The road from refugee to resident

How working with displaced people can help create more inclusive and sustainable cities

Long read by
18 July 2021

Aerial scene of Mathare, SuSanA Secretariat via Flickr, (CC BY 2.0)

About ten years ago, Firas had much to look forward to. A newly qualified lawyer, he and his wife were living among friends and family in the ancient city of Daraa, in southwest Syria. He had ambitions to protect the innocent and provide a good life for his family. The Syrian civil war changed everything.

Daraa was the site of early uprisings against the regime of Bashar as Asaad and nicknamed the ‘cradle of the revolution’. Firas and his family were forced to flee after fighting broke out. Eventually crossing the border into Jordan – just eight miles away – Firas’ family were housed among tens of thousands of others in Zaatari, Jordan’s largest refugee camp.

Map of Syria and Jordan

Isolated from the world, Firas and his wife had only photos to remember the normal, comfortable life they had known.

Like most people who have been forced to move within or across national borders, Firas’ family face the possibility of many years in exile.

Also like the majority of displaced people, Firas wanted to move on from the uncertainty of camp life. If forced to re-root his family and rebuild his life, he would want to do so in a city.

Firas kissing his son Mohammad

Firas and Mohammad in 2016. Five years on, the family are still in Jordan (Photo: copyright Optimist)

Individual tragedy and international crisis

Firas’ story is unique, but rings true for millions. Refugees are defined as individuals who have crossed an international border for fear of war, violence, conflict or persecution. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that there are currently 26 million refugees worldwide – the highest number since the end of the Second World War.

Refugees are often in the headlines, the focus of politicians and campaigners. The 20 June, World Refugee Day, is also a moment to think about a less recognised population that shares many of the experiences of refugees: internally displaced people, or IDPs.

Forced to move within their own countries, globally there are many more IDPs than refugees. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Geneva provides annual estimates of new displacements: in 2020, there were 9.8m new displacements resulting from conflict and violence, and 30.7m from disasters.

The IDMC also estimates the total numbers of IDPs: 55m at the end of 2020, but with many caveats, given the paucity of data. There are a number of reasons for this: many internal displacements are not recorded by national governments or the initial displacement is recorded, but no information on returns or onward movements is captured.

There is also the difficulty of defining what precisely drove the initial displacement: was it conflict, lawlessness and violence, climate change, disaster, poverty, or a combination of factors?

Regardless of the cause, we do know that these uncertain and distressing circumstances are often long term: the World Bank estimates that around 77% of refugees are displaced for more than five years.

Unhelpful stereotypes do real harm

Forced displacement is a topic rife with assumption. The terms ‘refugee’ and ‘IDP’ often conjure images of desperate families, newly arrived in out-of-the-way temporary camps and dependent on food aid from the international community.

This vision is accurate in terms of where most of the funding to support refugees is channelled. In many displacement situations, the UN system will work with the host government to construct and manage camps in the early days of a crisis. But they are inappropriate for long-term residence, and they deflect attention and funding away from the many other locations where refugees and IDPs choose to settle.

An aerial view of tents in Za’atri refugee camp

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, host to tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by conflict. Despite dominating funding and media attention, globally only a minority of displaced people live in purpose-built camps like this one (Photo: United Nations Photo via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Whether they leave a camp or bypass the system entirely, at least 60% of all refugees will make their way to cities and towns, with only a minority living in camps. The Center for Global Development looked at data from 17 countries and concluded that it is common for at least half of the IDP population of a country to be in an urban area.

The problem is, none of these urban spaces – not even capitals such as Nairobi, Addis Ababa or Amman – is sufficiently resourced to provide for the new arrivals, who often face discrimination and may choose to remain out of sight of local authorities. Their presence may even be illegal in countries with strict encampment policies.

Displacement can cause rapid, unpredictable urban population growth – even doubling resident numbers in a short space of time – but the municipal authorities usually responsible for delivering core services to all residents rarely receive a commensurate increase in resources or technical support.

