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Towards a blueprint for responding to urban displacement

A UNHCR member of staff discusses accommodation with colleagues and displaced people at the Ohn Taw Gyi IDP camp near Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state UNHCR/P.Behan
UNHCR has struggled to deliver services to urban refugees

There is growing recognition that the vast majority of displaced persons—refugees and the internally displaced—no longer live in camps. Most are in cities outside of the wealthy west where they live among diverse host populations who often also lead precarious lives.

State and international law offer little protection in such places, where various governance regimes hold sway that may involve local authorities, national actors, militias, developers, chiefs, and gangsters.

The World Bank, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), and other humanitarian and development agencies are seeking a blueprint for acting more effectively to assist displaced people in diverse urban environments. There has been much thought and hand-wringing over how best to do this.

UNHCR’s revised urban refugee policy from 2009 committed the organisation to working in urban areas, but provided few operational guidelines. Additionally, the New Urban Agenda adopted at Habitat III last October recognised that sustainable urban development requires the inclusion of all urban populations – including the displaced.

Yet, despite the evident interest and resources directed towards urban displacement there remain enormous challenges in bringing together development and humanitarian actors, who have varied and competing agendas. More importantly, local government, refugees, and poor host communities have remained largely excluded from efforts to find answers.

The urgency of addressing the current global refugee crisis has limited opportunities to reflect on the medium to longer-term collaboration needed to address urban displacement, and made it more difficult to change donor agendas. Indeed, conversations between these different actors remain few and far between despite commitments to bridging the humanitarian-development divide made at the World Humanitarian Summit last May.

Recognising this disconnect, we convened a workshop to discuss the challenges and opportunities of urban displacement. Attendees included representatives from multi-lateral organisations, humanitarians, local government officials, and scholars working in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

Politics of urban protection

The workshop was a meeting of different tribes, each with their own language, customs, and resources. Amidst this diversity, we agreed that despite global rights-based frameworks, protecting displaced populations is fundamentally political. And as the adage tells us, all politics is local. In neighbourhoods being transformed by refugees, effective humanitarian action means aligning with local development goals and working with both displaced and host populations in mind.

The following broad principles can help guide humanitarians as they seek to navigate the politics of urban protection. This may not be the detailed blueprint that some seek, but a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to be effective in diverse contexts and may well be counter-productive in many.

Stealth humanitarianism: Humanitarians and donors tend to create parallel or directed programmes advertising their presence and demanding access to protection for displaced persons. This may satisfy immediate needs but ultimately limit integration by breeding political hostility and division. The indirect promotion of the rights of the displaced by humanitarians can help avoid political ire and popular backlash. Quiet and stealthy actions allow displaced persons to remain invisible while putting local authorities at the centre of service delivery and accountability. 

In Nairobi, for example, a humanitarian organisation that was directly funding refugee health services realised the unsustainability of this approach. To address this, they sought ways of enrolling refugees in the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF). But instead of publicly making demands based on refugees’ rights, they identified a mid-level bureaucrat whose primary responsibility was to sign people up for the programme and offered administrative support to fill out the necessary forms.

He ultimately agreed and refugees were invisibly included on the NHIF. The bureaucrat surpassed his enrolment target and refugees’ health care was affordably and sustainably assured without political battles that would have made refugees the focus of attention.

Local literacy: Humanitarians need to complement their technical skills and national and global engagement with a nuanced understanding of the local political context. It is precisely this kind of understanding that enabled the intervention in Nairobi described above.

Humanitarians have already developed strategies for learning about displaced populations in cities, including needs assessments and others forms of profiling. These initiatives must now be complemented by the gathering and analysis of information about host populations who are often as vulnerable as refugees and share similar interests, but have different rights and political agendas.

