Majidi [16:03] I'm just going to go back to one word that Jack used, the notion of ‘comfort’ in dialogue. And I think we have to also realise that we're in very uncomfortable situations in some of these locations where the research consortium has been leading these participatory forum[s].
I'll speak to Jalalabad, Afghanistan next, but let me first start with Addis in Ethiopia. Basically, in both of those countries – Afghanistan and Ethiopia – we basically handled a dialogue process in the middle of political and humanitarian crises. So it's not only that these conversations were critical, but there were urgent conversations in responses to crises that were happening locally as displacement continued to build up.
And here one of our participants at this participatory forum told us we need to coordinate more because Ethiopia is not only one of the biggest refugee-hosting regions or countries in the world, but because we need a proper response now, more than before, to the refugee situation in this city – we need coordination to not just focus on humanitarian and development aid, but to really think about cities as spaces for inclusion.
A note of context for Ethiopia specifically, again, moving from the fact that Ethiopia has a long history of hosting refugees, that beyond that, given a growing urban refugee population, I think in 2010 the government of Ethiopia actually adopted an out-of-camp policy, which opened the doors for refugees to leave camps and come to the city, for example, to access medical treatment. So there had been some openings towards more discussions of inclusion in the city, or at least access to the city.
But then what happened in 2021 is, with the outbreak of the conflict in the Tigray region, several refugee camps were destroyed, were closed. And so more people also came to the city. And so there what you had was basically municipal actors finding themselves having to face an ever-increasing demand for shelter, for basic services. And so concerns were growing.
And so our participatory forums basically happened in that specific context. And so I think that context of a crisis really allowed us to bring all the actors together. And really it was about bringing everyone to the table, anyone who's part of the municipal landscape – from municipal authorities to the humanitarian and development actors, communities, but also academia and research.
Because what we did is obviously that we presented data that we had on the refugee population in the city, and used it as a way to get a conversation going. And what was really interesting was that in these discussions, I think this was one of the first times that authorities realised that refugees often don't have clear information about their status, the implications in terms of access to services. But also that refugees heard that basically officials do not know about their obligations, or local officials, local authorities might not know about national regulations affecting their lives. And so bridging that divide and helping fill those information gaps, that was really one of the purposes of the conversation.
One of our participatory forums was basically one of the first times that the national Refugee and Returnee Service, so the leading government office for the protection of refugees, met with the Addis municipality.
And so these are part of growing conversations, and Sam knows this because his organisation has been incredibly active with the Addis municipality.
But basically this is what these four allow us to do is bring together actors, and by meeting, for example, between the RRS and Addis city representatives, what we had was an agreement that there needs to be an urban strategy for Addis that includes the displaced. There needs to be city-wide service mapping. There needs to be also capacity-building of authorities.
And so now really what everyone saw was this commitment to collaborate more closely with municipal actors, and involving also academic actors to fill in the data gaps.
So it's really become an inclusive conversation, but with very practical operational elements to it too.
Lucy Earle [20:57] Because when we started this process we weren't really sure how far we would get in any of the cities. And actually each one has evolved in really interesting ways.
I'd love to turn to Jalalabad and to talk about what's going to happen in the future there, but I'm… Sam wanted to come in.
Samer Saliba [21:13] Yeah, so I think what I love about this conversation is it's really highlighting… I think all of us, you know, we've worked together for so long, we've known that we need a new way of working, right? We need a new way of delivering humanitarian assistance, we need a new way of delivering developmental assistance. We need new words besides humanitarian and developmental to really focus on people's lives, and their comfort, and their long-term socioeconomic inclusion – not just their self-reliance, but their reaching their full potential.
And what we're starting to realise through this project and others is not just that we need a new way of working, but a new way of working is possible, right? And I think that Jack and Nassim in articulating what's happened in Nairobi, what's happened in Addis Ababa, is really highlighting that when you actually knock on the door – I mean, Lucy, you've heard me say this before, but knock on the door – of city governments, of mayors, of refugee-led organisations, and really articulate the need for them to be involved and also give them resources to be involved – as we're doing at the Mayors Migration Council – then you start to realise what's possible with this new way of working, and putting cities and putting local communities at the forefront.
And I'm really proud to be a part of that, but there's so much more to go. I mean, we're only talking about four cities here. And so the challenge now for us is going to be to talk about how to use this data, how to talk about how to use this learning and this action.
Lucy Earle [22:42] So, to turn back to Nassim, can you tell us briefly about where you see this model taking off and how it might be replicated by others.
Nassim Majidi [22:52] Yes, and I think I'll take the example of Jalalabad in Afghanistan, which is the fourth city. And as Sam mentioned, we didn't know if it would be feasible to continue a discussion on urban inclusion after the fall of Kabul in 2021. So that was another crisis we had to face.
Actually, it turned out that the space we had created in early 2021 was one of the only spaces in which, once the Taliban came back to power, IDP representatives or internally displaced people – refugees, returnees, others – could actually sit at the same table with municipal actors.
For example, women today can't go inside the municipality offices in Jalalabad. However, we're able to bring them together to talk with municipal representatives around the table with academia, with humanitarian organisations.
And so our space, the participatory forum, became one of the only ones available to list not just the tensions present between populations and authorities, but also to find a common way forward – what are the priorities? What can everyone agree on? How can we put our disagreements aside and make cities more liveable for everyone?