Meanwhile, within many of the bodies that provide assistance to displaced people – governments, donors and humanitarian agencies – there are persistent and harmful attitudes revolving around the idea that urban refugees are self-sufficient and should move to a camp if they cannot meet their basic needs. So, in many cases, no assistance at all is made available to displaced people in towns and cities.

This notion fails to acknowledge that beyond the most basic needs, displaced people have aspirations and preferences, which may be more easily realised in urban spaces.

A new approach to city planning

How towns and cities could respond better to the arrival of IDP and refugee populations is the subject of our project ‘Responding to protracted displacement in an urban world’. Working with a number of international and national organisations, we are focusing on IDPs in Afghanistan and refugees in Ethiopia, Jordan and Kenya.

Fieldwork maps with urban and camp locations, showing Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Jordan and Kenya

Fieldwork maps with urban and camp locations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Jordan and Kenya (Illustrations: IIED)

The project is comparative: we are looking at how displaced people experience life in a camp compared to life in an urban area. And how the experience of IDPs and refugees in cities differs from that of the local populations. Our research has three main aims:

  • Create an evidence base for national and local governments, humanitarian agencies and donors on the opportunities and challenges of hosting displaced people in camps and urban areas, identified by IDPs and refugees themselves.
  • Build greater capacity among municipal authorities, displaced people, organisations of the urban poor and other local actors to use research findings to collectively design innovative and inclusive responses to the needs of displaced people and of their local hosts.
  • Raise awareness of unmet need and advocate for an assessment of current responses to urban protracted displacement.

Following a mixed methods approach, we begin with a survey covering key aspects of livelihoods and wellbeing; we then follow up on the most salient issues through in-depth interviews, and work with displaced people to map their livelihoods pathways and business networks. We then compare our findings from camps and urban areas.

Despite the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic, associated lockdowns and budget cuts to research funded through Official Development Assistance, this project is already showing interesting results.

This work speaks closely to IIED’s aim to create a fairer, more sustainable world by raising marginalised voices in the decision-making arenas that most affect them. Our project offers the international community a chance to listen to IDPs and refugees, to understand who they are, what they need, where they want to be, and how they can fulfil their potential during a long period of displacement that is no fault of their own.

Walking a mile in their shoes

We need to listen to people like Firas. We first met his family around 2016 through a previous humanitarian-focused research project called ‘Urban Crises’, in which we partnered with the International Rescue Committee and others.

To increase understanding of the human experience of being displaced, and how the system supports or thwarts you, Firas worked with filmmakers Optimist to tell his story in the form of an interactive visual letter to his young son, Mohammed.

 5:46 Immerse into virtual reality and experience the journey of Firas, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee.

In the letter, Firas describes the sudden shift in circumstances that led him from his city home to a sprawling refugee camp on foreign soil: “I had graduated with a law degree and we had our entire lives ahead of us. But after the fighting started we were forced to flee.”

They arrived at Zaatari, built at great speed in the early days of the Syrian conflict to process and provide shelter to the thousands of refugees crossing the border into Jordan each week. The early days were tough: there were riots and lawlessness and massive overcrowding.

After a time, the camp settled down. Refugee-owned businesses operate along a ‘street’ named the ‘Champs-Élysées.’ But this is an ironic moniker. While the entrepreneurialism and dynamism of the Syrian population is much lauded, Zaatari is no Paris. It is dusty, without green space, and it is closed off. Neither residents nor visitors can come and go freely; opportunities for work and leisure are limited. Not everyone has the capital or connections to start a business.

In general, camps are inhospitable places. Deliberately set apart from population centres, they are often located in remote border regions where environmental conditions can be harsh. As documented by IIED research in Tanzania, gender-based violence in and around camps is a real concern, and there can be high levels of intimate partner violence within households.

Often unable to work legally, men and women living in camps have very little choice over their lives. The most basic decisions, down to the food they eat, are taken for them.