Beyond ‘people’, we need a better understanding of ‘place’: this means a more robust understanding of existing governance structures which include elected, appointed and bureaucratic officials along with the other actors who regulate urban space and resources. While this may not be possible during the emergency phase, it should begin immediately and shape interventions and action thereafter. Such an approach enables humanitarians to build on local initiatives, and reduces the risk of working against local interests and institutions.

Accessing shelter for Beirut’s refugees, for example, requires not only understanding homeless refugees’ needs, but also navigating the city’s complex and constrained housing market which is regulated by a mix of private investors and competing political parties. Naively engaging in such spaces risks heightening tensions and undermining refugee protection.

Organisations should also build a case-study repository that outlines their successes and failures in ways not typically recorded in donor reports. Reflecting on backroom deals, compromises, and dead-ends can help guide future initiatives and avoid repeating potentially hazardous mistakes.

Pragmatic protection: The urgency of humanitarian action often means importing ‘best practices’ from one relief operation to another. This is a risky and potentially counter-productive approach in urban areas where the complexity of operations and the diversity within displaced populations, requires compromise and flexibility. Legal tools and the language of rights are important, but the protection of refugees in urban spaces should be accomplished through multiple, often pragmatic strategies that may mean compromising global technical humanitarian standards.

The minimum standards for humanitarian response set out by the Sphere project, for example, outline service delivery targets that often exceed those available to many urban residents. Urban protection means searching for existing points of access and building on ongoing initiatives and developmental priorities.

Strengthening partnerships: There are regular calls for coordinated humanitarian action and melding relief and development initiatives. These are unrealistic fantasies in complex and politicised urban sites. Rather we should be looking to build common interests at multiple levels: between refugees and hosts; between humanitarians and urban planners; and with multiple levels of government, both formal and informal.

In a Turkish intervention, vouchers only redeemable at local businesses replaced direct food aid in ways that created immense goodwill and aligned interests between refugees and the powerful local business lobby. Sustainability is more likely where the interests of the displaced can be aligned with local political priorities.

Synchronizing cycles: One of the most significant challenges of urban humanitarianism is a funding regime that limits flexibility and enforces person rather than place-based interventions. Donors take note: this can and should change. Effective humanitarian organisation in urban settings should be based on a three-stage operational cycle: the initial emergency entry, a process of embedding displaced persons and services within local markets and institutions, and ultimately exiting.

At present, such efforts are impeded by short-term funding cycles and a demand for indicators of success informed by camp-based relief approaches. Urban action means greater reliance on advocacy, indirect assistance, and building solidarities that are often difficult to achieve in the short term and almost impossible to quantify. Donors should complement their emergency funding with funds that support embedding humanitarian initiatives in local government programming with the goal of local hand over.

This means moving away from funding models that incentivise parallel structures and a plethora of short-term projects. This would allow initiatives to better resonate with the kind of development planning central to local government planning.

Learning and adaptation

Crisis brings opportunity. The global refugee crisis has brought together humanitarians, donors, and urbanists in ways not previously seen. This presents the chance to improve both humanitarianism and urban planning and development.

While acknowledging that traditional forms of direct emergency action may be required following mass urban displacement, effective and sustainable action demands rapid learning and adaptation. Doing so means equipping humanitarian professionals to work in urban settings. Knowing how to provide health or shelter in camps, for example, may do little to prepare them for navigating urban housing and service markets. Instead, they will need to understand the political economy of urban service provision, learn the art of negotiating with multiple stakeholders, and find ‘back-routes’ to offering refugees more effective protection.  

Conversations between humanitarian and development clans must continue, but they must also include the local government actors grappling with the daily administrative and political challenges of governing dynamic and often deeply under-resourced municipalities.

(TOP PHOTO: A UNHCR staff member discusses accommodation with displaced people at the Ohn Taw Gyi IDP camp near Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state. P.Behan/UNHCR)

*Co-authors: Caroline W. Kihato (University of Johannesburg), Aditya Sarkar (World Peace Foundation, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy), Romola Sanyal (London School of Economics)


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