And so we've had five participatory forum planning processes in Jalalabad, and because they've been successful, and because all the participants have felt that their voices were heard – even women in this context, youth, children's voices, all were integrated in our approach – we're now talking about replicating the process in other cities in Afghanistan.
Because what I also wanted to emphasise is it starts with the knock on the door that Sam mentioned. And then the process of holding conversation is neither complicated nor costly nor difficult to organise, it just requires to keep the conversation alive with local actors and local partners. And so that's what we've been doing.
And it's easy to replicate. And it's really easy to do beyond the old ways of working that, you know, the humanitarian and development sector have created. This is actually just about organising city-based dialogues. And they're easy to replicate.
Lucy Earle [25:06] That's incredible, thanks Nassim. And I think credit to you and your colleagues at Samuel Hall for making that happen. It seemed almost impossible that we'd be able to carry on this work after the Taliban took over.
So, we're getting towards the end of our podcast and I wanted to ask you guys where you think we need to be doing more.
So we've talked about, is it about getting municipal authorities to understand that they have a role in the refugee and IDP response? Is it about getting humanitarians to open up space to debate with municipal authorities to get them involved? Is it that we need to be channelling funding direct to city authorities? Is it the national authorities need to be engaging more with cities on refugee issues? Is it something for the general public to get involved in?
Where do you all see the gap? Feel free to jump in.
Samer Saliba [25:54] I think just to quickly latch onto that last point you said, I do think, you know, we should give city governments and watch what they do with it. Obviously you need to do the due diligence up front to make sure that you're working with a viable partner and appropriate partner and going from there.
But I've been person... even as strong an advocate as I am for letting cities lead on displacement in their own cities, even I've been surprised to see how far they can really take even a limited number of resources. Because they are so good at investing it in existing systems, in existing communications that they have with marginalised communities, and existing staff that they have. So it's really important that they have the resources to act, not just a seat at the table.
Jack Makau [26:39] Agreeing with you completely, Sam. And I know for Nairobi, when part of our discussions with the city, the political and the councillors, and we met with the speaker of the city assembly, one of their questions was, why should we as city fathers or mothers care about refugees? They don't vote in our wards and so on.
And eventually we came to an agreement. Investments were made that supported both refugee and host communities. Then it would improve service delivery and they know how to do that.
So, Sam, I couldn't agree more that getting the city and getting more investments into the city that serves the entire population is the way to go.
Nassim Majidi [27:35] And I think I'll just finish on that thought around, you know, we thought the... around the funding gap. I think that's the most essential one.
Initially, when we started, we thought there would also be a trust gap, that there would be difficulties in getting people, stakeholders, with different interests around the table to talk. And actually we saw that that gap wasn't really there, that it was actually possible to get stakeholders with different viewpoints together to chart a common way forward.
So now that we know the trust gap is not the issue. And now that we know that collective vision and outcomes can be sought, now it's about putting money behind and investing, as Sam and Jack just said, into those solutions.
And I think that's what the whole co-production partnership idea really requires now to lead to concrete changes and to lead to, you know, practical improvements in people's lives and in the lives of cities, is to be able to provide those funding. And I think that's where donors and funding bodies really need to provide that flexibility for cities to take the lead, for cities to deliver services that can improve the lives of the displaced and the non-displaced.
So really the funding gap I think is the most important one now.
Lucy Earle [28:54] So you all agree with each other, which is interesting.
So, at the end of each Make Change Happen podcast we like to bring the conversation around to the keyword there, ‘change’.
So I want to invite each of you to share, what's the one big change you would like to see?
And this is a quick-fire round, so let's keep it short. Take it away.
Jack Makau [29:15] OK, I'll come in. I think for people who are displaced for large amounts of time, they should not be in camps. I think the effort should be to find solutions for refugees in cities.
Lucy Earle [29:31] Couldn't agree more. Thank you, Jack.
Samer Saliba [29:33] And I'll just say, yeah, I think, you know, our quick tagline is 'help cities help people'. I think it's that simple, really. I think once you once you identify cities as a viable and in fact quite an impactful actor, then the sky's the limit. And not just for refugees and displaced people, but for marginalised communities writ large.
So, yeah, help cities help people.
Nassim Majidi [29:55] I think the final change I would like to see is I would like us to see moving beyond discussions of solutions as if they imply problems, of actually just acknowledging that integration and inclusion is needed in a context where everywhere all over the world all we're seeing is exclusion and marginalisation.
So, how can we talk about inclusion? How can we make cities the spaces for inclusion? And not think about necessarily talks of durable solutions and other solutions, but just think about inclusion – how to make inclusion happen.
Lucy Earle [30:32] Thank you, Nassim.
And with those words on inclusion, we're going to draw this podcast to a close.
I actually want to thank all of my guests – Jack, Nassim, Sam – for this really rich conversation. I'm really lucky to have you as colleagues as well as friends, and I'm looking forward to being able to carry on working with you on these topics as this work on protracted displacement evolves into new ideas, new research themes, new policy engagement.
So that's it from us. Thank you and goodbye.
Host [31:04] More about the project 'Protracted displacement in an urban world' can be found online at protracteddisplacement.org. You can find more information about this podcast and our guests at IIED.org/podcast, where you can also listen to previous episodes and browse the rest of our website for more information about IIED and our work.