By listening to displaced people’s concerns, we are building a picture that goes beyond the metrics of nutrition, income and other more familiar welfare indictors. We are finding out about the less tangible but vital elements of wellbeing – those that help create a life that is about more than mere survival.

How we measure hope

Our preliminary results from both Afghanistan and Ethiopia show a stark contrast in hope and aspiration between displaced people in urban areas and those in camps or camp-like settlements.

Barikab is an example of a settlement that has all the hallmarks of a camp. We have been working with Afghan IDPs resettled in this solitary community on the border of Parwan and Kabul, which was partially funded by the Australian government (one part of the site is named ‘Alice Ghan’, after Alice Springs). Ten years on, many homes have been abandoned and are in ruins. Remaining residents told our local survey team about problems ranging from unreliable drinking water to the poverty caused by lack of employment.

When I started my small shop I had an investment of 90,000 AFN, but now I have less than 40,000 AFN of goods… because the people are very poor in this camp. They buy their needs for home like oil, soap, rice, gas, etcetera, but as loans and they cannot afford to pay back to me for six months because they are all jobless.

– Ahmadullah (not his real name), a returnee shop owner in the Barikab settlement, Kabul Province, speaking to one of our local surveyors

Our research looked at how a positive sense of the future differed between the displaced people living in camps or camp-like situations and those who had found their way to urban areas. In Afghanistan we contrasted Barikab with the Majbor Abad area of Jalalabad, the country’s fifth-largest city; in Ethiopia we contrasted the remote Asayta camp with capital Addis Ababa.

We asked each settlement or city-based respondent whether they thought their children (or children in the neighbourhood) would have a better or worse standard of living in the future than they were currently experiencing, or roughly the same.


Expected future living standard of children in adulthood, compared to respondent now

More than 60% of city-based respondents in Afghanistan and 44% in Ethiopia believed their children’s lives would be ‘much better’ than their own. In contrast, while camp residents saw some improvement ahead, only around 5% of respondents in Barikab expected that ‘much better’ life to materialise for their young people; this is somewhat higher at just over 20% in Asayta.

Our preliminary results also show that displaced people in camps and camp-like settlements in Afghanistan and Ethiopia report higher levels of dissatisfaction in terms of access to public transport and to healthcare than their counterparts in the city.


Level of satisfaction with local access to bus stop/public transport


Level of satisfaction with local access to health care facilities

The worst of both worlds

It is clear that camps or isolated settlements are not places where most families can thrive. Barikab’s many abandoned houses are testament to that. But camps don’t necessarily work well for the host nations either.

Abandoned buildings

The Barikab settlement shares much in common with the camp model: isolated and with poor provision of basic services, there are limited opportunity for livelihoods or wellbeing. Land for agriculture is so scarce, crops are grown inside deserted homes (Photo: copyright Samuel Hall)

Although not a factor in the construction of Barikab, security and the need to maintain control over a displaced population is often cited as a reason to build camps or establish settlements. But camps may actually breed insecurity, as young people are radicalised, or populations are terrorised by armed groups.

It is understandable that they seem to be the answer at the onset of a crisis – constructing camps shows that the host government is responding to the situation and, in refugee situations, it also generally shifts the financial burden of establishing and maintaining the site onto the international community.

However, striking this type of bargain may have long-term negative consequences. Inevitably humanitarian attention and funding will move on to the next crisis. Where there is no chance of safe return for refugees, host nations are left with an increasingly impoverished encamped population, dependent on external assistance, often exacting a heavy toll on the local environment.

In contrast, displaced people living in towns and cities have far greater potential to sustain themselves and their families. But the focus on camps means they struggle to get the resources, services or information they need. It’s a worst of both worlds situation for people who have already lost so much.

While our project is collecting data on what life is like for displaced people in camps, we are primarily doing this to demonstrate the comparative benefits that urban areas provide, and how they could become more welcoming, inclusive and productive spaces for displaced people.

