A world without refugee camps? IIED launches research on urban refugees

Most refugees and displaced people live in towns and cities – not camps. New research from IIED will build understanding of how urban areas could be the best place to meet the needs and aspirations of these groups.

Lucy Earle's picture
Insight by 
Lucy Earle
Lucy Earle is principal researcher, IIED's Human Settlements research group
06 April 2020
A block of unfinished buildings, open to the elements

Urban refugees often struggle to afford decent shelter and many in Lebanon claim unfinished or abandoned buildings as their home. While the Syrian families living in this unfinished building do not pay rent, they also lack running water (Photo: copyright Jacob Russell, International Rescue Committee)

When asked to imagine the living conditions of refugees in Africa or the Middle East, what do you see? An image in your mind’s eye of rows and rows of white tents and other temporary structures? Or a nondescript apartment block? A shack in an informal settlement? 

For most people it’s the former – and there’s a reason why the image of refugees living in vast sprawls of tents often comes to mind. 

Images of a refugee camp can quickly communicate the scale and urgency of need. They become a type of shorthand used by aid agencies and governments to communicate a message: people fleeing conflict and persecution came to us, and we are dealing with their difficult situation in an orderly way, until they can return home. Their use is also a way of fundraising for the much-needed resources to keep displaced people safe, housed and fed.

Reality check

But these images do not convey the complex reality of displacement flows. The majority of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) do not live in managed camps – most have sought sanctuary, in towns and cities finding shelter where they can – squatting an abandoned building, renting a shack or an apartment, or living in temporary structures on empty land.

Camps limit people’s movements and curtail their economic opportunities. They create dependency and often despair. Displaced people in urban areas will often have made a clear choice to leave a camp or to avoid being assigned to one on entry into the country. They do this even though it may mean forgoing humanitarian assistance and having to make it on their own.

Despite the growing numbers of urban refugees and the difficulties they face, most humanitarian assistance for displacement is still channelled to camps. The statistics from Jordan are startling: 80% of refugees are in urban areas, yet 80% of the aid goes to maintaining camps.

But as refugees and IDPs increasingly choose to settle in urban areas, donors and international agencies are failing to support host cities and neighbourhoods. There has been no systematic evaluation of how camp and urban environments impact the lives of refugees and IDPs differently; little is known about how the urban displaced interact with local people, institutions and economies (informal and formal), or how cities can better respond to their needs.

A new IIED research project funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) on protracted displacement will seek to fill this gap. 

The project has three main aims:

  • Build an evidence base for national and local governments, humanitarian agencies and donors on the opportunities and challenges of hosting displaced people in camps vs urban areas
  • Assess current responses to urban protracted displacement, raising awareness of unmet need, and
  • Build the capacity of municipal authorities, displaced people, organisations of the urban poor and other local actors to jointly find solutions to forced displacement.

An urban future for the world’s displaced?

With a better understanding of how urban areas can meet the needs of refugees and displaced people, we can begin to move away from building camps, and focus instead on responses that promote the rights, dignity and wellbeing of these people, and facilitate their economic contributions to their host settings. 

Our research will focus on improving understanding of ‘self-reliance’, a key component of the UN’s Global Compact on Refugees that is seeking to relieve the pressure on host governments and an overstretched humanitarian system. The central idea is that displaced people – individuals, households and communities – are able to meet their basic needs and exercise their human rights in a sustainable way, without reliance on humanitarian assistance.

The research will be carried out in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Jordan and Kenya. Through household surveys and in-depth qualitative interviewing we will compare the wellbeing, self-reliance and economies of refugees and IDPs in camps and urban areas in each country.

The research tools will be based on displaced people and their hosts’ own understandings of wellbeing and self-reliance. Through a participatory forum in each city, municipal actors, refugee groups, NGOs and academics will support and engage with the research process, using findings to inform city planning processes. 

IIED’s academic partners in the research include Cardiff University in the UK, the Hashemite University of Jordan, Dilla University in Ethiopia and Maseno University in Kenya. We are also working with Samuel Hall, a research-focused social enterprise based in Kabul and Nairobi that will lead on the quantitative research and on the Afghanistan study. Our civil society partners include the International Rescue Committee, Shack Dwellers International-Kenya and the Women’s Refugee Commission. We are also developing partnerships with NGOs and local research groups in Kabul and Addis Ababa. 

In early March, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to most international travel, IIED and partners gathered for an inception workshop. The current period of lockdown will inevitably cause some delays to our three-year project but we’re hoping the huge energy generated during the workshop discussions will take us through the coming months. 

A focus on wellbeing 

One issue that stood out was our collective commitment to understand and improve the wellbeing of displaced populations. Self-reliance may be the current focus of many aid agencies and their donors, but it will be undermined if individuals, households and communities of refugees and IDPs suffer discrimination and harassment, lack hope or aspiration for the future or cannot contribute socially and economically to the best of their capacities.

A world without refugee and IDP camps is a long way off. But with the research findings from this project, we hope to demonstrate how urban areas can meet the needs of displaced people in a way that promotes a safer, more welcoming and productive environment for all residents.