We are shedding light on the views, hopes and endeavours of these hidden urban populations, with the aim of informing new policy and programmes that help them thrive in towns and cities.

Learning from the experts

We know displaced people gravitate to cities, while funding is generally channelled to camps. Now we need to ask displaced people – the experts in their own lives – what does the urban life they are seeking look like? And what would it take to support them to achieve it?

Firas contrasts the restrictions of life in a camp to the relative freedom and opportunity of the city, saying: “I wanted to live in a city to have choice again.” Overall, his filmed letter speaks clearly to twin concerns: livelihood and wellbeing.

These are the two key issues we are investigating. We are undertaking qualitative and quantitative analysis of data from a camp and an urban area in four refugee hosting countries: Jordan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Kenya.

Wellbeing: We will take a broad approach to the concept, dividing it into five different subsections: social, political, economic, bodily and subjective wellbeing. The final category is often overlooked in this kind of research, which can be very strictly limited to the more tangible (and basic) measures of food intake, health, adequate shelter and education.

Livelihoods: We will focus on ‘livelihoods pathways’, seeking to understand how people’s income-earning strategies have changed as a result of displacement, and how they continue to evolve. This includes an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 and uncovers the types of work and working conditions experienced by displaced people.

Working in this participative way raises different challenges in different places. For example, in Addis Ababa, the centralised nature of the Ethiopian state and historic repression of civil society means the idea of city residents engaging with the local state – and the type of forum we are working towards – is a less familiar and comfortable concept. Our project partner Cardiff University is working closely with the University of Addis Ababa and the Regional Durable Solutions Secretariat to see how we can overcome these obstacles.

In Kenya, by contrast, our partner SDI-Kenya has a long-standing and productive working relationship with the Nairobi county government, ensuring local residents are heard and included in plans to upgrade informal settlements across the city. SDI-Kenya is currently working on a new planning process for Mathare, a low-income neighbourhood that is home to around half a million people. With this project, the organisation will actively engage with the considerable population of displaced people living there for the first time.

Our research represents a tremendous opportunity to bring new voices into discussions around improving infrastructure and basic services, both recognising the medium to long-term presence of refugees in low-income settlements in the city and treating them as residents – not foreigners or people passing through.

Cities: living up to their promise?

As Firas implies in his letter to his son, life in a camp exacts a psychological toll: “I am an educated man… We received help [at the Zaatari camp] but I didn't want to be a burden anymore… After a few months we found safe haven in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Most of us moved out of the camps.”

For many IDPs and refugees, especially those who once lived in urban areas, even a strange town or city will appear a more attractive home than a camp or isolated settlement. This is not least because urban areas ostensibly provide greater opportunities for earning a living, along with a greater choice of higher quality services, such as healthcare and education.

But making a living as an urban refugee or IDP is not easy. Firas explains: “[Syrian refugees] are hidden in towns and cities around the country. We live in half-finished buildings, garages or rented rooms. Life is much harder than we anticipated. Jordanians already struggled to find jobs before we came and there just aren't a lot of resources as more and more refugees arrive.”

This project’s participatory forums, established at city-level, will discuss the challenges that displaced people experience. Within them, participants will use insights from our research to inform solutions that work for refugees and IDPs as well as their hosts.

Our first forum took place in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in March 2021. This was a pioneering moment: it was the first time that IDP issues had been discussed with municipal authorities by IDPs themselves, alongside member of the host communities, representatives from the private sector and civil society actors. With all these voices in a room, understanding and change become possible.

No description available.

Jalalabad street scene (Photo: Peretz Partensky via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0)

At the first Jalalabad forum, some representatives from the host communities suggested that IDPs arrived in the city “unaware of how many problems there are… In the city life there is air pollution… worries for material life, noise, nerve damage, and environmental stress, lack of solar energy. Lack of urban sewerage, narrow streets, narrow roads and overcrowding are the current problems”. They also cited the “high cost of transportation, the high cost of medical treatment, the high cost of education and so on, the limitation of recreational opportunities”, which affect longstanding residents and new arrivals alike.

“Some despised me; others welcomed me”

These are the words of Iftu Hussein Adam, an Ethiopian refugee living and working in the Mathare informal settlement in Nairobi. Her experiences, and those of others, are captured in a moving film made by SDI-Kenya and Know Your City TV, with support from IIED and NOREC. They describe how local attitudes towards refugees are complex and may shift over time.

Iftu Hussein Adam

Iftu Hussein Adam interviewed in her home (Photo: screenshot from film made by SDI-Kenya and Know Your City TV)

The often instinctive desire to welcome those fleeing for their lives can give way to resentment and even hostility, particularly when large numbers of displaced people impact significantly on life for the host population, and there is no end in sight. This can be particularly acute where refugees are living among people who are themselves very poor and highly marginalised.

In a series of focus groups conducted by our partners in Nairobi’s low-income Mathare neighbourhood, residents implied that Somali refugees living in nearby Eastleigh were generally wealthy, with significant business interests. A commonly held assumption is that refugees live an easy life, their needs met by the international humanitarian community, while normal citizens struggle to get by.

The reality is very different. Refugees in Nairobi receive no assistance from UNHCR, and are at best ignored by local authorities. As Jack Makau from SDI-Kenya points out, “while Mathare’s grassroots organisations recognised displacement as an important local issue, it wasn’t really recognised as a city issue.”

Displaced people face discrimination in the workplace, harassment in public spaces and may be vulnerable to abuse from landlords and the police. They may have difficulty accessing services due to language barriers, prejudice or an inability to pay fees or bribes.

Critically, most refugees worldwide do not have the right to work, and must make a precarious living under the radar, accepting lower wages from employers who exploit their status.

 39:27 In this documentary, women and men from Ethiopia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo speak frankly about the events that caused them to flee, their struggles finding shelter and work in Mathare, Nairobi, and the added burden of COVID-19 on their lives and livelihoods.

Recognising both struggle and success

Firas, like so many refugees and IDPs, has a genuine desire to work, pay taxes and contribute to society, but little chance to do so: “I wish I could make my own opportunities and [pay] back Jordan for hosting us… but I haven't been able to work as a lawyer because refugees don't have the right to work in Jordan. To make ends meet I started cutting hair at shops that don't report [me].”

The ‘livelihood pathways’ element of the ‘Responding to protracted displacement in an urban world’ project is studying refugee and IDP livelihoods and how their income-earning strategies evolve during displacement.

We are also looking at the businesses that displaced people establish and the networks they create that support job opportunities for themselves, other displaced people and host communities.

Taking a holistic approach to ‘displacement economies’, we expect this aspect of our research to demonstrate that refugees and IDPs already make a significant contribution to local and national economies, despite legal barriers and hostile attitudes from authorities.

Better laid plans: from survey to street

In 2016, Firas told Mohammed: “In Syria… my mission was to protect the innocent and none of that has changed. There are so many of us that can help make this world a better place, if we're just given the chance.” More than five years on, he is still waiting.

To create that chance, displaced people must be heard. Our forums are providing a safe space for displaced people, local authorities and others to meet, allowing municipal decision makers to become more aware of the capacities and potential of IDPs and refugees, as well as their needs and challenges. The forums can serve as a model for other cities to replicate.

In addition, the data produced through the research project will help local authorities and service providers plan more effectively and sustainably for the needs of all their residents – long-term and new arrivals.

And it has never been more urgent to use data on displaced populations in city-level planning. Refugees and IDPs often live in the most marginal areas of low-income settlements where there are many hazards that can be exacerbated by climate change.

Looking to the settlements where our partners are working in Nairobi, populations are at great risk of flooding and heat stress, with knock-on impacts on their health and livelihoods. It is critical that all residents’ needs and perspectives are considered if efforts to upgrade these neighbourhoods in a climate-resilient manner are to be effective.

And this is beginning to happen: our project partner SDI-Kenya and their local affiliate Muungano wa Wanavijiji are currently working with the county government on the future of the huge and climate-vulnerable Mathare settlement.

In the process of being designated a ‘Special Planning Area’, SDI-Kenya is encouraging city authorities to incorporate displaced people as a theme for the participatory planning stage, ensuring that Mathare’s multiple refugee populations will have a voice in its future.

Aerial photo of Mathare

Residents in Mathare lack access to adequate housing, sanitation, water and other basic services. Understanding how to respond to the movement of large numbers of displaced people into these areas requires working with partners at the grassroots and city levels who are familiar with the infrastructure and services. This photo was taken as part of a balloon mapping project led by community members and Muungano wa Wanavijiji (Photo: copyright Muungano wa Wanavijiji)

While not everyone displaced into an unfamiliar town or city wishes to be visible to the local authorities, we are seeking to build knowledge, understanding and capacity within local government to recognise displacement as a city issue, and develop appropriate responses.

In some cases, displaced people will want to be actively involved, gaining skills as researchers as well as being expert contributors.

Early adoption vs false economy

Some cities are beginning to recognise how important it is to include displacement in sustainable development planning. Perhaps because it has given sanctuary to refugees for over 100 years, from Circassia, Palestine, Iraq and Syria, the Jordanian capital Amman is one of these.

Jordan recognises that plans for sustainable development, including adaptation and mitigation to climate change, must take population fluctuations into account and be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of future IDPs and refugees. This is particularly critical given that the country is one of the most water scarce in the world (another issue that IIED is exploring).

So, back in 2016, the Greater Amman Municipality worked with IRC and used tools developed through the Urban Crises programme to incorporate refugee needs in the city’s resilience planning.

A man stands beside a tray of onions holding up an oversized symbolic key

A vendor in a low-income Palestinian neighbourhood of East Amman shows his ‘key’ to his home in Palestine. Many Palestinian refugees keep a symbolic key to their homeland despite having resided in Jordan for decades. (Photo: Samer Saliba)

The extent to which local authorities are ready to engage with refugees and displaced people varies greatly across the cities in which our research is focused: Addis Ababa, Jalalabad, Jordan and Nairobi. But in every location, we are well-placed to partner with committed, dynamic civil society organisations and universities to open spaces and build on existing innovations over the next two years.

However, the UK government’s devastating aid budget cuts – a loss of more than £4bn – has impacted heavily on research funding; work that would serve the interests of many countries, including those affected by displacement crises.  This has hit our project hard: data collection was in mid-stream when financial support was halved.

We have been forced to scale down our engagement at the city level while we seek alternative sources of funding to support our partners in this vital work.

In the meantime, we are working with activist filmmakers Optimist and the Bernard van Leer Foundation to make a new film with Firas and his family. Over the coming months, we will be asking him to describe how life in Amman has changed since he recorded ‘For my Son’.

Has he come to feel at home in the city? What is it like raising young children in exile? How does he believe the Greater Amman Municipality could improve life and livelihoods for the hundreds of thousands of refugees unable to return home?

Unlocking urban potential

We know that conflicts, climate shocks and other crises will force many more women, men, girls and boys to flee within or across national borders. Most will seek safety in cities and towns: with or without permission.

The choice for local, national and international actors is whether to perpetuate uncertainty and exclusion, or work to include displaced people in planning better and more sustainable urban futures for all. Our part is to provide some of the crucial data they need to take positive action.

Meanwhile, Firas will continue to tell his child: “You are just as much a part of this world as any other person living on earth. We will survive day-by-day so that you will fulfil that great potential you have in store.”

Sign up to IIED’s urban newsletter for regular updates about our research and new projects

By Lucy Earle, principal researcher, Human Settlements research group